Cuana Chapter 11 Entry 3

Malleus’ Journal

I was dimly aware of myself being hauled out of the water and dropped onto the sand, where I fell to my hands and knees, gagging on saltwater and gasping for air. Images whirled about in my mind – an incredibly beautiful, exotic woman of the sea – an underwater cave, bones littered about its interior – a scaly, blue, demonic hag atop a rock outcrop. The bulk of the water I had swallowed came rushing up from my gullet as memory fully returned to me, as if my body was purging itself of its contact with that revolting creature. By all the gods! One moment I’m fighting the thing, hacking into it’s vile flesh with my blade, the next moment I’m staring into it’s eyes, wishing nothing but to devote my entire existence to a lifetime of passion and lovemaking, as subservient in my awe as an acolyte standing before Mitra himself. How utterly galling that my companions had to save me from that. Hopefully they mistook my flushed complexion as an effect of the wretches and spasms of my body as it fought to void itself of the seawater I had both inhaled and swallowed. If anyone recognized my humiliation they kept it to themselves.

We decided to try to head over to the large island, where we saw a rope bridge high above, leading to the smallest of the cluster of islands, so we set about to building a raft that could carry us there. The effort took a little while, our first attempt at a raft literally falling apart as we dragged it toward the shore. Retying the trunks and adding two crossbeams for support did the trick, and we were soon crowded together onto the raft and heading for the island. Once ashore, we dragged the raft well out of reach of the tide and began exploring the jungle.

The air was thick with humidity, insects, and the cries of exotic birds, the ground dense with creepers, ferns, brightly colored blossoms, and all other manner of vegetation. Just as dense and alive with fauna as was the Pictish wilderness, this jungle was tropical, making it much more humid and cloying, more colorful and more alien. After only a few moments of exploration we stumbled upon an overgrown road. There were no signs of recent travel that we could discern, so we followed the road upward toward the summit and the bridge to the other island. Stopping only once at a small lake we passed for some fresh water, we continued up the road, reaching the bridge atop the hill without incident.

The bridge itself was quite impressive. While being nothing more than a simple rope bridge, it was the sheer size of it that impressed. Weathered, wooden slats were laid across the thickest ropes I have ever seen, the girth of each being approximately five times the thickness of an average sized man. The thing stretched across the space between the islands, fully three hundred feet in length, at the dizzying height of at least four hundred feet above the waves below. Unobstructed by geography, the winds blew forcefully at this height, gathering strength as they swept across the sea, and making our crossing all the more treacherous. Holding tightly to the ropes that served as hand-holds and using care as we stepped on the ancient planks, we crossed without incident and were soon atop the summit of the other island. Continuing along the road, we eventually came to a cave, the entrance to which bore foreign symbols carved around the outside. Having no source of light with which to illuminate the interior of the cave, Cortos and I elected to return across the bridge and down into the jungle where we could gather wood to use as torches. It had become too close to sunset to risk crossing the bridge in the fading light, so we decided to postpone our trip until the morning. We looked around the area, taking in the spectacular view of the small island below, noticing that there was a small ship – a sloop – moored on the side of the island that we had not explored. Apparently there was someone else here besides us, which meant a possible way off the island without having to try to repair that wrecked Stygian craft we had come across earlier. Wary that whoever owned the sloop may well prove to be a danger to us, I took the first watch as the others settled down to sleep.

I had not been long into my watch when I was attacked. All I had heard was a low-pitched snarl, which only just barely gave me a second in which to turn towards the sound and avoid a complete surprise and an attack from behind. The mass of the creature struck me with force, nearly knocking me over, and I felt sharp claws seeking to tear through the leather I wore. A sharp, feline roar preceded the snapping of teeth directly in front of my face, and I knew that I was entangled with some type of mountain or forest cat like the ones back in Cimmeria, only one significantly larger. I was aware of a second cat as well, it’s throaty growl sounding as it shot past me toward where the others lay sleeping. It was too dark for me to try to draw my sword, for were I able to push the beast far enough away from me to be able to swing the blade, I wouldn’t even be able to see where it stood. Already locked in combat with the thing, I decided to try to strangle the life out of it by hand. This of course brought me within closer range of the beast’s claws and fangs, but nothing could be done about that. It let out an angry yelp as my hands found it’s windpipe, and it began to fight with renewed ferocity, it’s claws scoring several gashes in my own flesh. The sounds of combat behind me indicated that the others were fully engaged with the second beast, so I knew that I need not worry about having the second one tear into me from behind. As long as there wasn’t a third lurking nearby –

Keeping focus on the beast with which I was engaged, I kept as much pressure on it’s throat as I could manage. I might have snapped it’s neck easily had it simply sat still and allowed it, but the creature was strong – very strong. It twisted and thrashed to break free of my hold, while seeking to shred me with it’s claws and bury it’s fangs into my flesh. It had begun to wear down noticeably when, having slain the other beast, my companions came up and finished off the great cat from behind. With all now quiet, I announced that my watch was officially over, and unable to use my healing kit for the darkness of the night, laid down and slept until sunrise.

With the coming of the dawn came time for Cortos and I to go back to the large island to gather material with which to make torches. The winds hadn’t lessened any since the previous day, so we crossed the bridge with care. We were able to cross, gather branches for torches, and return quickly and without incident. Stepping into the cave, we lit a couple of the torches and took a look around. It was a natural cave, possibly shaped a little here and there to make the passage uniform, but I couldn’t tell for certain. With the exception of the occasional cluster of bones littered about, there was nothing remarkable to be seen. We followed the passage and eventually came out the other end, looking across a large, bowl-shaped depression under and open sky. Within the circular declivity was the ruins of a city, all of which had been built from massive blocks of purple stone. Amid the crumbled structures, tall towers of the same purple rock stretched upward toward the sky. The entire place had a strange feel to it, as if the ruins themselves radiated an aura of menace. We followed the path downward into the depression, noting that the flora here was different than what we had seen in other areas of the island. Curiosity caused me to stray off the path and examine the area, mainly to search for edible roots or plants with which to partially restock our provisions. Seeing nothing, I returned to the trail and continued to follow it toward the ruins. As I was walking, I began to feel a drowsiness come over me. I had just started to open my mouth to give voice to my sudden sleepiness when I saw the ground come rushing up toward my face.

I saw the city full of life, full of people going about their daily routine. Nothing out of the ordinary, just a strange people in a strange city, preoccupied as anyone might be. Visions changed, scenes blurred, but nothing was really different from one vision to the next. The only remarkable thing was that the city was no longer a ruin, but in normal repair, dressed up in the awnings and gardens of a living city, not simply the decaying bones of a long dead one. Again, visions changed, perspective shifted, scenes blurred, but the city lived on. Eventually the scenes started to fade, growing hazy, then faint, and then they were gone. I sprang awake, sitting up with a start and looking around. I sat on the trail, Cortos next to me and blinking the blurriness from his eyes. Something in the flora must have effected us, causing us to lose consciousness. Hollan and Abizar had hauled us down the length of the trail to where it ended at a large, sinister looking gate. Looking up at the ominous thing, I felt an odd wave of fear wash over me, as if it suggested some kind of imminent doom. I was able to shrug the feeling off, so I climbed to my feet and followed the others into the ruined city.

Moving through the ruined city was made even more surreal to me due to the images from my mysterious, plant-induced dreams than the trip wpould have otherwise been. Not a single sign of living occupants could be gleaned anywhere, but I could imagine what the streets would have looked like in the days when the city thrived. It made the feeling of emptiness throughout the place even more profound. We made our way through the deserted streets, winding our way toward the tallest tower in the place, made of the same purple stone as the rest of the place, looming in the distance ahead. At one point, a small section fell away from one of the buildings as we passed, a portion of it falling squarely down upon the Northman, his last-second dodge saving him from being crushed. Hurrying onward, we soon arrived at the entrance to the tower. The way was open, so we entered and took a look around.

The area was empty, but a little way up there was a closed door, which on examination we found to be locked. Cortos took a few minutes in doing it, but he soon had the door open and we were soon through. Stairs spiraled around the inner wall of the tower, climbing upward into the darkness above. Aside from the stairway, the inside of the tower looked to be a hollow cylinder. The area seemingly clear, we began our climb upward. After a considerable climb, we came upon another closed door, this one set with some kind of demonic head in its center. Seeing nothing else obvious on the door, Hollan reached into the hideous carving’s mouth, finding a latch within. Thankfully for him, the mechanism had rusted to the point where it was no longer effective, because the jagged teeth set into the mouth of the carving came down, obviously with the intent to ruin the hand of anyone foolish enough to reach inside. Instead, there was the sound of ancient levers moving within the door, and it swung open to the touch.

Passing through the door, we saw that the stairs continued to wind their way upward. Through this section of stairs there were small purple crystal stones set in niches, spaced at regular intervals along the walls. We discovered that when touched, the stones would emit a bright green light, so we were able to keep our way lit much more clearly through this area. The stairs continued to wind upward in the same manner as before, spiraling upward into darkness. Each time we passed one of the purple crystals we would touch it, another circle of green light springing forth from the mysterious stone.

After a long climb up the inside of the shaft we encountered another closed door, this one set with a demonic-looking head in its face just like the last door had. Before he could be warned, the Hyrkanian thrust his hand into the mouth of the thing to search for a latch, and got himself caught as the teeth of the hideous carving clamped down upon his hand, his cry of pain and alarm echoing down throughout the interior of the tower. Forcing my way to the fore, I was able to get my fingers into the shallow opening that remained between the upper and lower teeth of the thing, and pry them apart enough for Cortos to free his hand. Before pulling it free, his fingers found the latch within, and we once again heard the sound of ancient levers shifting within the door, allowing it to swing open to our touch.

A look through the doorway revealed not stairs, but a chamber. Four large statues were positioned around the room, each facing in toward the rooms center, where sat a large crystal bowl upon a carven pedestal. The statues were hideous things, each one bearing the form of some kind of unearthly creature. Talons, tentacles, fangs, scales – each one different than the next, yet all obviously of similar species or origin, from either a far distant realm or a long-forgotten past. Nothing like this could possibly roam the earth any longer, for if it did it could likely command entire kingdoms, feeding off of the blood or souls of it’s subjugated populace. Fantastic in appearance and extraordinarily detailed, I felt a sense of unease gnawing at me as I stood looking into the room, daylight illuminating the scene through a circular opening in the ceiling. I decided to pay attention – for once – to that feeling of creeping dread, and cautiously backed out of the room. The others would have none of that, and they proceded into the chamber.

Only a handful of heartbeats passed before cries of alarm and terrror rang out from within the room. Abizar flew out of the chamber and raced down the stairs, gibbering incoherently, tears streaming down his face, his complexion three shares paler than that of my grandsire. The Nordheimer was bellowing in his familiar falsetto, and a combination of ghastly hissing and gurgling began to answer. Remaining several steps down the stairway and a little way around the bend, I could not see what was happening, but could only imagine what my comrades faced in that room. Drawing my sword, I yelled ‘grab the bowl and run!’ The sounds of combat continued from within the chamber, and I continued to urge them to just try to grab the bowl and flee. Finally able to overcome his fear, the Stygian crept back up the steps to where I was waiting. My sword drawn, I again shouted for them to try to grab the bowl and run, hoping that as they fled the room I would have a shot at the creature as it emerged in pursuit. Instead of receiving any kind of reply, I heard a ghastly cry of pain from within the room, and a moment later both Hollan and Cortos emerged bearing the crystal bowl. In the relative silence that followed the battle, I thought that I heard a noise issue from below, but after spending a moment straining my ears I could hear nothing else. Regardless, I mentioned to the others that I thought I had heard something down below.

We retraced our steps, descending the long staircase, inrent on getting out of this tower. We were most of the way down when we spotted a group of men coming up the stairs in our direction. As they drew closer, we could see that most were dressed in garb similar to that of the Stygian sailors we had been attacked by while upon the Dagon’s Favor. One among them was dressed differently, and Abizar gasped that it was a sorcerer of the black Circle, a group of Stygian mages whose hearts and deeds were black as pitch. My dispositon toward Stgians is not a good one, but that is based solely on the conduct and lack of character of the few that I have met in my travels. These six proved to be just like all the others.

The black mage approached with his armed retinue, his eyes affixed to the crystal bowl we had brought down from the upper chamber. Describing it as a great prize that he nearly had stolen from him by a ‘rogue’ named Khonsardais, he declared the bowl to be his property and asked that we hand it over. The arrogance of the man angered me greatly, but I held my tongue and let Abizar handle the discussion. For all the fawning he did over this evil mage, I half expected Abizar to offer the man a massage or to brew him some tea. He told the mage that he would hand over the bowl in exchange for passsage on their sloop, to which the mage agreed. With the bowl in his posession, the mage turned to go, the falling into step behind him. It occurred to me that a spellcaster of such ill repute and five armed soldiers might have us at a disadvantage out on the open water, and I was unhappy with our simply handing the bowl over after it had been so hard won from its demonic guardian. I thought it might be best if we were to try to take both the bowl and their ship from them, and leave the bastards stuck on the island to fend for themselves. I wanted to discuss the possibility of doing so with the others, but I needed to try to find a tongue in which I could speak that the sorcerer wouldn’t understand. As we follwed them out the front of the tower, I called out in the Aquilonian tongue ‘hey – do you speak Aquilonian?’ They didn’t respond – they just kept on walkng, so I tried something a little harsher to see if they were simply ignoring me. ‘Hey, assbag, I’m talking to you’ – all six stopped dead in their tracks. I was about to say ‘ah, so you DO speak Aquilonian after all’ but the words died on my lips as the mage hurled insults at me, something that nobody does without paying dearly. I ran straight at him, my sword swinging free of its scabbard and arcing straight for his face. He tried throwing a spell of some kind at me, likely a curse of some kind, but it had no effect on me whatsoever. Abizar was livid – apparently he still had more sucking up to this guy to do and far be it for him to go against another bastard Stygian anyway. I closed on the dog and grinned as my sword hacked straight down onto his collar bone, and then laughed as he was nearly knocked off his feet by my backswing. Cortos sent several arrows after the soldiers, and Hollan began to bellow his falsetto war cry, when the bastard mage produced a small glass globe from within his robes and hurled it straight into my face. The entire world seemed to explode as the thing struck me, and I was completely engulfed in flames. The pain was hideous, and it was all I could do to remain on my feet, intent on crushing the mage with my bare, burning hands if need be. He was backing away, managing to stay out of my reach when my strength failed and I could stand the pain no longer. Falling to my knees, I tried to crawl, to reach out – to stretch my arm just enough to catch a fold of his robe and pull him down, but I just couldn’t manage. The last of my strength left me in a rush, and all there was left was pain. I never even felt my face strike the earth.

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