Cabals of the Black Kingdoms

Braving the Black Coast, the adventurers arrive in the southernmost port of Kush to discover dark forces at work. A bloody raid of cultists leads the party further South than many Hyborian men have ventured. Amidst the carnage is a mysterious scroll in a language which has been dead for centuries.

The Arrival

Several months had passed since the horrors of Stygia were left behind. Ambrose, Cuana, Tullweim, and Xacksmith returned to Messantia without incident, receiving their much deserved reward from Saevio. Having already tired of the wonders in the City of Riches they were eager to find adventure which would take them away from the metropolis. The party encountered a one-eyed Argossean, called Kalamos, who needed a ship to carry him, and crates of goods to the southernmost port-city of Kush. Few men would brave the waters of the Black Coast, but Kalamos promised ample riches for the task from a man named Rand Artelios. Artelios was known as an exiled merchant who had fled Argos to make his fortune in Kush. Kalamos told of how Artelios had married into the ruling class of Zabhela and seemed to be paying vast quantities of silver for safely bringing the cargo to the port-city. And so, the party used some of the coin acquired to hire a crew, lifted anchor of the Stygian galley captured from Ankh-Psamtek which they’d re-christened the Crimson Wolf a year prior, and rode the waves for leagues, battling Stygian war galleys and pirate ships through the southern waters of the Western Ocean to Kush.

The adventurers braved the notoriously dangerous waters of the Black Coast and arrived at the bustling seaport docks of Zabhela on a hot, humid day. The streets were packed with dockworkers, foreign merchants, sailors, and slaves. As landfall was made, hagglers, beggars, and hungry children besieged the men disembarking from the ship for food, coin, and sales. Kalamos left the ship for the Upper City, promising to meet the party at a smokey local tavern called, “The Sailor’s Folly,” to deliver the pay from Artelios and arrange for his men to pick up the cargo. A young Kushite child with a pet monkey tugged on Ambrose’s arm, begging for food. Nearby, a tall Stygian slaver and his Puntish bodyguards offered to sell a medly of young women who had all been captured from nameless tribes among the Black Kingdoms. In the distance, a circle of sailors and locals formed around two men who had at last met to settle a blood debt; each man attempting to bleed the other with wickedly curved blades. In the midst of all this, a nearby vessel attempted to load an immense cage, which hung precariously from a block and tackle. Pacing back and forth within the cage were a pair of lions, which moved with nervous fury at their fate. The loading ship hailed from Stygia, where the lions were most likely destined for the gladiatorial pits.

As the adventurers took in the scene and tried not to be separated by the passing throng of bodies from countless nations, the Nemedian glibly scolded the young Kushite beggar to leave him be or risk a cuff to his crown. No sooner had the words left Ambrose’s lips did the scholar’s sharp eyes catch the child’s pet furtively reaching for his coin pouch. The Nemedian grabbed the monkey and forcibly lifted the pilfering primate into the air. Ambrose tossed the screeching creature at the boy and was about to threaten the fledgling thief to leave his sight when the pulley ropes holding the lion’s prison in the air snapped, shattering the cage on the dock. The enraged beasts burst free in a flurry of violence, gutting their nearest captor. The remaining Stygians fled, leaving the lions to assault the terrified crowd. A woman, not more than 18 summers, fell beneath the stampeding mob and sensing easy prey, the feral creatures closed on the helpless doxy.

Cuana and Tullweim wasted not a moment as they barreled into action. The Cimmerian drew his greatsword on the run and brought it down upon 1 of the lion’s flanks with an arcing slice. The Aesir barbarian pulled his great blade from its sheathe and viciously struck twice into the second predator with a leaping charge. Xacksmith drew his Hyrkanian bow and let an arrow fly at the beast the Nordheimer had bled. Ambrose rushed towards the creature Cuana had wounded, slashing the great cat with a finessed flashing of his arming sword. The lion the Aesir battled with clamped its razor-toothed maw on the barbarian’s arm and brought him to the ground with a savage ferocity. The beast Cuana squared off against attempted to do the same, but the Cimmerian dodged the lion’s snapping jaw. Cuana hacked his sword twice into the beast before him, caving in much of the lion’s side. Tullweim struggled desperately against the feline pinning him down, his mighty thews strained to their breaking point to get the furious beast from his throat. As the Aesir kicked the creature away from him, Xacksmith launched 3 bolts in a rapid flurry, all landing deep in the lion’s hide. The Nemedian twirled his blade in his hand bringing the point down upon the beast before him’s neck, silencing its primal rage. Tullweim swung his greatsword devastatingly at the second feral creature and the lion’s head separated from its body in a swath of crimson, rolling off the edge of the dock.

With the dust and panic settling, Tullweim helped the young woman to her feet and took in her form with an appreciative eye. The maiden’s bruised and scratched figure was voluptuous and covered with little more than a silken skirt. Her face held a strikingly beautiful countenance, and all the adventurers found the woman’s presence difficult to ignore. Her sandy brown hair was topped with a silver tiara, around which fell long braids framing a facade colored by Kushite and Stygian features. Ambrose and Xacksmith recognized Argossean traits in the young woman’s bearing as well. After assuring the party she was not severely injured, the woman gratefully thanked the men-at-arms for their bold actions. The Aesir promptly introduced himself with all the titles he had acquired through the years and the woman responded in kind. Her name was Tarethis and she was of the Chaga class, the ruling caste of Kush.

Tarethis offered the adventurers 20 silver as a reward for rescuing her. Tullweim initially refused the coins and declared saving the alluring woman’s life was all he had hoped to achieve in the endeavor. Ambrose and Xacksmith were not as quick to refuse adding more silver to their woefully light pouches and the Hyrkanian gladly took the offered bag. The Nemedian was curious of the woman’s traits and used his introduction to reveal their business in Zabhela, with the delivery of goods to Rand Artelios. Tarethis smiled at Ambrose’s words, told of her being Artelios’ daughter, and promised to put in a good word with her father for them. The woman then gave thanks again and said she still had business to attend to with the Stygian vessel anchored next to the Crimson Wolf. With the fervor of combat over and the exotically resplendent lady leaving them, the party decided to squander their time in the tavern Kalamos was to meet them in.

The Folly of Sailors

As dusk arrived, night in Zabhela proved to be as humid and hot as the day. The adventurers arrived at The Sailor’s Folly, where they looked forward to a night of drinking and revelry with the pay the one-eyed Argossean had promised to retrieve. The tavern was a melting pot of races from across the continent. Gallah girls danced, clothed only in wisps of silk wrapped around their hips, entertaining the Hyborian, Stygian, and Kushite patrons as drums and flutes gave rhythm to the sensuously swaying performers. Many games of dice and mumblety-peg were in progress by the drunken, sweating sailors and traders. A quick glance about the tavern showed no sign of Kalamos, but the night was yet young. Tullweim and Xacksmith decided to try their hand at the games of skill being played after ordering tankards of ale. Ambrose and Cuana sat on the tottering benches at the bar and engaged those who likewise drank and told lies for any rumors or gossip of Zabhela. They were not disappointed after purchasing drinks to loosen the tongues of the sailors and merchants around them.

Even though the Cimmerian spoke to them in Kushite, several of the southern men and Hyborians found Cuana’s barbarous accent difficult to grasp. Still, he was able to glean tales of the priests of Jullah moving through the streets of the Shanty telling of horrible terrors in the night. Ambrose had better luck and was able to learn the clerics of Jullah were once widely respected. After nervous gulps of ale, the men related that of late the priests’ practices had turned to kidnapping and slaughter. Indeed, a local tribal elder named Eshiba was angered, for his son’s twin daughters had been stolen away by the cult of Jullah and his heir died trying to save them. Meanwhile, Tullweim and Xacksmith were losing horribly to the sailors playing mumblety-peg. The local grog had stricken the Hyrkanian so, that his dagger slipped clumsily from his usually steady hand, dashing out an open window into the nearby harbor. Swearing in his native tongue, Xacksmith searched the throng for a mark with a heavy coin purse, but found little among the sailors.

Tullweim noted the night had grown long and Kalamos had still not appeared. As Xacksmith was about to make due with a light purse dangling from a passed out Zingaran, he was pressed by several of the crewmen of the Crimson Wolf. Suspicions had risen among the crew and they spoke of the one-eyed Argossean dogging them out of their promised pay. The Aesir rose from the table he leaned against and was urging patience when a sudden shout from the docks drew the attention of all in the tavern. A ship in the bay was on fire! Every patron of The Sailor’s Folly pushed out to the street and a bucket brigade was quickly formed. The adventurers neared the water and gazed at the Stygian galley anchored next to the Crimson Wolf ablaze. Worse still, as they arrived to the docks heaving cumbersome casks of water, they cleared the buildings which had blocked their view and witnessed in horror as the fire must have jumped from the galley to their own ship!

Both vessels were ultimately lost despite the best efforts of the men, though the bucket brigade prevented other docked vessels from catching fire. Sailors who served aboard the Crimson Wolf were furious and approached their officers, demanding to know if they would get paid and how they were to return to Messantia. With the cargo aboard their ship lost and no sign of Kalamos, there was little the crew could be offered. Other men would have quaked and quailed at the threatening figures, but Tullweim used his natural leadership to remind the crew he had lost far more than they. For he had a contract to deliver goods to Artelios and he had not only lost cargo but his own ship! Ambrose aided the barbarian by assuring the men that in a city such as Zabhela, which was heavy with trade, they would no doubt find a new ship to serve on and return to their homes to the north.

While his companions were dealing with the frustrated crew, Xacksmith noticed a shadowy figure watching the smoldering ships sink beneath the lapping waves. The Hyrkanian used the confusion in the dusk to move like a wraith towards the figure. Indeed, the man had no idea the practiced woodsman and thief was upon him until Xacksmith’s blade was across his throat. The man the Hyrkanian threatened was obviously from the Black Kingdoms and Xacksmith bade him speak his name and what his purpose was. The man pled for his life, stating he was called Anubar and had seen the flames while stumbling home from a brothel. He had come to help, but had arrived too late. Though the Hyrkanian’s naturally suspicious nature screamed at him to make Anubar utter what he wanted to hear, he could not deny the man’s words rang true.

Cuana had seen Xacksmith steal away towards the figure and left to join him as a bulky Kushite approached the group with a message. The large man asked the adventurers to come with him to the estate of Lord Artelios on a matter of great urgency. Tullweim frowned at his companions and said the Argossean likely wanted to know of his cargo. The Kushite offered to guide them to Artelios’ manor. The Aesir just wanted to get his obligation to Artelios over with, when he noticed Cuana and Xacksmith were not among them. Ambrose spotted where the Cimmerian had gone off to and the three men went to the alley where Xacksmith held Anubar. The Hyrkanian archer told his sword-brothers what he suspected of the man, but again the Bamulan denied any wrongdoing. Ambrose and Tullweim believed Anubar’s tale and told Xacksmith to come with them, for they were to meet Artelios. Still chafing from the loss of their ship, the Hyrkanian reluctantly released the Bamulan and followed his companions.

Kalamos’ Bloody End

The Kushite slave led the party through an unusual route, passing through the seedier quarters of the port-city. As ramshackle buildings and flimsy shacks were passed Tullweim asked the slave where they were going, for a noble like Artelios couldn’t possibly reside in the Shanty of Zabhela. The Kushite promised he was taking them through a safe route to the Artelios estate. The adventurers were then led to an obelisk in the heart of the Shanty. The obelisk was one of many ancient artistic remnants of Zabhela and was covered by centuries of cryptic graffiti and etched prayers. The party followed the Gallah to the obelisk square surrounded by 1 and 2 story huts with mud halls and thatched roofs. As the adventurers followed the servant into the plaza they spied a man slumped against the obelisk, struggling to get up.

When the figure saw the men-at-arms, recognition dawned on his face and Kalamos begged piteously for help. It was evident the one-eyed Argossean was near death, a death made certain by a terrible chest wound. Kalamos’ right arm appeared to be shattered and useless, as if a great beast had toyed with him, and blood streamed down his face from a gash on his forehead. “They want us all dead!” he cried. “You must warn all of the sailors, all of them! They came for her, they did! I escaped, but they hunt me even now!” With that, a terrible shriek was heard, as a wave of ferocious warriors, each wearing little but green bands wrapped around their arms, came rushing down each street and alley leading into the plaza. Ambrose returned his adversaries’ battle shout and spilled one of the attacking Gallah’s guts. Xacksmith moved to the alley opposite Ambrose and drove his arming sword through a foe’s gullet. Cuana rushed to Kalamos’ prone figure, unsheathing his greatsword on the move, and readied his blade to strike at any enemy who closed upon him. Tullweim moved towards Ambrose, placing his back to the Nemedian’s.

The men wearing the green armbands closed on the adventurers. One Gallah grappled Ambrose as another brutally pummeled him. Xacksmith was similarly flanked and beaten by the clenched mitts of the men surrounding him. Several opponents engaged Tullweim, though the indomitable Aesir barely noticed the paws which struck him. Cuana was stunned by a surprise strike from the very Gallah who had led the party into Zabhela’s Shanty district. A group of nude men advanced on the northron, their fists flew, jostling the Cimmerian violently between them. Tullweim cut down the man who held Ambrose, allowing the Nemedian to mystically fling the 2 arming swords he carried into the Gallah who pinned Xacksmith. Enraged at the treacherous Kushite, Cuana swung his blade through the servant, then cleaved into the 4 men surrounding him, bringing an end to every one of their miserable lives. As they saw their brothers fall, the nude assailants retreated into the alleys they’d emerged from. Tullweim caught one as he fled and carved the man’s skull to the teeth.

Cuana checked for breath from Kalamos, but the Argossean had succumbed to his many wounds. The Cimmerian saw that the one-eyed corpse clutched a leather parchment in his left hand. The dark-haired barbarian pried the odd scrap from Kalamos’ death grip. Cuana felt the leather was unusually supple and had been well kept in oil, suggesting it had recently been removed from a proper scroll case. The Cimmerian did not understand any of the glyphs carved on the parchment and handed it to Ambrose to decipher. However, neither the Nemedian nor Hyrkanian could glean any meaning from the text as it was scrawled in a language none in the party had ever encountered. The adventurers determined the shapes on the scroll obviously formed a map, though of what location was a mystery. With no other clue to be had at the scene the men-at-arms decided to make haste to Artelios’ compound, spurred on by Kalamos’ dying words.

The Slaughter

The adventurers made their way to the Upper City of Zabhela, a walled complex atop an ancient plateau. The tall, defensible embankment and battlements stood between the party and entry into the Chaga’s district, and all the men knew no sentry would allow entry to those without papers from one of the nobles. But the party was surprised to see there were no guards present and the bulwark stood barred. Xacksmith scaled the wall easily and Cuana was ready to follow when Ambrose asked to be carried. The Cimmerian could not help but laugh at the small Nemedian’s request, stating the scholar would not have survived in the bleak hills of the north without being able to conquer a simple enclosure, such as they faced. Cuana then grabbed hold of Ambrose and climbed with ease. Tullweim had the most difficulty reaching the top, as he slipped, slid and made enough noise in his efforts to be heard by all his companions on the other side. Finally, the Aesir found his footing and leapt from the top to join his fellows below.

Artelios’ compound was not difficult to find, as the adventurers recognized his crest on the main gates of the estate, which were wide open when they arrived. A handful of frightened slaves fled out of the manor’s grounds, screaming futile prayers of mercy and forgiveness to something called Jullah. Tullweim stopped one of the slaves and Ambrose ordered him to describe the situation within. The Kushite babbled on and on about how they had been unkind to the great lord Jullah and his kin. The Gallah slave continued on, stating he and his kin must seek obeisance as soon as possible for working in the house of a foreigner. Unable to get any knowledge of use from the panicking man, Tullweim loosed his grip and noted the clamor of violence from within. All found it strange none of the city’s watch had responded to the battle which sounded from the estate. The party made their way into Artelios’ manor grounds entering a resplendent courtyard accommodating a pleasant garden with an elegant fountain sculpture of Mitra. The courtyard was littered with cadavers and a handful of Hyborian guards were locked in battle with double their number of nude Kushite men.

The men-at-arms noticed the house guards moved sluggishly, often missing their targets as if drunk. The adventurers spread out, moving over and through the manicured hedges, towards the large statue of Mitra where they could engage the Gallah assailants and aid the out-numbered guards. Several of the green-armband wearing warriors attacked Cuana and Tullweim as they passed, drawing blood with their ram-like fists. When the Cimmerian reached the Mitran statue, he unleashed hell with scything swings of his greatsword, felling all who approached. Xacksmith unleashed arrows into one of the men assaulting a guard, who gurgled bloodily as he was dropped. Tullweim struck another savagely, removing the Kushite’s right shoulder and arm from his torso. Ambrose finished the last of the nude men off and Tullweim questioned the sole surviving house guard. But his questions were left unanswered as the man was delirious and could not form a coherent sentence.

The adventurers found numerous corpses as they moved into the Argossean merchant’s household, most of them with shattered bones and terrible bruises, but almost all of the victims’ hearts were ripped out. It appeared as if no weapon was used to make the cut and even the bare handed fighters which had been dealt with could not be strong enough to commit the carnage seen. There were a number of carefully barred private residences passed, their occupants cowering within as a couple of guards stood drunkenly to defend any who should attempt to gain entry. Tullweim asked where the guard captain was and the barely standing man disjointedly waved towards the barracks. More Hyborian corpses were found within the guards’ quarters. It appeared the majority of the men laid dead at a dining table, with no sign of violence upon their forms. Poison was suspected to have brought the guards low, though whether from the wine or food on the board was unknown. The sounds of battle spilled from the floor above, and the adventurers made their way up the stair in the hall outside the barracks.

A large colonnaded wing containing a private bath chamber was entered and 6 Gallah Kushites, wearing green armbands, fought with 2 men who did not wear the house guards’ livery. Cuana and Xacksmith recognized one of the men as Anubar and the other bore an uncanny resemblance to the Bamulan. The adventurers engaged the nude warriors and with the numbers even, the armed fighters quickly overtook their foes. Ambrose noted the bath chamber’s window overlooked a beautiful view of the eastern walls of Zabhela, against which the compound was built. The Nemedian removed the grappling hooks which held ropes from the window’s sill with the hopes no more of the deranged men they’d fought would enter the compound through that route. Cuana and Xacksmith asked what Anubar was doing in Rand Artelios’ compound and the Bamulan answered, “we are leaving.” A woman’s scream from further down the hallway prevented the Cimmerian and Hyrkanian from pressing the matter as the four sword-brothers charged down the passage.

The party passed a guard, whose head had been ripped from his shoulders, laying by a shattered door which opened into a wide chamber filled with silken tapestries and the fragrance of incense and perfume that mixed with the odor of blood. But with nobody to fight or save, the adventurers pressed on, following spatterings of blood and strange, claw-like scrape marks which lead down the hall. When they arrived, the men-at-arms gazed into a chamber containing a beautiful but morbid sculpture of Derketa, resting on a seat of human bones while studying a mirror. Around the shrine to the dark goddess was a desperate scene. The last of Artelios’ guards lay slain about the room with shattered bones and their hearts removed from their open chests. A man of Argossean blood was crumpled on the ground and matched the description Kalamos gave of the patron who was to pay for the shipment to Zabhela. He was either unconscious or dead. A dozen cultists stood in awe at a great white ape holding a hysterical young woman the party recognized as the very girl they had rescued from the lions earlier in the day.

The immense ape was poised to leap from a balcony which provided a view outside the city, for that side of the compound was nestled against the outer walls of the Upper City. An older woman with a striking resemblance to the young girl in the great ape’s paws was collapsed on the ground, near the large beast, begging for the girl’s life. “Take me!”’ she pled. “Not my Tarethis, she is so young. No!” With a powerful blow, the beast sent the woman flying and leapt from the balcony with the girl, disappearing down the steep wall into the shadows. The cultists cried in triumph as the tableau exploded into action. The party cried out with murder in their eyes as they stormed past the chamber doors. The captivating statue of the goddess of death seemed to smile as more bodies were added to the heap of skulls at her feet.

Cuana waded deep into the Kushites’ ranks. Several of the nude men landed brutally powerful blows on the Cimmerian with their bare fists as he passed them. One fell before Cuana, the barbarian’s sword protruding from between his shoulder blades as his heart was sliced in two and cleaved into those men who stood around their fallen brother. Tullweim struck the next cultist dead to the floor, his shoulder completely shorn from his body. Several Gallah attempted to grapple the adventurers, with most failing to pin them. Their eyes glazed over as Ambrose and Xacksmith disemboweled them. The room stank of bodies, blood, and guts, firing the adventurers’ rage to a fever pitch. Two more Kushites fell, gasping wet, bloody cries through ruined faces and gaping throats. One of the cultists managed to wrap his arms about the Cimmerian, trying to pin his sword-arm to his side. Cuana broke his grasp and smashed his face, sending the Gallah man staggering into Tullweim’s waiting blade. In just a few moments of breath, the entire horde of naked cultists were slain, their corpses a fitting end in Derketa’s shrine.

As neither Lord nor Lady could be roused, their wounds were tended to as best as the battered adventurers could and the party placed them in their bed chamber. The men-at-arms secured the rest of the estate, locked the gates, divided watch shifts and claimed rooms, which were not too fouled with blood, for themselves to rest the night. They all slept uneasily, with the day’s troubling events playing themselves out in their dreams. The next morning, each adventurer was roused and brought to a study in the south wing of the estate. Inside the chamber was a vast collection of old tomes and scrolls. As the party entered, they appraised a man sitting behind a desk with his chin resting on his left hand and his right hand drumming impatiently upon an untitled book. When the Argossean rose offering a greeting, the adventurers saw he was a tall man with an overly large gut, somewhat muscular frame, mustache and goatee. Though he had long been exiled from Argos, he still wore the emblem of his native country’s royal crown on his breastplate and carried a finely crafted broadsword at his side. Artelios expressed his gratitude to the adventurers and inquired as to who they were and why they had arrived to his home when not even the city watch could be bothered to.

As the men-at-arms introduced themselves, they revealed they had arrived to Zabhela on the Crimson Wolf, to deliver cargo to the noble. Artelios expressed sorrow when he learned the cargo now sat at the bottom of the harbor, but said he would keep the party on retainer for 50 silver each to cover their lost pay and as thanks for their daring arrival. The Lord then questioned the adventurers of Kalamos’ fate and if he had given them a map. Artelios explained it was of great import, may have been the reason for the attack the night before on his compound, and might be necessary to negotiate a ransom for his missing daughter. Cuana sensed the Argossean’s motives were not entirely honest, especially as it seemed his stolen daughter was not his main concern, but Ambrose presented the map readily. The noble offered an additional 50 silver to hand the map over, and after the Nemedian exchanged a look with Xacksmith, he shrugged and placed the leather parchment on Artelios’ desk. The Cimmerian then inquired what was to be done about the merchant’s stolen daughter. The Argossean’s countenance turned dour, emphatically describing that even with the adventurers he only had 7 guards left, not enough to risk a rescue from the cannibalistic cultists of Jullah. The noble shook his head, stating his few remaining resources could not be squandered in a futile attempt to recover his daughter, who was likely already dead.

Cuana was furious at the civilized man’s refusal to bring the fight to his foes and grabbed the noble, lifting him from behind his desk. Artelios’ face turned red in rage as his eyes widened in panic at the massive barbarian. The Argossean said the adventurers were not fit to serve him and ordered them to leave his estate. Though Cuana appeared close to bloodshed, his companions calmed him and they left to the chambers they’d slept in and began gathering their things. While they did this, Lady Artelios had risen and was sobbing at the loss of her daughter. The fury the Chaga woman frothed at her husband was heard throughout the compound as she confronted him behind closed doors. Lord Artelios then stormed from his study and left his estate, muttering something about investigating his loss at the docks. Shortly after Rand Artelios left, and before Tullweim had followed his companions out the front gate, one of the few servants who remained in the household asked the Aesir to meet Lady Erithemes upstairs.

Erithemes, who was badly bruised from her encounter with the great ape, begged and pleaded for Tullweim and his companions to rescue her daughter. She offered 100 silver each in exchange for Tarethis’ return. She also intimated she was suspicious of her husband, for his lack of concern for their daughter had her deeply troubled. “I have sought the guidance of Derketa,” Erithemes said, “and have seen only death should I rely on my husband to save our daughter. I implore you, find her and bring her back to me. I know not where you can find her, but I have knowledge of a man who might. He is old, but wise and some say he once walked the path of Jullah in his youth. His name is Eshiba and he dwells in the district of the Gallah. Go to this man and tell him I ask now for my favour. He will understand and he will help you.” With those cryptic words, she offered the Aesir an additional 100 silver pieces to aid in equipping the party, as well as buying their immediate loyalty. She asked him not to speak with her husband on the matter, for she was afraid that Artelios would pay them more not to find his daughter. Tullweim agreed and left the estate, seeking his friends at The Sailor’s Folly to inform them of their new job.

Seeking Elder Counsel

With little else to go on, Ambrose, Cuana, Tullweim, and Xacksmith again entered the Shanty, the squalid home of the Gallah. There they learned even the locals were being terrorized by the frenzied cultists of Jullah. Many young women had been kidnapped and a few men as well, the males’ partially devoured corpses found on the outskirts of Zabhela. An elder, called Eshiba, had taken up arms against the followers of Jullah for the kidnap of his daughter, son’s wife, grandchildren, and the death of his son. It was this man the adventurers sought, though the instructions given them led only to an empty household. The party questioned 2 Gallah men and a woman, found near Eshiba’s abandoned home, about the whereabouts of the Kushite. The Nemedian noticed whenever Eshiba’s name was uttered the Gallah became nervous. Ambrose spoke to his allies in Nemedian, stressing the need to avoid repeating the moniker of the man they were seeking. One of the Gallah swains stated the elder Kushite had left the city and now dwelled in Shemanza, a farming hamlet near the coast. Tullweim was curious as to the cause of the nervousness of the frightened locals and they babbled of how Eshiba was a powerful shaman not to be angered. The Kushites feared anyone risked drawing the elder’s wrath by saying his name. With the knowledge of where to find Eshiba, the adventurers left the Shanty.

The journey to Shemanza was mostly through lush, cultivated farmland dotted with the huts of peasant farmers and shepherds. The men-at-arms arrived at the village after a few hours’ walk. From there, Zabhela was all but invisible in the distance, swallowed by the dense tree line, with only a handful of spiraling towers from the Upper City still seen. The scent of the sea hung thick in the air as the adventurers arrived at the village. No children were seen playing games, no farmers hocked their produce, no craftsmen mended tools and no shepherds tended their flocks. The village was eerily quiet and only a few furtive souls moved about, mostly men, who quickly slammed shut doors and barred windows. In the center of the community was a great object not unlike a maypole, its base surrounded and decorated with dozens of human skulls. At the top of the post hung a body, strung up by its legs. The pole was red with the crusted blood of the hanging corpse. Cuana noticed the fastened cadaver was naked but for an armband of the cultists of Jullah.

An elder man approached the party, calming the villagers as he passed. He was ancient, tall and powerful, wrapped in a deep red cloak adorned with sacred talismans and etched bones. His face was painted white and his gray hair wild and unkempt. The elder shaman said nothing as the men-at-arms introduced themselves. The adventurers told of the slaughter at the Artelios estate and Cuana’s contempt for Rand Artelios brought a smile to the Kushite’s face. When it was revealed the men-at-arms had been hired by Erithemes Artelios to rescue her daughter Tarethis, the shaman introduced himself as the very man the party had been sent to find. Tullweim spoke of Lady Artelios telling of Eshiba being able to aid the adventurers in locating the cult of Jullah. The ancient Kushite nodded in response. Cuana then said he had heard of Eshiba’s family being attacked and asked when the assault had happened and why. The shaman’s face grew grim as he revealed his tale.

“Once, I was an initiate of the Jullah worshipers. I spent many years in the cult’s service. The people of Kush value Jullah, for while he be a god of the apes and son of the great Jhebbal Sag, the ape god is seen as a protector of the people of Kush against the Set worshiping Chaga. Two decades ago, I left the cult to marry a woman and had a son and four daughters. I raised great family. Five years gone, my son married and his wife birthed twin daughters of his own. A week past, my family was destroyed by the sect I once served. They raided my home in the city, slew my son. My eldest daughter, who was to be wed in a month, was also taken, as were both of my son’s daughters and widow. Now, I wish vengeance.” Ambrose stroked his chin as he wondered aloud what could have caused the once revered Jullah cult to act so. Eshiba responded, “Something has gone wrong with the Jullah worshipers. The women be taken to appease the great god. For those who see, know the beasts express Jullah’s rage. I know not why the god be angry. But those who serve the god seek to fulfill a ceremony from before time began by finding a virginal bride for the god, to quell his anger.” Tullweim asked the shaman if he would reveal where to find the women and cultists and Eshiba nodded, saying, “I know of temple, hidden from all outlanders, where the marriage to Jullah may be. I take you, if you give your word you save those women held, my daughter, my son’s widow, and my grand-daughters.” The Aesir stated their goals were aligned with Eshiba’s and was anxious to leave.

The shaman held his hand up and said he believed the cult of Jullah would wait for nightfall, as the god resided on the dark of the moon. Though the trek to their lair would be long, Eshiba said the adventurers would need all the aid they could gather, and offered to perform a ritual which would give them an edge over the servants of the beast god. All in the party agreed to the Kushite’s offer and preparations were quickly made. The shaman chanted as several young Gallah men and women apprentices covered the adventurers with ceremonial war paint. After the second hour of the sorcerous rite, talismans of bone were gifted to each men-at-arms. Eshiba instructed the party to keep the fetishes, etched with cryptic glyphs of sorcerous power, visible on their person. The adventurers tied the phylacteries to their hair and armor and when finished, the shaman urged movement saying “It be time to go.” The elder Kushite lead the men-at-arms south down a forgotten path which meandered along the cliffs of the coast.

In the dwindling light of the sun, the adventurers heard movement coming from surrounding jungle. 3 panthers, black as pitch, stalked onto the path, the beasts’ mouths frothing. The party was drawing their weapons as Eshiba squatted to the ground and sketched a symbol in the dirt. The astonished party witnessed as the beasts stalled their advance, standing still before them with fury in their eyes. Though Ambrose’s broad knowledge of the mystic arts could not unveil the exact spell cast by the elder Kushite, he gleaned it to be from the paths of nature magic. Without a further word, Eshiba motioned the men-at-arms to follow as he again led them onward. As darkness fell, the party reached an overlook jutting along the coastline and the ancient sorcerer stopped to examine the rocks. Cuana and Xacksmith struck flint to light the torches they had brought with them and kept their eyes open for crazed beasts or men as Ambrose and Tullweim watched the aged man uncover and follow a series of pictographic marks etched on the rocks. Eshiba then revealed a crude, nearly invisible set of stairs leading down the steep cliffs. “It is here,” the Kushite sorcerer intoned, “that those who worship Jullah take their victims to appease the angry god. Steel your nerves and ready your weapons,” he ordered as he began the journey down the steps.

The Temple of Jullah

Eshiba led the party down a 200 foot dangerous cliff face overlooking a rocky expanse of the Black Coast under a moonless night. The man moved as if he’d been down the precariously narrow, chiseled stairs many times, and the adventurers knew they would not have found it that dark night without the elder Kushite’s aid. During the party’s descent, fierce winds gusted up from the west and threatened to sweep the men-at-arms off the stairs, into the jagged rocks a hundred feet below. Eshiba, Cuana, and Xacksmith pressed through the gale while Ambrose and Tullweim stumbled, though did not fall. The adventurers made it to a slight ledge, which opened up to a gaping hole in the wall, around which the maw of a great ape had been chiseled. Entering the ape’s open craw revealed a trail, which ended abruptly 10 feet in before coming to a heavy, sealed iron door. The door looked as if it could be forced open, but before the men-at-arms could act, Eshiba exposed a hidden lever off to the side, along the cave entrance. The great door opened noiselessly as the shaman pulled the bar. The party figured the joints and hinges of the precipice had been oiled and well cared for.

The passage cut deeper into the cliffs, exposing a series of caverns formed countless years ago. Perhaps made at a time when the sea level was higher or the cliffs were submerged, allowing the waters to form a network of grottoes and tunnels through the earth. The tunnels were polished and smooth, with ornate pictographic images of the beast god and his sacred rites painted in yellow, black and red along the walls. Many paths branched through the network, but the party stayed close behind Eshiba, following with a singular purpose. The Kushite stopped before an opening and motioned for the adventurers to douse their torches, which was quickly done. The men stalked to the opening of an immense chamber, flanked with large bundles of tinder which kept the room aglow, in the center of which was a great open pit. Nearby barrels of salted fish and grain were being carried from the wall to be lowered down a heavy pulley and lever system by 6 Jullah cultists. Xacksmith’s cat-like eyes saw a massive, barrel-chested figure keeping watch over the work in front of one of the 2 egresses opposite the adventurers. It was at that fearsome shape the Hyrkanian let loose a shaft from his bow, causing a furious roar to erupt from the creature.

Ambrose moved into the room, but kept his distance from the cultists as his companions charged into the fray. The burnished-hued bull ape loped with its knuckles closing the distance towards the adventurers. The elder cultist bellowed out an order for the initiates to slay the infidels. Cuana was already upon the acolytes of Jullah before they could release their burdens on the block and tackle. The Cimmerian struck too quickly for the eye to follow, blood and brains spattered as a cultist’s corpse let go of the rope holding the barrels above 100 women held in the pit 40 feet below. With a vicious cleave the Cimmerian severed a second cultist, causing the remaining initiates to be drug on the ground towards the crater as the platform they held dropped half the distance towards the bottom. The screams of terror from the women below echoed up to the battle, spurring Eshiba to leap at the rope holding the plummeting scaffold. Tullweim moved along the opposite route round the pit, hoping to attack the gorilla from the rear. The Jullah elder withdrew towards the great ape and told the acolytes to release their cargo. The cultist nearest the Cimmerian barbarian did as he was ordered and delivered a furious blow to Cuana’s jaw. The 2 remaining cultists flanked the Cimmerian, pelting his body with their closed fists. Ambrose flashed his blade at one of the Kushites assaulting Cuana, wheeling cat-like, and thrust murderously into the man’s groin.

Cuana’s great blade lashed down, splitting the skull of one of the Jullah cultists upon him. The Cimmerian’s keen weapon slashed again and again into the second, licking through flesh and bone; his head fell one way, his half-sundered torso the other. Xacksmith drew his arming sword and sheathed the point in a Kushite’s throat. The bull ape turned towards Tullweim and roared its fury as it charged, slamming its colossal mitt across the Aesir’s brow, drawing a stream of blood as Tullweim was knocked to his knees. In response, the Nordheimer barbarian lunged at the beast with two arcing slices. The elder cultist screeched with a fighting madness, lifting Ambrose’s chin and bringing stars to his eyes. The Nemedian spun with the momentum of the slug and swept his blade cross the Kushite’s abdomen. Eshiba cried out for aid as the platform he held had drug him to the edge of the precipice. Cuana rushed to the shaman’s side and grabbed hold of the rope.

The Cimmerian and Kushite’s thews were taxed to their breaking point as the women beneath the platform scrambled atop one another to avoid the dangerously swaying scaffold. The tremendous weight on the rope ripped the cord from Cuana and Eshiba’s grasp, sending the platform crashing upon the women who could not clear the way. The bull ape grappled Tullweim into its tree-trunk sized limbs and the Aesir howled in agony as his frame was pressed in. Xacksmith flanked the elder cultist without the Kushite noticing and viciously plunged his blade into the elder’s side. Ambrose ceased the Jullah cultist’s harrowed cries, his sword shearing through the Kushite’s skull as through a ripe melon. Tullweim struggled to free his right arm and grasped at his dagger. Furious at his failure but with no way to aid the wounded women, Cuana turned his attention to the struggling forms of the Aesir and ape. With a leaping charge the Cimmerian tore through the great beast’s hide. Tullweim pressed the distraction and plunged his dagger through the bull ape’s eye, sending the slain beast crashing to the floor with a heavy thud.

As Cuana helped his injured friend stand, Ambrose and Xacksmith turned their attention to the pit of wailing women. The Nemedian made note of the pictographs on the walls as he passed them, showing the foul god, once summoned, was expected to enter the pit and do as it would with the women below. Eshiba said someone would have to scale the crater’s walls to return the rope if they were to use the scaffold to retrieve the women. Ambrose shook his head and told the Kushite that would not be necessary as he held his hands in a bowl shape and levitated the fallen cord. The adventurers each grasped the rope and pulled the platform off the women, telling the other captives to clear the wounded from beneath the scaffolding. After their order was accomplished the party hauled the damaged women from the pit and sent it back for 8 unhurt prisoners to be lifted out as well. The men-at-arms questioned the women if Tarethis was among those still in the crater. One Kushite doxy replied that Artelios’ daughter had been taken from the pit a short time ago, and they believed she was to be sacrificed to Jullah. Eshiba urged the adventurers to save Tarethis and he handed an object, carved out of what seemed to be meteoric iron in the image of an ape’s skull, to Ambrose, explaining the artifact would instantly shut the portal to the outer dark and dissipate the incarnation of Jullah if it had already materialized. The Kushite shaman then gestured to one of the 3 egresses from the chamber and told the party the ritual was likely already under way, and they must stop it with all haste. The men-at-arms left the shaman and women to haul the rest of the prisoners out of the chasm and entered the passage to the temple of the beast god.

The tunnel opened to an immense, cathedral-like chamber, lavishly decorated in wicker tapestries, wall paintings and human skulls. But the party was not alone in this chamber, as before them prowled an enormous white ape they recognized as the very one who stole Tarethis from Artelios’ estate. Past the fearsome guardian were closed doors from which ominous, primeval chanting could be heard. Suddenly a frightened scream erupted in the distance and the adventurers pressed into the room, determined to get through the fearsome sentinel which barred their path as quickly as they could. Ambrose and Xacksmith closed upon the ape, but dared not face the creature without their 2 barbarian allies in front. Cuana did not disappoint as he charged the great beast with a fleetness of foot none in the party could match, furiously slashing through muscle and sinew. The white bull ape roared as it slammed its hammer-like fist into the Cimmerian’s shoulder. Tullweim closed as well, but could do nothing to aid Cuana other than cheer him on. Ambrose moved around a column to engage the creature, stopping just out of reach of the ape’s flailing fists. The Cimmerian dodged a devastating blow, but was caught by the second swing of the white beast, knocking the breath out of Cuana. Staggered as he was, the barbarian twisted in time to avoid the feral snapping jaws of the ape. Tullweim finally reached his companion, but the creature took the opportunity to batter the advancing Aesir. Blood poured from the Nordheimer’s mouth as Tullweim’s sword hacked through flesh and bone and the white bull ape fell heavily to the floor with a strangled cry. The adventurers moved towards the closed entrance the chanting and screaming poured forth from.

The door gaped open to a temple of Jullah, which was filled with 12 priests, all wrapped in the ecstasy of the ceremony. Guarding the priests were 12 cultists, who trembled and bowed fearfully before the swirling essence of a shimmering, otherworldly portal that opened above the black altar atop which the naked Tarethis was strapped. One Kushite sorcerer held a staff with a skull atop it, and wore a half-bestial mask surmounted by ostrich plumes, intoning blasphemously by the altar. But the party’s knees quivered not at the men before them, but at three black, hairy tentacles tipped with skull-like heads, which extended long, slavering green tongues as they protruded from the portal, slowly surveying the temple chamber. One moved closely to the bound Tarethis, who screamed piteously as it ran its tongue along her belly. Another remained close to the chanting form of the high priest. Cuana knew time was of the essence and let his rage boil over into a fighting madness as he bellowed a war cry. The barbarian was a whirlwind of death as he slew the closest cultist, then cleaved savagely into the next, slashing into another and another. Cuana’s blade continued to meet death to all before him until 13 corpses littered the ground, their blood coalesced in a great pool of crimson. Xacksmith launched 3 arrows from his Hyrkanian bow, each bolt ending a cultist’s miserable life. Ambrose used his mummery, learned from the paths of Asura, to hurl the iron artifact into the blasphemous portal. One of the tentacles reflexively swatted the skull-shaped meteor from its gateway. Tullweim charged the masked high priest in a scarlet mist of fury, his greatsword tore through the cultist’s breast and heart. The Kushite gurgled in disbelief as he died at the Aesir’s feet. 3 of the Jullah worshipers closed on the Norheimer, battering him between them with their closed paws. As many cultists surrounded Cuana and likewise brought their fists to bear upon the Cimmerian. Bewildered by the sudden destruction the cult faced, one of the Kushites grabbed the artifact which had rolled by his feet. The remaining follower of Jullah slammed his mitt into Ambrose, the Nemedian careened into a column, his limbs weary and eyes bleary from the constant abuses of combat. Two of the monstrous vibrissa bashed the Aesir’s bruised form, rivulets of blood flowed from Tullweim’s many wounds.

Cuana’s greatsword hewed roughly through a cultist, then cleaved murderously into all 3 of the Kushites surrounding the Cimmerian. Ambrose shouted for Xacksmith to stop the cultist who had swiped the iron meteor. The Hyrkanian fired his bow, the arrow glanced the cultist’s arm but did not bring him low. Ambrose followed Xacksmith’s attack by waving his hand to sorcerously fling his two arming swords into the Kushite, slaying the man and causing the artifact to drop from his grasp. Tullweim swung his greatsword, shearing one of the tentacles assailing him. The great bulk would have crushed Tarethis had it not collapsed into an ectoplasmic pile of wretched matter. The Aesir’s blade swished by a second palpus but went wide. The tentacle coiled around Tullweim, pinning him as the last barbel champed into his shoulder, rending the Nordheimer’s flesh. Cuana and Xacksmith rushed towards their grappled companion but could not reach him before Ambrose lifted Eshiba’s artifact with his mind, sending it into the ethereal gateway. The mystic portal abruptly dissipated and the remaining tentacles turned to sludge, covering Tarethis and Tullweim with pale goo. The Aesir barbarian broke the binds which held the Chaga woman and collected her in his arms. The party then left the chamber of horror and ruin and returned to the pit which had served as a holding cell for Zabhela’s women.

A medley of foreign and Kushite women stood with Eshiba, lifting the last of the prisoners from the crater. The Kushite shaman laughed heartily at seeing the adventurers return victoriously. Eshiba tasked the men-at-arms with escorting the women back to the port-city. The shaman said he would stay behind, for he realized he must remain in the temple to rebuild the cult of Jullah and help those led astray by the mad visions of the dead high-priest Ashanata. Seeing the nervousness on the adventurers faces, Eshiba reminded them of the Gallah’s dependence on the followers of Jullah to balance the tyranny of the Set worshiping Chaga. Ambrose inquired if Ashanata was responsible for Jullah’s rage. Eshiba responded, “Something has profoundly disturbed the beast god, but it rebels against an even angrier spirit, that of the primal god, Jhebbal Sag. I cannot say what has caused this distress among the beast gods, but sense the issue cannot be resolved by a simple virgin sacrifice.” With that said, the adventurers left the shaman and led the women back to Zabhela in triumph.

Once they returned to the port-city the heroes were widely regaled for the return of the populace’s wives, sisters, and daughters. Artelios was amazed 4 men could have conquered the cult which had slaughtered his guards and expressed gratitude for rescuing his daughter. Erithemes held her daughter tightly, thanking the adventurers repeatedly and paying them their promised reward. The governor of Zabhela held a festival to honor the men-at-arms, and at the banquet Artelios offered the party an opportunity to travel east to Atlaia with a caravan the Argossean would lead. The merchant promised enough wealth to allow the adventurers to purchase a fleet of ships if they wished. All agreed, even Cuana, who still harbored ill feelings towards Rand Artelios, could not refuse the excitement of adventure and gold.

Bloody Ambush

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.

On the Trail of Orafa

As Cuana awoke from his slumber in the early morning light of the jungle wastes of Atlaia, he took stock of the camp his companions drowsed in. All seemed well among the sleeping forms of Artelios, Erishka, Kophethu, Tullweim, and Xacksmith. Though the Cimmerian became alarmed when he did not see the Nemedian, Ambrose, who had taken the last watch of the night. The barbarian roused the rest of the adventurers and all set their gaze to their surroundings, searching for any clue as to where the scholar had gone. The Nemedian’s gear was no longer in the encampment and Ambroses’ tracks led west, away from the men-at-arm’s camp. No other marks were found, and it seemed the scholar had simply gathered his things and left. The Aesir shrugged his shoulders, stating the civilized man could no longer bear the trek through the jungle towards the unknown the men had embarked upon and likely wished to return to the harbor of Zabhela, where he could purchase passage to Argos, and from there, his homeland. At a loss to further explain the departure of their sword-brother, the men cooked a meager meal and set out again towards the Ogun Mountains, to close the distance on the rogue, Orafa, and retrieve the map stolen by the Ghanata slaver.

Along their path, the party came upon the carcass of a horse saddled in the same manner as the Tibu raiders which had ambushed them, with a wooden spear jutting out the slain beast’s side. Xacksmith uncovered tracks from 2 mounts nearby, 1 appeared to be carrying the burden of 2 riders. The adventurers hastened their pace, and few hours later discovered another lifeless horse, though no injury was found among its cadaver. Tullweim opined that the beast had died from exhaustion and noted their quarry’s steps were fresh. Artelios insisted the party catch up to the Ghanata quickly, or risk losing the map they sought. At midday 3 men, 1 on a horse, 2 on foot, were spotted several miles in the distance. 1 of the men shambled along with a limp as the brute beside him mercilessly goaded him along. The rider stalled his horse to wait for his companions to catch up, looked back upon the trail they had trod, spotted the adventurers and spurred his troupe forward towards a thick copse of trees.

The men-at-arms barreled through the tall grass of the savannah, weapons in hand, murder in their eyes, and bloodlust in their hearts for the head of the man who had put chains round their wrists. The trained woodsmen covered the distance with a galloping pace neither the Argossean, Atlaian, nor Stygian could keep up with and tore into the trees their foe had fled into. As the party scrambled into the bush, all was quiet, with no call of birds, or skitter of vermin observed. Without warning, a dark shape burst from the foliage, knocking the Nordheimer off his feet, and quickly followed by a second form which rammed a spear into the Cimmerian’s flank. Cuana rounded on the Tibu savage who assailed him, arcing his great blade twice into him, bloodying the slaver but not bringing him down. Xacksmith charged Orafa with his arming sword, but the Ghanata parried the Hyrkanian’s slash. The Tibu warrior plunged the point of his spear into the Cimmerian, and with a roar the raider pushed the shaft through Cuana until the Tibu’s hands met the barbarian’s abdomen. Orafa twice sent his long, curved knives into Tullweim’s chest, causing arcs of crimson to splash the surrounding vegetation. The Aesir responded with 2 reaping gashes of his greatsword.

A ruddy haze of agony washed over Cuana’s field of vision as he pushed the Tibu savage away with a wild swing of his blade. The slaver laughed as he took a step back and made to grab the hatchets hanging from the sides of his belt. The Cimmerian felt blood pouring freely from both the entrance and exit of his wound, and the sight of the savage prancing about, grinning as he waved his hatchets in anticipation of the kill, unleashed a fury in Cuana seldom seen by civilized eyes. Every ounce of strength the Cimmerian could muster went into his slice, and as the greatsword came down upon the Tibu’s shoulder, the sound of his gurgling death-cry was drowned out by the snapping of his sternum and at least five ribs. Xacksmith hemmed round Orafa and sunk his arming sword deep into the Ghanata’s back. The slaver turned his attention to the Hyrkanian, viciously plunging his blades into the borderer. Tullweim growled as he carved his sword at the distracted opponent, splitting Orafa’s head like a ripe melon.

As the Aesir tugged at the spear in Cuana’s back, Xacksmith spotted movement among the trees where Orafa had launched his attack. Tullweim’s hands slipped from the blood encrusted shaft as the Cimmerian howled in pain. Almost blacking out from the torment, Cuana pushed the rod out, causing a fresh gout of blood to spill forth. The Hyrkanian cast the branches aside and found a wounded Zamoran cowering on the ground. The borderer asked who the injured man was and he stated his name was Alam’Enshadar. Alam explained that he was a simple merchant who sought to buy goods and slaves from Orafa when the raider’s train had been ambushed. Alam’Enshadar continued, saying he had no part in any of the Ghanata’s plans, and had in fact feared for his life while in the slaver’s company. Xacksmith found what the Zamoran said to be quite believable, but a frightened scream stole his attention before the Hyrkanian could inform his companions of Alam’Enshadar’s presence. Cuana pushed out of the trees to see what was happening beyond them and was greeted by a javelin with a bloodied mass tied to it. As the Cimmerian yanked the spear from his leg, he stared in horror at the grisly disembodied head which was the remains of the Nemedian, Ambrose. Tullweim bellowed a war-cry at the figures which moved towards them in the tall grass and the adventurers dove into the waves of green at the Atlaians.

The Aesir and Cimmerian leapt amid the 6 savages, the madness of battle overtaking them, red rage clouded their vision as they attacked. Cuana struck twice, crumpling his foe to the ground, a ruined and bloodied mess. With a savage cleave, the Cimmerian smashed his blade into a second, his sword skipping lightly on the brute’s hide. Xacksmith dropped his arming sword, drew his bow, and sent a bolt into one of the Atlaian’s throat. A spear-wielding warrior buried his weapon into Cuana as his 3 tribesmen assailed Tullweim. Though the Aesir suffered several punctures, he swept his sword at 1 of his enemies, lopping off both the savage’s arms. An Atlaian’s eyes grew wide in fear as the indomitable Cimmerian, who in his fighting madness was oblivious to the pain from his many lacerations, brought his sword down upon the savage’s crown. Cuana then delivered two quick slashes with his greatsword at another adversary, splitting his belly and sending his intestines splashing out onto the trampled sward. The enraged Cimmerian rushed to the last Atlaian and drove his greatsword through the man’s gut. Cuana then fell to his knees, his body swaying among the grass until his head hit the ground with a thud.

Erishka rushed to the fallen Cimmerian and used her lore of the plants surrounding them to bind the barbarian’s many wounds and keep infection from setting. Alam’Enshadar meekly presented himself to Artelios and Kophethu as Tullweim walked up to where Orafa had fallen. Barely considering the Zamoran, the Argossean shouted after the Aesir, inquiring if his map had been uncovered. The Nordheimer lifted the scrap of leather parchment from the Ghanata’s still warm corpse and responded that he had found it, but stated he would hold onto it while his wounds were being tended, which Xacksmith quickly went to task at. When Cuana was revived, he and Erishka returned to the rest of the party with painfully small steps. The Cimmerian regarded the Zamoran suspiciously as the Aesir said the wounded man could travel with them so long as he did not slow the adventurers down. Not wanting to be left in the wilds of Atlaia, Alam’Enshadar agreed. Judging the Ghanata slaver to be close to the same stature as himself, Cuana unceremoniously tore the leather jerkin from Orafa’s body and weakly set to cleaning it. The party then moved themselves into the shelter under the trees and decided to make camp to rest from their battles and recover some of their strength.

Once there, Artelios insisted Tullweim hand the Argossean his property. The Aesir held up the parchment and Erishka gazed in wonder, stating she recognized the map drawn upon it. Artelios sputtered at the woman’s words and his Stygian companion arched a curious eyebrow. The Aesir asked if Artelios wanted the Atlaian woman to decipher the text on the parchment for him, and after a long silence, the Argossean responded he did. Upon looking at it, Erishka explained that the map was written in the language of old Atlaia, the ancient empire which founded all of the cities that are now in ruin throughout the land. ‘The scroll provides the map to the temple,’ she stated, ‘as well as instructions on how to enter and find the Lost Emperor of Atlaia.’ The young woman spoke further of how it would be truly glorious if the lost emperor was found, for he would be able to unite the kingdoms of Atlaia once more, thus ending the cycle of war. It was evident that she believed this emperor was not dead, but merely waiting to be released. The adventurers got a suspicious chill at this notion, but it mattered not, for how could such an ancient king be anything more than a spectral remnant of himself? With the unsettling, but promising knowledge, the party lolled in the waning sun of the day and rested.

The Passage of the Mountain God

Two days after the skirmish with Orafa, the adventurers at last arrived at the foothills of the Ogun Mountains. With the map in their possession and Erishka to translate it, they had the means by which to locate the hidden passage up the rocky cliffs. The passage was a steep, narrow incline of slight steps chiseled into the rock. As they ascended, the steps gradually grew broader and easier to climb, until at last they appeared to be full, wide steps carved by giants. And upon the large stair they get a better view of the land beyond. The bush they had spent uncomfortable days wading through ended at the lower hills and cliffs where the pathway began, and those hills were dwarfed by the jagged summits surrounding them, looking like teeth from a dead god rising in defiance to the heavens. Xacksmith’s hawk eyes caught site of a line of warriors moving through the grass to the general area where the pathway began, and near the limits of his vision he spied another war party closing in from the opposite approach, adding tension to the possibility of unwelcome company.

The stone staircase gradually ended at the entrance to a great cleft in the mountains, forming a narrow valley that cut through the rocky expanse. It seemed much of the stone around the adventurers had been worked by the hands of man in the distant past, but was now so weathered and worn through the ages they appeared to be nothing more than fanciful bluffs, buttes and cliffs. Petroglyphic runes and strange symbols dotted the surfaces around the staircase, with odd sigils vaguely suggestive of inhuman forms. As they stared at ancient scratchings in the cleft, the party heard eerie notes reverberate through the stone, but whether the blasphemous sound was the wind whipping through the divide or something diabolical was unknown. The men-at-arms pressed on and the narrow cleft in the mountains was rough and uneven, save for a crude path that ran down the center of the passage. More of the evocative rock art, as well as the strange sense that the whole expanse of the mountains was some worn monument to a forgotten civilization, continued to persist. As they passed through the mountains, Erishka began to murmur a quiet chant under her breath. When the Hyrkanian inquired as to what the repeated words the woman spoke were, she replied, ‘There are Orisha in the mountains. You must have their permission to pass.’ Fear was evident in her eyes and Xacksmith began mimicking the steady drawl the Atlaian uttered.

Step after step the adventurers got the sense they were being watched by unseen entities in the dark places between the ore. The cragged pathway through the rocky cleft took the rest of the day to traverse, and night fell before the party reached the end. Erishka grew more frightened than ever by dusk, as Tullweim lit a torch near an overhang which would have been suitable for camping. ‘We should continue,’ Erishka said, ‘the guardian Orisha do not like trespassers at night.’ All agreed and pressed onward, inadvertently looking over their shoulders with every footfall. Moments later, Cuana noticed Alam’Enshadar’s head nervously darting to and fro at some unseen presence above him. The Cimmerian whispered to the Zamoran to tell him what he saw, and Alam pointed to an odd twinkle in the distance above him. Cuana steeled his gaze and witnessed what looked like dull red pairs of stars which moved up and down the cliff walls, pacing the party from somewhere overhead. The Cimmerian halted the Aesir and pointed out what he spied. As the group stopped their gait, Xacksmith heard the sounds of skittering feet and clicking claws along the rock, along with an occasional inhuman grunt. Erishka’s eyes widened as her voice grew hoarse with her crude mantra. The reflective eyes stopped moving with the adventurers, but did not advance from their perches far above. Tullweim simply shook his head and motioned the party to keep moving.

Close to midnight, the waxing orb in the sky was covered behind somber clouds and a total gloom filled the narrow canyon. A sense of preternatural dread choked the party as a dozen beasts howled into the night, baying at the darkness and the loss of the moon. A sudden rush of sound in the black, followed by a horde of terrible, limber, half-human beings with jackal-like heads and bodies covered in coarse fur, descended the walls upon the adventurers. As the beasts dropped down, all but Artelios fought back the urge to curl into a whimpering ball, Cuana’s barbaric rage boiled over, and like a cornered animal, the Cimmerian instinctively flashed his greatsword at the closest abomination, crumpling the horror’s snout. Cuana pivoted to a second Orisha, swinging his blade and rending the creature’s torso from its hideous legs. The barbarian growled and cleaved into a third beast, goring an arc of sanguine fluid, but not felling it. One of the monstrosities slashed wickedly into Alam’Enshadar’s gullet, violently removing the Zamoran’s head from his throat. Another monster raked its claws into Kophethu’s back, badly wounding the Stygian. 3 of the terrors assaulted Cuana, ripping and rending the Cimmerian’s flesh with jagged talons. Tullweim was similarly assaulted by 5 of the menacing Orisha, buffeted between the howling jowls and tearing claws. Curiously, the guardians ignored Erishka and Xacksmith, who continued to wail out the mantra of protection. The profusely bleeding Aesir dropped the torch, viewed his assailants through a crimson mist, and savagely struck 1 of the creatures twice. The Hyrkanian ceased his gibbering ululations, tumbled towards the Orisha Tullweim had wounded, and sunk his arming sword through the beast’s vertebrae, ending its miserable life.

In a flurry of ruddy motion, Cuana swung his blade like a pendulum of death, slaying creature after mongrel creature, until his twirling form dashed 3 tattered corpses to the ground, and bloodied a fourth. The 6 remaining beasts bayed frenziedly at the men, 1 brought Kophethu to his knees with a vicious slam, 1 ripped into Xacksmith, 2 scored Tullweim’s hide with monstrous hooks, 3 hacked and gashed agonizingly into the Cimmerian. The Aesir responded with a carving chop of his blade to either side, which dropped 2 of the horrors to the rocky ground. The Hyrkanian sliced into another as Cuana again wheeled steel annihilation into 3 Orisha, splattering sinew and gory carrion around him. The clouds above broke, and as the moon again shown down into the pass, the remaining creature fled back up the side of the mountain. Tullweim retrieved the sputtering torch and leaned against a wall to steady his faltering legs. Xacksmith rushed to the Aesir’s side and staunched his many wounds. Erishka similarly aided the Cimmerian as Artelios finally lifted his fingers from covering his eyes.

Four hours after the battle, the secret valley marked on Artelios’ map now loomed before the party and in the heart of a lush, deep jungle-filled volcanic basin was seen an immense ziggurat. In the early morning light, the adventurers saw great braziers surrounding the temple at the top of the pyramid, pouring forth fire and smoke. Erishka seemed surprised, for she stated her brother had told that the priests of the temple were all dead and the temple stood empty, save for the angry spirits of the past. Thus arose the new mystery of who now occupied the temple.

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.

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Cabals of the Black Kingdoms

The Nemedian Chronicles Flatscan