Cuana Chapter 8 Entry 9

Once again we blackened ourselves with coal dust before heading out into the night. We decided to travel to the palace by way of the alleys instead of by rooftop, Tullweim deciding to leave his armor behind so we could have a chance of moving along quietly. There were still guards of the city watch about, and it was best to try to avoid them since they were nervous patrolling their own city as of late. At one point we saw a cluster of guards coming down the street in our direction, speaking in hushed voices and walking with less swagger than normal. We quietly stepped further back into the shadows as they approached, or rather our intention was to do so quietly, but the Nordheimer stepped into a heap of trash in the dark, scattering it noisily about.

It’s funny how the smallest of sounds can seem so loud when you’re trying to be quiet. In the stillness of the night, the Aesir’s misstep may as well have been a hammer upon the blacksmith’s anvil. The watchmen stopped, no doubt peering our way, while we were sinking further into the shadows and crouching behind heaps of refuse. I could hear their footsteps drawing near, their voices lowered to half-whispers betraying their reluctance to investigate the darkened alley where we lay hidden. After a moment one of them remembered himself and barked out a ‘who goes there’, but the silence that followed his query told me that they were standing just as still as we were. The last thing these guys seemed to want was to find themselves in a fight for their lives in a darkened alley. We kept still and a moment later heard the watch walking away grumbling something about cats, vagrants, or both. When we emerged from the alley a few minutes later we found the way to be clear, so we continued on in the direction of the King’s palace.

With all but a few of the general-king’s troops gone to do battle with the nobles in the countryside, the palace was ominously quiet as we surveyed the walls from our place of concealment at the edge of the city. A full moon was slowly rising, casting stark shadows from the walls and towers of the palace, providing good cover for anyone who might wish to climb their way to the crenellated walkway above. I had lost my own rope on our last attempt to gain entrance to the palace on the previous day, so the Hyrkanian lent me his to use – a fine silken cord of surprisingly light weight and durability which I assume to be typical of the sort a professional burglar might keep. Tossing the silken coil over my shoulder and keeping to the shadows as best as I could, I sprinted toward the rear corner of the place, where a shadow cast by a watch tower upon the wall could help mask my ascent. Thanks to my upbringing in the mountainous region of my homeland, I am able to climb unaided where many others cannot, especially those raised in and accustomed to cities. Within moments I was crouching on the walkway, keeping low and staying behind the merlons so as not to be seen by guards either above or below. A few steps took me to a closed door set in the closest tower, behind which I heard the voices of men, presumably guards, engaged in conversation. Still keeping low, I uncoiled the silken rope and fastened it around a merlon as I had done on my last attempt to breach the wall. Once tied, I let the end drop to the ground and signaled to my companions at the edge of the city that they could now approach the wall.

Though they stayed within shadowed areas as best as they could, I was thankful that there had been no guard patrolling this length of the wall because it would have been hard for one to miss us, including myself, running toward the palace across the open field. Once they had attained the base of the wall I motioned them to silence, indicating as best as I could through gestures that I could hear guards stationed in the tower right next to where I stood. The first to start up the wall was Xacksmith, but the rope came untied while he was only about halfway through the climb. I tried to make a grab for the rope before the knot became completely undone, but I had been trying to listen to what the guards on the other side of the closed door were saying and wasn’t paying enough attention to the rope. By the time I could react it was too late, and a couple seconds later I heard a meaty thud as my companion landed hard on the ground. After a few silent, sheepish gestures of apology, they tossed the rope back up to me, I wound it once around the merlon, and held it secure myself instead of tying it off. To Nergal’s pits with these dainty silken cords – a good, old fashioned hemp rope will hold a knot every time.

Everyone made it up the rope quickly and we were soon scanning both the walkway atop the wall and the palace grounds for guards. None were seen below, causing the Stygian to speculate that the area was possibly guarded by animals such as lions, or some other type of great cat. It was entirely possible because the reek of the city would certainly mask the smell generated by a thousand head of cattle, let alone a den of cats. Our attention was drawn however to a lone guard atop the wall, pacing away from us around a corner but soon to turn around and reverse direction. Any noise from combat would surely alert the guards on the other side of the door by which we still stood, and who knows how many guards would appear if the one atop the wall were to raise the alarm? Dhak came up with a brilliant solution – he handed me something from deep within the folds of his robes and warned me to be extremely careful handling it, that it was dust from the gray lotus. I took the globe-shaped item from him as he told me to open the door, throw it onto the floor, and quickly close the door again, reiterating his warning that to breathe it would be to succomb to madness. With that he, Xacksmith, and Tullweim ran to where the guard on the walkway was turning to retrace his path back in our direction. At the same moment that the guard spotted them and cried ‘intruders’, I opened the door of the tower by which I stood and lobbed the lotus bomb in, closing the door again and holding it shut with all the strength I had.

I was watching the area around the door to make sure none of the lotus was seeping out to where it could effect me while also trying to keep an eye on the others as they moved in on the guard. The sound of coughing, cursing, and gagging was coming from the other side of the door which I held shut, so I knew that I had at least scored a hit with the stuff. Turning back to watch the fight atop the wall I saw the Hyrkanian let fly a shaft from his bow that caught the guard solidly. Before he could react the Nordheimer cut him down, at which point the door in the tower behind the dying guard flew open, and another guard came out upon the walkway to die under Tullweim’s blade. I could hear now that the coughing and cursing behind the door which I held had given way to incoherent shouts and an unnerving, tittering laughter. Just a few seconds more and the sound of swords clashing became evident as the shouts grew to shrieks and the tittering gave way to pure, maniacal laughter. I let go of the door and began my descent into the palace grounds, preferring to face whatever may be lurking in the darkened alleys than stay above, where only a thin wooden door protected me from the madness and death of the gray lotus.

The golden dome of the palace had been easy to spot from the walkway upon the wall, so I tried to keep heading in that direction while staying in the cover of the shadows between the various buildings along the route. While passing a building that looked like a small keep of sorts, I happened to hear a loud noise that sounded like the clank of metal – a barred door being slammed possibly? I decided that it was interesting enough to detain me momentarily from continuing on to the palace.

I circled the building, trying to keep to the shadows to avoid being spotted by any passing guard details, while cautiosly peering into windows to avoid being spotted by any within. The place looked as if one end of it may be a prison of sorts, for all the windows were heavily barred there. Moving back around to the other end of the building, I crept into a window set in the wall of a corridor which ended in each direction in a closed door. The only sign of life was a lit torch in a sconce on the wall, which I took to aid in my explorations. The door to the left of where I entered was very heavy and securely locked, but the other one, though sturdy looking, was not. I chanced a look into the room, and seeing no immediate occupants I decided to have a look around. The place was someone’s office – well furnished, not overly opulent but still well appointed. Shelves lined the room, scrolls and various papers stacked neatly about, and a large desk sat toward the near corner. As I was looking through the papers on the desk I found a ledger of names, people who were being held in a cell, presumably in this building. Only one name – Agatho – looked to be that of a current prisoner. As I was considering this I heard heavy footsteps approaching from the other side of a closed door I had not yet investigated. I quickly set the ledger down on the desk along with the torch, drew my sword and waited behind the door in order to ambush whoever entered.

The door swung open and a large man began to enter, but he abruptly halted just inside the doorway, a gasp of surprise passing his lips as he saw the small fire that was being fueled by the papers on his desk. My sword hit him like an avalanche before he could react, staggering him several steps into the room. I hit him again, tearing a grievous wound into his shoulder that sent him staggering further. He wore a coiled whip at his side which he quickly pulled free and tried to lash around my legs in an attempt to trip me. Whether due to the damage he’d already sustained or that he just wasn’t strong enough I don’t know, but I easily pulled free from the coils around my legs, hit him one last time and dropped him for good. I bent over the man’s prone form and found exactly what I had expected I would – a ring of keys. Taking them I turned to leave and was surprised to see that the fire on the desk had grown alarmingly in the few seconds since I had set the torch down. I had to scramble to get the fire under control, but it only took a few moments to do so and I was now able to explore without the whole place blazing to cinders with me still inside.

After getting the fire put out I took a few moments to search the jailor’s room. Most of what I found were scrolls and books, and from the little Ophirean that I’m able to read I determined that they were ledgers and records of prisoners that had come through here over an indeterminable amount of time. Apparently this guy wasn’t just a jailor but ‘the Royal Torturer’. Had I known that I might have killed him more slowly, or at least hauled his fat city ass down to his dungeon, chained him up to one of his devices, and let him slowly bleed to death. This is probably where Vanemoth wound up, as well as where I would have been taken for killing that scrawny tax vulture had I not fled the city. I was tempted to let the place burn after all, but by now my companions would be well into the city and likely close to, if not already at the palace. A fire would bring too many guards into the area and probably make things all the more difficult for me to catch up with them.

Leaving the room, I went back down the hallway that I had entered from the window and tried the keys I had taken from the torturer in the lock of the door at the far end. Sure enough, one of them fit perfectly, and I was through the door and heading down a dark stairway. A corridor led down underneath the street to a row of cells, all save one of which were empty. I was interested in searching the cells because of the rumor I had heard in the street about Count Valentius being kidnapped. The general-king might not be the only one who would like to have Valentius removed from the line of succession, but in my opinion he was the most likely to be behind such an act. If this was where Iskandrian was holding captives, then it was my hope that this would be where the missing Count would be found. The occupied cell held a man not yet in his middle years who seemed at first to be out of his mind. He was dirty, his clothes barely more than rags. He seemed lost in some other world, for when I called to him and announced that I was setting him free he just continued to stare blankly into space. I entered the cell and took hold of him, but he seemed to not even notice that. I asked him his name, even suggesting names such as Valentius or the name from the ledger, Agatho, but his only response was to allow his head to loll back and forth and continue to stare vacantly at nothing. Whoever the wretch was, he was by all appearances blind and deaf, and likely his spirit so broken from his ordeal that his mind was left as useless as were his eyes and ears. I have seen many grim sights as both soldier and adventurer since leaving Cimmeria, but seeing any man reduced to this state by torture always fills me with anger and pity. A man deserves to stand and die like a man, not to be robbed of his wits, senses, and spirit like this. Those that inflict such suffering upon others deserve to spend their eternal lives in the deepest and blackest of hells, especially those that enjoy or make a living of dispensing such suffering. I feel great satisfaction in knowing that I’ve sent another one of those bastards to meet whatever doom awaits him.

It was time I was out of this place and finding the others, but I needed to find a place of safety for the tortured prisoner. His ordeal had left him an invalid, so I couldn’t just unchain him, leave the door open, and hope he managed to blindly grope his way to safety. I tossed the man over my shoulder and carried him up the stairs, pausing at the door to make sure all was still clear. The same eerie stillness was still to be felt inside the walls, no guards were about, so I headed back to the area of the wall where I had descended. I saw the door to the guard tower there was ajar, and looking in I found no guards present until I reached the top of the stairs. So this is what was left of the two that had fallen victim to the effects of the gray lotus – one of them was little more than random heaps of bone and gore. Blood was pooled about the floor and spattered across the walls in patterns that spoke of extreme, maniacal violence, not the result of simple combat. I remembered the furious shrieking and insane laughter that I heard coming from this room just a short while ago and was momentarily fearful that there may still be traces of the lotus dust in the air. I quickly opened the door and stepped out onto the wall where I could set the man I had rescued down while I looked for something with which I could improvise a rope. In all it took about an hour or more, but I was able to cut the tunics from the dead guards into strips and tie them together, as well as cut the ropes from the bells in the two guard towers that were set at each end of this section of the wall, eventually making one fairly servicable rope that allowed me to lower the tortured man until he was about five feet or so above the grass below. When I let go of the rope he fell harmlessly and simply lay there in a daze, so I climbed down the wall, lifted him over my shoulder once again, and began the return trip to our headquarters, once again by way of the alleys.

I made it back to our house on Crown street without incident and found the place empty of people and all the horses save mine gone. A hastily scrawled note directed me to the gate that everyone had taken out of the city, so I gathered the rest of my gear, gave the tortured man some water and laid him down in some empty bedding, jumped on my horse, and rode for the gate. Again, I was able to get there without any encounters or challenges from the watch. The men at the gate must have been given my description and told to let me pass because I had barely slowed my horse when they gave the signal to lift the portcullis. The moon had risen higher in the sky, its light much brighter now that it was nearly at its zenith. It didn’t take long to find the site that was to be the battlefield, and only a short while longer to find the Crimson Wolves banner, hanging limply in the breezeless night.

Our group was but part of a larger host that consisted mainly of Ophirean soldiers, part infantry and part cavalry, with Tullweim situated in the middle and bearing the Sceptre of Ophir. I quickly advised him of my finding and freeing of the prisoner and of the slaying of the royal torturer that had kept me from joining the others in obtaining the sceptre. I then was assigned a group of Ophirean cavalry – some of Lady Synelle’s men – with which to ride, and moments later the battle began.

Despite having a reasonable amount of military experience among us, to say that our advance was chaotic would understate it greatly. My preference would have been to form a classic phallanx – an arrowhead formation designed both for immediate penetration of the enemy’s formation as well as solid protection for the flanks. Any orders issued by Tullweim were ignored, whether due to individual zeal or an inability to hear over the din I don’t know. The Stygian crossed with his men from their initial position to come to a halt a few yards in front of me, while the Hyrkanian moved in with his men to take a position next to Dhak and his riders. This effectively cut me off from the fighting, and I had to double back with my men toward the outside of our ranks to get a good idea of how the formation of both armies looked and where I should attempt to strike. I decided to hit the cavalry at the front of their left flank and moved to engage them, Lady Synelle’s men crashing into their ranks alongside me. It was during the heat of this particular melee that the entire battle was momentarily interrupted by events of extremely ill portent. The ground suddenly began to tremble violently, causing horses to rear in fright and foot soldiers to reel drunkenly as they tried to maintain their balance while battling for their lives. A sound accompanied the tremors – a long, eerie note shrilled from a horn, constricted by the oppressiveness of the night air, coming from the direction of Tol’Alkiir. I risked a glance in the direction of the accursed hill and saw otherworldly lights ghosting about its summit, and for just a moment it seemed as if the moon itself had a blue cast about it. Men from both armies broke rank and fled the battlefield in terror, preferring to face penalties for desertion than to spend another second in the presence of such unearthly evil. The tremors ceased as quickly as they began and both armies prepared to rejoin the battle, but I didn’t have to pay attention to the look in anyone’s eyes to know that they were just as haunted by these unnatural occurrances as was I.

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Cuana Chapter 8 Entry 9

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