Hyboria! H5E93: Heart of Darkness

The company

“This ought not to take long. As I guessed, they threw everything they could scrape together at us back at the ruins. My other guess is they will only have the chiefs left, lurking around the gate. Maintain your station here; keep a sharp lookout; watch for our fire-arrow. That will be the signal that we are pulling out.”

Thus spake Bardic: and, leaving Russ muttering about grandmothers and eggs, he shouldered his kit of tools and spare weapon, and without further speechifying strode off with the “charge-in team” in the direction of the shadow-shrouded temple lying squat athwart the sands some 200 yards distant. Herez Wolf-kin lifted a hand in salute as the magnificent seven departed: Phaedra Grey merely watched them leave.

Bardic: bar16/ftr4, St20 Dx13 Cn14 In10 Wi10 Ch10. Init+1, BAB+20, F16 R7 W6+3. HP142, MV40’.

Gimmicks: d12+2 ‘ancestor’ great-sword, greater rage adds 6 to St and Cn, Leadership 23 can help in some situations.

Celo (no player this session): rog15/rgr5, St14 Dx22 Cn13 In 14 Wi13 Ch16. Init+10, BAB+16, F10 R17 W7+3. HP70, MV30’.

Gimmicks: d8+2 ‘relic’ short-sword, Impr Feint allows feint as move action in combat, 6 attacks in full-round combat, 8d6 sneak attack damage.

Keth: ftr10/sch3/cle3, St20 Dx13 Cn16 In13 Wi14 Ch16. Init+5, BAB+13, F14 R8 W9+3. HP96, MV25’.

Gimmicks: Wears a belt that carries the spirit of Jamalla (Cle20); d6+2+d8electrical staff, Trips and Sunders combined with Whirlwind attack.

Morath: rog19/rgr1, St16 Dx20 Cn14 In11 Wi14 Ch13. Init+9, BAB+15, F10 R15 W7+3-2. HP78, Mv30’.

Gimmicks: d8+2 ‘relic’ short-sword, 10d6 sneak attack damage.

Kayan (NPC): ftr16, St16 Dx22 Cn16 In13 Wi12 Ch11. Init+5, BAB+16, F14 R10 W4+3+2=8. HP123. Mv30’.

Gimmicks: d8+2 ‘relic’ short-sword, 6 attacks in full-round combat, advantage in seeing through illusion and disguise.

Forgrim (NPC): ftr16, St20 Dx12 Cn18 In12 Wi12 Ch9. Init+1, BAB+16, F14 R6 W6+4. HP168, Mv20’.

Gimmicks: heavy armor combined with shield-bash technique.

Vikos (NPC): ftr16, St20 Dx13 Cn18 In10 Wi10 Ch10. Init+1, BAB+16, F14 R6 W5+3. HP128, Mv25’.

Gimmicks: powered overwhelming sunder adding 5 to St.

 

Some strategy required

The temple’s entrance was flanked by twin pylons. The approaching questers found it hard to estimate height and size: the whole seemed shrouded in an intense gloom that reminded them of Cresh’s manor in the Barachas. They skirted it a little first, this way and that, and stopped within easy bowshot.

“I’d guess an inner courtyard,” Bardic mused. “Maybe two. The walls seem long, don’t you think?”

“Yes, remember Luxur? That raised section of stone mid-wall might be a mid-rib arched passage between two courtyards,” Morath agreed.

“I’d rather not just rumble in if we don’t have to,” Bardic continued.

“We brought everything including pulleys, if you want to get Keth and Forgrim up the wall,” Morath reminded him.

“That could take a lot longer than us going over then linking with a rumble-through brigade.”

“Sound all right to me,” Morath agreed.

“Still I don’t like to just let them get hit by whatever the enemy has ready,” the Cimmerian continued, “so Celo, are you up for searching for traps through the gate?”

“It never hurts to help!” Celo agreed enthusiastically.

 

 

Here Be Demons!

Making quick work of the scramble, Bardic and Morath vaulted onto a broad stone parapet. But before they could do more than register that the darkness was still present, something winged and large descended from the nearest pylon with a fearsome screech! Morath slunk back readying for what his fighting-partner would do. The swooping thing speared Bardic a sharp blow with its war-fork and at the same time, an ash-like cloud surrounded both men, stinging and burning into exposed skin! With a blur of shining metal the ancestor-sword was drawn and bisected the creature, which dissolved, affording only a dim glimpse of beak and talons. But already another such being could be glimpsed!

Alerted by the screech, Keth cried:

“Our comrades are under attack! Forward!”

“Hey I hadn’t fin…” Celo began then shrugged as Forgrim and Vikos rushed past him to the far gateway into a courtyard so dark no detail could be seen. “Oh well, that’s another way of checking for traps!”

But even as Forgrim and Vikos reached the cover afforded by the open gate’s columns, two whips snaked out and tangled their weapons!

The wielders were huge, dark, winged demons, each bearing a vast sword and whip, and now each sword burst into dark flames as they pulled the burly men toward them!

Kayan dashed up to the gate, his swords flicking out. He cut Forgrim’s tangling cord. Vikos turned the tables on his attacker: instead of straining back, he launched forward, smashing his great hammer into the creature’s sword, shattering it and driving the great being back into the courtyard wall! It fell and Vikos raised his hammer for another stroke!

Celo moved with Kayan, but rather than trying for a tricky cut to free Forgrim, vaulted around the demon, taking a massive cut from the sword as he did so, but ramming his relic-sword deep in the thing’s leg. Keth smashed its sword, Forgrim rammed it, it fell and Celo finished it off, sending it back to hell.

The other fallen demon struggled back to its feet, wings beating, under a flurry of blows. With one final leap and smash Vikos beat it to death as it flapped up over his head.

Meanwhile atop the wall Morath and Bardic had dealt with three more screeching, spore-raining demons, all of which seemed to be intent on killing Bardic. He and Morath hastily drank an antidote each, and clambered down to assess the damage overall.

“I’ll take another antidote thanks,” Morath announced and Bardic did the same.

“So that went about as well as expected,” Bardic summed up buoyantly. “Don’t let the place get to you. It’s creepy but we’ve seen creepy before.”

“We feel fine! As long as we are near good old Keth!” Celo assured him.

“Holy Jamalla is sending her courage to all near me,” Keth agreed, referring to the shade of a long-dead servant of Mitra who – in theory – had the power to sunder the gate.

“Then I hope it keeps fine for her,” Morath snarled darkly.

“Hush now! I hear children crying!” Bardic warned.

The Mediator’s Last Taunt

Straining their eyes, and with the aid of the potion Keth had given them, Celo Morath and Kayan peered through the next gateway to an inner courtyard.

Four pairs of children stood in a rough circle: each child clutched a knife and pressed it to the other’s throat. They were crying with fright: unable to break the compulsion, but aware of every moment. A now-familiar diamond-shaped face towered over them.

“It’s that woman! She works illusions! We need to just charge and get her!” Morath advocated.

“What do you think?” Bardic asked Kayan.

“I don’t think they can be illusions… but I’m not sure.”

Bardic Keth and Morath discussed options for a few moments, then Bardic murmured a plan.

 

Keth stepped boldly through the gateway and addressed the face at the far end of it so:

“So! We meet again!”

Her violet eyes seemed to glow venomously and she seemed to stand even taller, if that were possible:

“Yes we do! And this will be your final warning: and so that you understand it, I have prepared an entertainment! These brats will kill each other slowly while you watch: and then I shall retire to ready your final doom should you be witless enough not to heed!

“And heed this!”

She threw back her fuligin cloak, and now revealed rose on a great serpentine lower half, raising six mighty swords with her six arms.

“She’s monologuing! Now!”

 

Vikos and Keth burst across the courtyard and charged – not the demonic woman, but the children! Blades smashed around Keth’s armor as he whirled his staff, but so good were his defenses that they did no damage! Vikos swung his hammer aiming for accuracy not power: he smashed first one knife, then the other. Two children safe! But Vikos too was sore hurt.

Morath raced forward then broke left, steering well clear – or so he thought! A flick of her tail sent him crashing into the wall, to fall sick and dizzy.

Kayan charged, flicking his swords like lightning: but her defenses were excellent as well, and he barely scratched her flank. And his lightning reflexes could not prevent him being cut three times.

Celo aimed a poisoned arrow from the gateway, but the arrow veered well wide. He drew his relic sword and loped forward.

Bardic raged, raced forward and leaped over the children, cutting the demon’s shoulder deeply but not enough to make her drop a sword. In reply, the blows rained on him heavily and blood ran freely from his flanks and neck. The six children still with knives began cutting one another’s throat, slowly.

Then Keth struck! His whirling silver staff stunned all six. With a scream of anger, the demoness retreated. Forgrim charged across the courtyard, past Keth, to smash his shield into the demon: but her tail gave her plenty of stability and instead it was the big man that was flung back.

Making no mistake this time about avoiding attacks, Morath tumbled around her to prevent her retiring through the final gate. He stabbed his relic sword deep in her back. Kayan again scored a nick in her hide. Then Celo’s voice came from behind Bardic:

“Anu!! Up and away!”

Bardic instinctively ducked, hunching his shoulders: Celo jumped, launched himself off the Cimmerian’s back, and somersaulted over the woman, burying his relic-sword in her neck as he did so. The blade snapped, but she was badly hurt! Vikos smashed her on one side and Bardic on the other: and she fell, writhing and rolling in her death-throes like a gigantic serpent! Keth and Forgrim dragged the children clear.

“I need some help here!” Keth called.

 

The lower temple

Children made safe and escorted back to the horses, Bardic rejoined his crew, strapping on his breastplate. “How’s it looking?” he asked.

“Tracks a-plenty, leading down the ramp.”

“And that smell, part carrion, part dog.”

“Hyena lair, huh? Thought so. Ready torches and form up: it’s slow and steady from here. All potions drunk? Let’s head out!”

The ramp led down to a large chamber, with plenty of sign that this was used as camel yards as well as for hyena-men and other creatures. Stove-in or heavily-used boxes and barrels around the walls gave evidence of long occupation by men and other things that needed to eat and drink. Heavy sigil-covered doors sealed some inner chamber while a pair of tunnels offered left or right exits.

Keth studied the sigils.

“It is hard to guess the age of this place and I am no scholar of ancient times, but it could mark the temple of the ghoul-god, worshipped from Acheronian times?” he speculated.

The right-hand tunnel led to accommodation for hyena-men. The left hand tunnel led to a convocation room of sorts, then around to a long dark stretch of tunnel. A faint carrion smell persisted near the next door. Bardic had it wedged shut. “Better safe than sorry,” as he said.

 

A last puzzle

“I can’t be sure but I think there’s a secret door just left of the next fork,” Celo announced from his scout vantage. Morath checked the ground where the Tauranian was looking. “Yep, snakey woman was here: she came out from the wall there.”

The secret entrance was bashed in. “More tunnel. Hmm, maybe someone who is you know, Zamorian and has an affinity for tombs and tunnels should take over,” Celo suggested, dropping back to rearguard.

Morath led off, noting that the wall frescoes seemed blasted as though by storms, and fine drifts of sand lay in crevices. “Trouble,” he muttered.

Sure enough the wind picked up to such an extent that only the strength of the warriors advancing allowed them to push forward, and only extreme nimbleness allowed them to keep torches lit. Each torch still only illuminated a small dismal circle around the holder, so every second person wielded one.

As he probed forward, near-blind, Morath felt rather than heard a click and ducked double just in time to avoid a colossal axe-blade scything out across the tunnel.

Once past the wind-and-axe trap, the tunnel seemed deathly quiet. “There’s a black door off to the right,” Morath announced, “but I can’t see any handle.”

Studying the set-up, the few at the fore could see that the solid ebony door could be pushed up manually, using two stanchions that jutted out from it. Vikos and Forgrim stepped forward, setting aside their weapons and Forgrim his shield.

After some straining – made a little harder by Forgrim not actually speaking – they got their count right and surged up as high as they could reach, while Kayan jammed Forgrim’s shield under the door. Bardic rolled through, torch in one hand and the mighty sword he thought of as Kull’s in the other.

 

The guardian of the gate

Bardic rose, lofting the torch, and gaining a momentary impression of two pillars near at hand in a large chamber: then from the dark a tentacle lashed out and slammed around him! He clove it: and as more tentacles lashed at him, those were cleft apart as well! Each stroke contained some foul poison that sent his mind reeling, back to the primitive age before ages, where the demon was born:

From the dark we came

To the dark we drag you

From chaos we came

To chaos we pull you

For harm we come

To harm we consign you

From dust

To dust

Lungs screaming, legs shaking, Bardic noted dimly that his torch had fallen and gone out. Then as though years later, another form leaped past him, and snarled:

“Die already!”

He blinked: the light seemed to grow: then realized that the material darkness that had swathed the temple was fading rapidly away. Morath stood smugly a few feet away from him, watching the last of the demon boiling away.

“Hee hee, kidneys! Always nice to get the kill! I do have a rep to maintain!”

 

The high priestess departs

“I do not know if I have enough power to close the final gate. If not, it may need your relics to be sacrificed.”

Thus warned Jamalla. With the masking darkness and enchantments now vanished, she had easily been able to locate the final gate below the last chamber.

“Mitra guide you, holy one! I look forward to our final meeting in Mitra’s care!” Keth replied. The priestess took near-solid form, raised her hand in final blessing, and walked away from the group towards the strange shifting colors that marked the last gate.

As before, a preliminary chamber contained views of the other four gates on its walls. This was where the others were watching from. Something about them was bothering Bardic: but even as he peered, then cursed, Jamalla’s form strode into the final gate, and disappeared. After a tense moment, the gate’s colors shifted violently, then went blank, leaving stone: but only for a moment. First the gate-chamber and then the annex began crumbling, and the onlookers hastened back and out.

 

The end?

With the temple collapsing behind them, and thankful that they had left all doors open behind them, the seven burst out onto the sands and gained distance before throwing themselves down to rest.

“I’ll send up an arrow in a minute… if they haven’t worked out that it’s over,” Celo panted.

“I think they may have guessed,” Kayan replied dryly.

“So, we’re all alive, we have food water and mounts, where to?” Keth wanted to know.

“If we are working backward from Cala’s trail, and we want to dodge the army that’s still out there, I’d say make for the lake area where those ratmen hail from,” speculated Bardic.

Others had other opinions but with a highly skilled ranger with them, any option would be viable so long as they had money to pay her with. Victory brought dreams of retirement: Morath to Cala’s stud farm, Keth to re-rebuilding his monastery. Bardic was silent on the subject. It was a little later that Morath decided to probe indirectly:

“What was that you saw on the wall, Bardic?” Morath asked, his paranoia still working.

“Something we probably should have seen coming.”

“So what? You were kind of looking at the mosaic of the gate under Edric’s, weren’t you?”

“Those mosaic tiles that formed the gate?” Keth verified. Bardic nodded:

“He always was fascinated by ancient secrets…”

“So?”

“Just before the place crumbled… I had a glimpse of him putting the tiles back together.”

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Hyboria! H5E92: Destiny in the Desert, Part Two

Before the last water-hole

It had been three nights and three days of travel across the burning waste that lay between the dried lake and the next real water-hole. Seven of the camels had now perished, and even mighty Forgrim was down to a stumbling walk. The horses, though unladen, were in sad shape.

Bardic finished running through the plan with his comrades Celo and Morath, and the mercenary ranger Phaedra Grey. He was loath to see both rogues go, but as Morath pointed out, if the big tiger turned on them, two would be needed.

Keth joined Bardic, and watched them go without offering to bless them. Phaedra had surprised him by demanding his pledge that should she die, her bow and gold be delivered to the nearest Ashtoreth temple in Hyborian lands, which suggested she had some kind of piety. Which was more than could be said for the other two.

They watched the trio fade away into the shimmering heat-waves. As best the mirages would allow guessing, they faced only a short walk before reaching the ruins around the water-hole. There, they were to hunt down the mage that must be there to control the great cat, kill him, and try to suggest to the cat that it should move on.

 

It worked!

An hour passed and with the horses and camels becoming uncontrollable it was time to let them seek out the water. Even as the eight travelers struggled to keep them off the ruined stone flags, a signal arrow arced over the ruins and landed there by the caravan.

 

“The plan worked perfectly,” Celo reported, sounding very surprised. “I spotted the mage, told Phaedra to shoot where I was shooting, and he tumbled dead.”

“Then we annoyed the tiger – which by the way was as big as two houses, not just one – but only enough to get it to move on,” Morath concluded.

 

At the last water-hole

Later, with horses, camels and travelers watered, the ruins yielded some further information. Some thirty corpses, most likely caravaneers, were stacked up in a ruined tower like logs waiting for splitting. Each had a Zugite coin, marked with a necromantic rune, under its tongue.

“So we killed two birds with one stone. We got rid of the tiger and we didn’t meet risen dead,” Celo concluded.

“I’m uneasy about those strange clouds in the desert. They supposedly mask forces,” Morath responded.

“Yeah, both Russ and Herez seem pretty sure about that,” Bardic growled.

“And more will be gathering. Like you said, the demons are gathering everything they can scrape together,” Morath persisted.

“We need to move on,” Bardic conceded, “and once Kayan agrees with my sight-line, and I’ve got day-landmarks and star-pointers, we’ll move out.”

Two days later, all were recovered from fatigue, and Vikos’ arm had healed from the vicious Hyena-bite he had sustained in the fight at the lake bed. A feeling of tension ran throughout the company. Not nervousness, or not that alone. Exactly how far they were yet to travel was unsure, but perhaps two days would be enough? And more mystical fogs were now moving in. They could guess that they were being surrounded.

 

The ruined fort

“Rouse yourselves and work like dogs!” Bardic bellowed. “Stones can be moved, rope can be lashed, and pits can be dug! We’re not dead yet by Crom!”

As expected, the course chosen had led true to this ruined fort, the last major landmark prior to the lone temple that must cover the last gate. But the enemy had been gathering from four points of the compass even as they arrived at it, and now they were surrounded.

The fort offered limited protection. There were no roofs left, but an old stone barracks was large enough to hold the horses and camels crammed in together, and the entry gate-towers offered elevated archery-posts.

The main (south) gate: the rope ladders were rigged so that Celo and Phaedra could raise them once a few of the enemy had entered, hopefully allowing a few to be dealt with at a time.

The east gate: Stone blocks were levered over and the entrance changed to a false entrance, leading north, to another blocked off alley.

Over a third of the perimeter was virtually gone. The company dug pits and planted caltrops there between remnants of walls. The rear or north gate was trapped with concealed pits with silver-tipped arrows turned into punji sticks.

This was because the enemy had now cleared its fog and was preparing for battle: and to the north, hyena-men and were-hyenas were gathering, presided over by a massive hyena lord.

To the north-west, camel-riding Zugites were preparing.

To the east, perhaps readying for the dawn, dusky-skinned Jhilites were drumming and howling.

To the south, it looked as though a company of ghouls would be first to attack.

 

The hyenas

Keth cast a charm on Rollo’s tulwar, allowing it to harm were-beings, then the five main defenders – he, Rollo, Kayan, Vikos and Bardic – rushed the north gate. Morath shadowed Keth, having been warned to stay out of the main fighting. The berserk hyena-men, each wielding twin tiger-claws, were used as human trap-clearing devices as they rushed over the punji pits and trampled each other. Some were-hyenas bounded over the low walls, others followed their berserkers. The huge hyena-lord shifted his shape into a two-legged hybrid and stalked majestically over his dead.

Vikos’ great hammer smashed men to pulp or threw hyenas down. Keth tripped those around him, allowing Morath to finish them easily. Bardic clove two or three apart at once. Kayan fought defensively at Bardic’s back, his blades whirling and cutting down any that sought to outflank his leader. Rollo surged on deeper and deeper into the midst of the enemy, screaming with unholy glee as he lopped heads off. Careless of his own safety, his armor quickly hung in tatters and his skin was flayed back as deep as the bone.

Finally all but the hyena lord and two last were-hyenas had fallen: Morath rolled past them, and came up behind the huge were-lord. Bardic leaped high and sliced his destiny blade through the great-creature’s skull: it fell.

Keth pressed a healing potion on Rollo and on Vikos, who had taken further hurt during the battle. “Get yourself into cover,” Bardic advised the huge man.

 

Morath’s sortie

“Our only chance against those ghouls is for the sorcerer behind them to be taken out.”

With those words it only remained for a volunteer. Celo and Phaedra were standing watch atop the eastern gate-tower, so Morath set out alone.

“We’ll be sending fire-arrows out at the ghouls, so make the best of that you can,” Celo encouraged Morath.

With the gentle night breeze running to northerly, Morath swung wide, then looped back in. As he stole from dune to dune, he could see the rise and drop of fire arrows, and hear shrieking and gibbering from ghouls: the attack had begun! But all to the good: the sorcerer was so intent on directing his charges he had no idea of the danger until Morath’s sword went through his back!

Making sure the man was dead, Morath hastened north back to the fighting. His skin crawled at the thought of what else might be prowling the night.

 

Rollo dies

The fight was white-hot around the main gate. Ghouls are immensely strong and durable and a mere cut will do very little. It takes a mighty blow to break one’s bones. And once they take a hold, they rend with tooth and claw.

One leaped high, grasping the lip of the ruined gate-tower Celo was shooting from. Phaedra’s bow thrummed and it lost its grasp and fell back into the broil below. The rope ladders had worked reasonably well: Bardic Rollo Keth and Forgrim could push them and crowd them back into one another, allowing Celo to pick off the wedged-in ones. Forgrim’s smashing shield-attack excelled in this, but Rollo’s tactic of leaping in to smite off heads proved fatal. One ghoul seized an arm, another closed its jaws in his leg, and he fell to be buried under the foul mass.

Bardic smote right and left, clearing a path for Kayan to fall back to. The lightly-armored fighter was doing very little damage and things were going badly. Then Morath struck! Ghouls that had previously thought their prey was to the fore were struck dead from behind. Vikos joined in, smashing ghouls down so they could be killed with ease by the rogues, until he too fell.

Panting for breath as the last few ghouls fled off into the waste, they looked about them. Bardic dug under a pile of ghouls.

“Rollo’s been torn apart: nothing we can do.”

“Couldn’t have happened to a nastier bastard,” Morath commiserated.

“Vikos will be all right: I’ve fed him a couple more potions,” Keth reported.

 

The arrow storm

“Dawn! The sun rises and the Kushites are moving! Russ cried from his lookout post.

“Ware arrows! They will darken the sky!” Herez cried.

“To your cover!” Bardic cried.

Much earlier, even as pits had been dug, the saddle bags, tools and tents had been converted to arrow-stopping shelters. Now all ten defenders crowded alongside the horses under them. The sky blackened and arrows drummed down, shaft after shaft. And the Jhilites moved forward, shooting as they came!

 

The final defense

Perhaps it was a mistake or perhaps he believed the defenders were still sheltering. Either way, the witch-man strode forward from among his Jhilite followers and gestured impressively from well within 200 feet of the defenses. As yellowish fog rolled out and up from his fingers, several answering longbow arrows smote him, driving right through him and pinning his corpse to the sand. The cursed fog disappeared, the Jhilites cried out in dismay, and halted their advance. Then they fell back to their original position.

Across the ruins on the far side, the camel-mounted archers wheeled back and reported to their own sorcerer. There would be no attack out of the dawn sun: instead, the Zugites would have to attack with the sun in their eyes.

 

Granted a brief respite Bardic made his final dispositions. They would fall back into the alleys between walls, finally retiring on the barracks. Vikos was back in action, though still battered, and Forgrim was ready to hold the line. Bardic strapped on his breastplate: this would be a press, not a loose skirmish.

“Do you think you can snipe the sorcerer from somewhere here?” he asked Celo.

“I’ve got the light and they won’t see me concealed on the busted corner tower,” Celo replied confidently.

“Right, that’s you and Phaedra: if you can see him, get him.”

“I’ll take some more poisoned arrows,” Celo told his archery mate.

“One gold per five arrows,” she replied promptly.

The Zugites raced their camels in, flanked by foot skirmishers. As they hit the pits along the perimeter, a whole rank of camels tumbled and Herez, screaming in glee, poured arrows at his hated foes. Then the remaining Zugites were inside and the whole become one boiling melee.

Celo took his chance: he knew he could not wait longer, lest the dying Zugites become zombies. He nodded to Phaedra, who stood:

“Ashteroth’s Fury!”

Phaedra sent a deliberate shot, then another. Immediately after her first, Celo sent a volley of arrows arcing far over the sand. The tiny dot that was the sorcerer described a half-circle, and fell flat.

“Got him! Pitch in lads!” Celo bellowed triumphantly.

The Zugites trapped themselves in their headlong charge, and were cut apart by the dozen as their foes used the ground to their advantage. Very quickly the survivors at the front began pressing back against the rear ranks, making for even easier targets. And within a few minutes the ragged remnants were trying to leap back upon their camels and flee.

And seeing this crushing defeat, the Jhilites withdrew, fading off east and south.

Victory!

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Hyboria! H5E91: Destiny in the Desert

Allies and Hirelings

Kayan Haduk, Ftr15, Bardic’s cohort. A Hillman of medium build who keeps his head shaven, Kayan follows the Asuran cult and wields twin Zingaran longswords. He’s just been given a relic short-sword, which has boosted his attacking abilities. His ‘gimmicks’ are his faith-based ability to spot illusion and disguise, and Haste once/day.

Forgrim, Ftr15, hired ally. His origins are unknown; he is large, bald and his visible skin is covered with ritual tattoos and scars. He fights heavily armored with a heavy shield, battleax and back-up Poll axe. His ‘gimmicks’ are both faith-based: +4 bonus to Will against fear effects (which does not stack), and reroll ability on Fort saves.

Rollo the Hand of Blood, Bar10/Nom5, hired ally. A powerful Ghanata with terrible facial and bodily scars, Rollo wields a huge tulwar. He is a master of the harsh desert. His ‘gimmick’ is an empowered, tricked-up charge move that combines Leaping charge, Decapitating slash and Devastating sweep (all prestige moves). As a ‘local’ he can recharge this power.

Vikos Kullwood: Ftr15, hired ally. A Hyperborean of immense stature and tattooed, battered features, Vikos wields a Great Hammer (or Maul). Compared to Forgrim he is lightly armored. His ‘gimmicks’ are an empowered Awesome Blow which typically knocks foes back or down, and an empowered version of Bull-Rush. Since Vikos worships Bori he cannot recharge these so they will be last resort only.

With the characters Bardic, Celo, Morath (all L20) and Keth (L16 but with the shade of a L20 Priestess in reserve) these men make up the ‘charge in’ team.

They are guided/accompanied by:

Herez Wolf-kin, Nom6, Bardic’s follower. A typical wiry Zuagir who has tied his people’s fate to Bardic’s success, he has some modest abilities with animals and tracking. He is familiar with both Zuagir bow and lance.

Phaedra Grey, Rgr7/Rog3, hireling. A tall woman who is never without her longbow, and who callously follows the mercenary code. Her ‘gimmicks’ are an empowered attack with her bow, and an empowered ability to enhance cover or concealment. These are Ashtoreth-derived so can be recharged in this region.

Russ Cliff-path, Exp3/Rog5 hireling geezer. He’s been there, seen that, and things were always bigger better or badder back in his day.

Together these 11 make a morally-grey expedition. Kayan and Keth count as ‘good guys’ while Bardic and Forgrim follow a code. Celo has a rep as a happy go lucky guy but is really about as cold-blooded as Morath.

 

Logistics

I had no expert source for camel needs, so estimated 18 camels based on the 400lb lading for pack camels. I already had 12 horses (11 riders, one pack horse from previous journey). That gave me a grand total of 30 mounts. In the desert, the horses would be reserve. The players were taking supplies seriously so I also doubled the average cost per camel to cover all standard supplies. That way if someone wants a shovel it’s there, without having to compile an inventory.

I asked Keth to fix his spell list. He can’t recharge, so (like Vikos) spells are for emergencies. The decision about antidotes was made at the same time: 16 non-magical ones.

Guardsman Nafor allowed our heroes to slip out of Shushan with as little notice as a caravan of 30 beasts heading for Kuthchemes might possibly attract.

Bardic, Morath and Celo arranged the order of march so that the van and rear were guided and guarded, with the ‘tanks’ in the middle and Bardic and old Russ a little forward of center. The caravan stretched about 600’ from scout to drag.

Order of march:

Rollo, Celo, a number of camels, Russ, Bardic, Herez, Vikos Keth and Forgrim, a number of camels, Kayan, Morath, Phaedra.

 

The first leg: the trail to Zamboula

Who’s on our back-trail?

Less than a day out, with those less-proficient at camelback travel still struggling, Phaedra reported to Morath:

“We are being followed. Do you want them discouraged, or dead?”

“Dead,” Morath decided.

Phaedra nodded and slipped away on the back-trail. Even Morath’s eagle eyes had difficulty picking her out. A feeling of something that almost passed for affection welled up in him. Even more so when on her return, she said:

“Don’t worry – I have plenty of poison doses left.”

The days and nights passed at camel-walk, without ceasing, from oasis to oasis. If they had not realized it before, all became aware that the horses were only there for tactical use. Light armor was worn under their loose Zuagir robes and head-dress, though for Forgrim that meant the under-padding of his hauberk. Phaedra wore light breeks under her robes, allowing glimpses of green and brown rune-patterns on her legs. The others wore either Zuagir trousers or their own leathers. With this manner of clothing the heat was bearable.

 

The second leg: towards Kuthchemes – challenges of the trail

The tiger

It was time to turn and head to Kuthchemes. After the weeks of monotonous caravan trail it was almost a relief to face the unknown. Russ and Rollo knew something of the route ahead but there was no set trail, only scattered oases that needed to be found. The rout order had worked well, so Bardic decided to stick with it.

A few days on, a broad belt of elephant-grass barred the route. Rollo noted that the edges of each blade were so sharp that those wearing only robes would be cut – and in all likelihood the sap from the grass would prevent clotting. (This was indeed much the same substance that Phaedra used on her arrows.)

Those with leathers thus moved to the van and began beating a trail through: Celo, Keth, Forgrim and Vikos. Keth switched to Yog’s Mace (slightly smugly – it was a base use for an evil relic). Forgrim used his shield, while Vikos used his great hammer like a flail. A mighty tiger, at least fifteen feet long, sprang out upon them! Its pounce failed to penetrate Vikos’ leather and it was promptly stabbed by Celo, struck by Keth, bull-rushed off Vikos by Forgrim, then Vikos crushed its skull withj one mighty blow from his great hammer!

“In my younger day, tigers grew twice that big,” Russ asserted.

 

Below the cliffs in the storm

Like it or no, the caravan would have to shelter under the honeycombed cliffs: Russ and Rollo could both see a storm approaching.

“None know exactly what those rock chambers are for. If once there were folk living there, it was so long ago that even legend has forgotten them,” Russ explained.

Though Bardic had cautioned all to be alert, the chance to rest in shade, combined with the endless roar of the sand blasting over the cliffs, lulled he and several others to sleep.

Morath’s paranoia however kept him awake. He couldn’t escape the feeling that something was above them, watching them.

To climb up in the storm was insane, so once the storm passed, he relayed this to Bardic and the two clambered up. Naturally, there was no trace of anything – the sand-storm had seen to that even if there had been some physical trace – but the view from the cliff gave them fresh information.

“Down over yonder – that great rock – it has human features”

“Aye, and see – tribesmen riding out from under its shelter,” Morath agreed.

“They’ve come out to shovel off the doorstep,” Bardic joked, then commented, “We’re not looking for a fight unless they are hostile – let’s get our smiling Celo rolled out.”

The Zuagir believed the human face – be it natural or otherwise – to be the face of an ancient god. Luckily, the god was not one of the cults opposed to the adventurers. These tribesmen cautiously accepted Celo’s story that they were passers-by, and shared hospitality.

 

The destined blade

The storm had thrown much loose sand across the landscape, and the next three days were particularly difficult. Fine sand plastered everyone’s face and filtered in through even the best-wrapped cloth. Tempers became frayed.

Bardic knew that with men of the ilk of Rollo and Vikos, a minor upset could lead to mass death. He gathered the men and addressed them, reminding them that they needed to stick together and act as comrades for the while.

“Will you show them your blade, captain?” Russ asked.

Bardic drew the great blade that he thought of as Kull’s blade, and told of its taking.

The men, impressed, took the special destiny of the mission to heart and curbed their violent natures to Bardic’s will. Kayan Haduk felt a special pride at following Bardic in this crucial time, and practiced with his longswords diligently.

Kayan gains Ftr16 as Bardic’s Leadership rises by 1 reflecting his ‘special power.’ Kayan takes GreatCrit, making twin longswords deadly, though his attack is still higher wielding relic short-sword and longsword together.

They that burrow

After some clever work by Rollo, who seemed to have no equal when it came to navigating the desert, they found the next oasis. The storm had left a crust of sand over what could best be termed a bog. It would have to be dug out. Clouds of stinging insects made the spade-wielders’ job miserable, and the camels and horses complained loudly: they could scent water but not reach it.

Keth, laboring with his usual humble enthusiasm, spotted burrows in the mud, about two hands broad.

With this to raise the level of watch that night, Bardic was easily able to catch the clicking, rattling sound of huge scarab beetles taking to the air in quest of flesh!

These oily black scarabs were extremely hard of carapace, and only a really solid blow would bring one down. Before all twenty were smashed, some of the horses had been given painful wounds. One horse, Herez’ mount, was dead: Vikos had missed his scarab and smashed the horse instead.

Celo, Keth, Herez and Rollo were willing to work up poultices for the beasts, though at first Bardic was inclined to follow Phaedra’s advice to just put them down.

Two further days rest was enforced while the horses recovered. The camels replenished their water, and everyone rested. Food stocks were diminished a little more than planned.

 

The wadi maze

Some days further, the path Rollo had chosen was broken by a number of deep crevices, yards wide. Rollo’s opinion was that these were wadis cut by flooding in the wet season, but that there was very little chance of flash-floods now.

Their faith in Rollo was rewarded by a series of days weaving through the relative cool and shade of the interconnected wadis. Vigilance and good tracking enabled them to cope with giant scorpions that enjoyed the wadi system without harm.

 

The mesas

On the horizon as they negotiated their way out of the wadi system were a series of regular-looking heights. Celo and Morath were inclined to believe them natural. Russ’ knowledge of them suggested the same, though he had a legend to add: that a hidden trail up one led to a hidden tomb and treasure!

“We might look for that on the way back,” Bardic averred skeptically, “but for now let’s just get by them and not get ambushed.”

This was accomplished, and by dint of careful scouting, they found themselves out on a narrow trail leading towards what they hoped was water.

 

The ambush at the dried lake bed

To their disappointment, however, the trail led to a dried lake bed, crusted with alkali, and part-flanked by the last crumbling buttes.

Rollo led the way along, looking for the best point to dig for water. Then from both flanks, the ambush was sprung!

Five powerfully-built hyena-men, each with a couple of Zuagir tribesmen running before them, burst up from the dried alkaline crust and loped down toward the caravan!

Those with bows – Celo, Herez, Morath and Phaedra – sent arrows upslope at the incoming tribesmen or hyenas. Celo and Morath had silver-tipped arrows. Herez had none, but nicked a tribesman and made back to his remount (the pack-horse), where his lance was lashed. The huntress readied arrows, calling on Ashtoreth, and knocked down two tribesman.

Near the back of the rout, from where he had begun running, Morath’s eagle gaze picked up an extra shimmer on the nearest butte: the presence of an invisible mage!

“Mage on the rocks! Ahead and above!” Morath yelled back to Phaedra, continuing his run forward. Celo switched to short-swords and engaged the oncoming tribesmen, Forgrim drew his poll-ax and halted to guard the camels, Vikos charged forward, swinging his great hammer savagely. Bardic chose a trio on the opposite flank, making a leaping charge to fell both tribesmen and knock down the hyena-thing. Keth whirled his staff until the sparks from its ends showered around him as he advanced on another trio. Kayan cried a command word and glided across the lake-bed with ease to attack a final trio. Finally, Rollo gave a terrible cry, veins bulging and pulsing on his scarred visage, and leaped amidst the trio that Vikos was assailing, smiting the heads off both tribesmen: their heads continued screaming as they rolled upon the ground!

Phaedra, guided by Morath’s cue, sent three arrows arcing far up, right over the caravan and into the invisible mage! With a choking scream he tumbled back off the butte.

Once all tribesmen and hyena-men were slain the adventurers took stock of their attackers. Celo searched them; but Morath and Phaedra traced where the mage had fallen.

They found him, buried back under some sand nearby. Morath held up his hand as Phaedra drew her hunting knife.

“Let’s not just kill him out of hand: he’ll have some things to tell us.”

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Hyboria! H5E91: Shushan Dancing

Year of the Dog: News and rumors around Shushan

Argos’ non-war with Zingara is rumored as a real war out here. A number of eastern-based mercenaries headed there, in much the same way that a number of Shem-based mercenaries headed to Koth.

Koth is undergoing a slow rebuilding process: the east is still not happy with Strabonus’ rule. Ophir, having survived war with Aquilonia surprisingly well, is back to its usual internal tension between east and west. The emissary from Ophir to Stygia did manage to secure the trade agreement, in spite of a diplomatic incident involving some rogue guards and a temple.

Brythunia and Zamora are beginning to suffer from raids out of Turan. Prince Yezdigerd, a possible successor to Yildiz, is a fire-brand and ambitious generals in the style of Shah Amurath (now deceased) are following his example. Turanian slavers use Zamboula as a base where Zuagir and Kushites can bring their slaves.

Child sacrifice seems to be at an end, at least in the west and south. The Flame Knife cult has fragmented into splinter cells, Becharadur is out of business, the Temple of Derketo in Stygia is no longer organizing anything, and the corsairs are reduced to individual commands.

However, two hitherto-minor cults, the Hyena god and the Ghoul god, have steadily grown in power since the fall of Natohk here in the east. Some say that other things than Natohk were unleashed from Kuthchemes. Others whisper that there is a sinister conspiracy that links all the worshippers of desecration, including the Kite god Jhil and Yog, god of empty abodes, who is widely worshipped among the Zuagir.

Shushan is a huge sprawling city of open-air bazaars, teeming with a mixture of races. Large numbers of children could easily be bought here with none to wonder exactly what use they are being put to…

 Re-acquainted

“Well met, my friends! How has the desert treated you?”

Keth’s booming voice welcomed Celo and Morath as the four old comrades in arms met up once more. Both rogues dodged Keth’s bear-hug of greeting.

More practically, Bardic signaled for drinks and updated the others on what he and Kayan had been doing. A fair amount of the year had been spent getting to the border between Zamora and Koth, to Cala’s horse stud. Kayan had made some legal arrangements there and a little more money had been realized out of yearling sales.

Keth had spent weeks over the intervening seasons crafting various potions. He had brought with him 60 pounds of potion bottles. He had not come bearing antidotes, since those could be bought in any large city from people that Morath and Celo would be far more likely to find than he would.

Morath and Celo were close-mouthed about what task or tasks the thieves of Nippr had set them to. Their weapons were sharp and their armor undamaged.

“Speaking of weapons, have you pair still not decided on who gets the third relic sword?” Bardic asked.

Celo shook his head ruefully.

“No, we haven’t had an all-out fight where we needed both so it’s been left up in the air. I’m thinking whoever can con the other into believing they deserve it, gets it.”

“Here’s another option: I’ll give it to Kayan. I got his swords silvered, but a real relic that burns through undead will be a huge asset in his hands.”

Morath and Celo were relieved at this option and both agreed to it readily.

 

We need some top talent

“The harpists still sing of our deeds, and I hear many in Shushan are already eager to join us, or help us,” Keth remarked later. “Not that anyone is saying what we are doing here – most stories say that we seek treasure around Kuthchemes.”

“Yeah, it’s weird, walking through a market with guards admiring me,” Celo chuckled. “When I was a kid, guards would be trying to catch me.”

“How did you cope in Nippr? Was your fame not a problem?” Bardic asked curiously.

“I went disguised, mostly.”

“Oh right, makes sense. Well, looking at what we need to do, I’m for hiring the best people we can get. Remember Roaring Pass? We didn’t go there until we had the best team.”

“Good mercenaries are expensive these days,” Morath muttered.

“And whose fault is that? I seem to remember it was you that demanded a thousand up front and a thousand on completion, from our buddy Edric!”

“Meh. Supply and demand. But here, it seems like most of the good ones went off to chase some war in Argos, or are over towards Turan somewhere.”

“Well, we need to keep our ears open. And think about specialists. We could need someone really good at getting into places and finding traps. Like Yemmi.”

“My skills aren’t shabby you know,” Celo pointed out, amiably enough.

“Or Cass, I’d love to get Cass…”

“We know you would…”

“…but her whole non-killing thing is a bit of a drawback. Speaking of non-killing, I’d really like that slab of no-talky metal we had back then to turn up. Except without the whole ‘puny men, you are beneath me, I sweep you away with my non-lethal shield’ thing.”

“Yeah, what was his name?”

The day passed in happy reminiscence. And then it was time for the panel of judges to assemble for:

 

The Ax-Factor: Shushan!

Ever seen the part of Whose Line Is It Anyway where the participants play “world’s worst…”? This was much the same with the GM doing an ‘instant sketch’ to suggest what kind of NPC was appearing.

It was funny, but I can’t write it all up here without taking thousands of words. Highlights: Keth thinking the weird mage would be ‘pretty handy’ to bring along; and, the players recognizing Forgrim as I mimicked silently taking a helmet off and signaling my price.

Category one: information or equipment

The ‘judges’ had some second thoughts during auditions and some contestants were sent to boot camp only to be axed. I’m still not sure if the judges fully understood that this category was about help in Shushan, not adventuring.

The finalists include Guardsman Nafor, a wiry middle-aged local guard; Desa Abani, an attractive middle-aged wise woman, Osusk Nar, an eccentric Alchemist, and ‘Mickey’ Fel, a paranoid fence.

 

Category two: less-skilled or cheap

This category reflected the fame of some of the judges, including hopeless amateurs, flashy fame-grabbers, and kids. The judging was easier since most of the decision making was around fighting ability.

The only finalist was Herez Wolf-kin, a Zuagir whose tribe had chosen the wrong side back during Natohk’s rise. He’s ruggedly masculine, dark and wiry like most Zuagir. Morath can guess that he probably has his own agenda but for now he will do as a guide.

Another surprise audition occurs for Celo only: see One-Night Stand, below.

 

Category three: experienced and pricey

This proved hard for the judges, in that very few could simply be ruled out at audition. After some agonizing there are still half a dozen left: in order of likelihood of hire they are:

Forgrim the Silent, bald and silent, covered in tattoos and ritual scars. He is a known quantity having fought alongside all of the others, and seems to agree with killing demons.

Rollo the Hand of Blood, a desert-crafty Ghanata and ruthless warrior who wields a mighty tulwar in combat. He is also a known quantity, having been a hireling of Bardic and Morath’s before. He also knows the trail from Shushan to Zamboula and knows where to turn off for Kuthchemes.

Russ Cliff-path, grizzled treasure hunter. Russ claims to have actually explored parts of Kuthchemes.

Vikos Kullwood, reformed thug. Enormously tall, tattooed and with a flattened nose, Vikos is the epitome of ‘meat shield.’

Phaedra Grey, hardened archer. A tall woman with stern features who keeps her dark hair back in a long ponytail. Celo is keen for range power and Phaedra is never without her longbow. The soulless pragmatism of this prostitute-turned-mercenary appeals to Morath.

Jedyah Pathfinder, vengeful huntsman. Raven-dark hair hangs over this Shemite’s tanned skin. His eyes are green, suggesting mixed parentage.

Category three’s capabilities are open to purchasing power. With a cap-level of L15 (as they can’t be higher-level than Bardic’s cohort) the players can buy their hires up by level, at a cost of 200 per level. But with only 11,000 worth of silver that’s going to limit them drastically.

 

Which brings us to…

 

One-night stand

“Hi Hirst, long time no see. I’m bored! Want to rob the local treasury?”

Deeply tanned and with short curly dark hair now, the wild society girl Celo knew as Bailey Zaid speaks Shemitish with a strong Corinthian twang. She goes by the name of Justina Sweetblade since she left Palena. Her small athletic frame has lost its puppy fat, and is now garbed in dark colors, and her gear is blackened. Her dun cloak helps her blend in with the arid lands.

She still loves danger, and sex in public places, and although she still bears something of a grudge – she believed that handsome Hirst had died horribly in the last days of the revolution, then discovered that Hirst was in fact the renowned adventurer Celo and is alive and well – it takes only the prospect of a fun night’s robbery and romping for her to get over that.

Checking back with the lads Celo gets endorsement for a quiet robbery to boost funds, so he and Bailey/Justina plunder a local source and Celo’s share is 2,800.

 

“All of that is all well, but that still only brings us to around 14,000 or something less. And camels aren’t free.”

“Not to mention those ‘certain things’ we might need to get from the alchemist,” Morath agreed.

“Any other prospects for treasure, then?”

 

Rob Yog’s Zombies

Morath had been shadowed; and at the point of a dagger the priest of Yog confessed where his plan had been to lure them; Desa Abani and Herez were both able to confirm that some sort of ancient tomb sacred to Yog was supposed to contain treasure. Guardsman Nafor conspired to allow them to slip quietly out of Shashur without an entourage.

 

This would have been an interesting exercise for some ‘boot camp’ work: whichever NPC survived would have shared the loot and been hired, but the characters are trying to turn a quick buck, not share it out and endure a high body count, so Herez guides the four plus Kayan to the locale not far out of Shashur.

They fate-point equipping with hefty bows, Celo having a +4Str longbow so he can use Bull’s Strength with it, and Morath taking a +2Str hunting bow as that is what his proficiencies extend to.

First impressions can be deadly – I mis-play another NPC making him “hiss” instead of “growl” when he stands up from amid his wolf pack to view the party. Morath makes a shot from the saddle at -8 for range and horseback, and wounds the lad. So no prospect of hiring him. But Bardic has already set a ‘no kids’ rule so it makes no difference.

 

“This valley contains the ancient tombs,” Herez pointed out. “Most are broken.”

“Smells damp,” Bardic commented.

“There is enough moisture in the ground for thorn trees and sharp grasses to grow,” agreed Herez. “Goats and Camels can graze, though your horses may struggle.”

Leaving Herez with the horses under some acacia, they unlimbered gear and made their way down the rough, stone-broken valley afoot. Herez had been up-front that he himself worshipped Yog, and since his attitude seemed to be ‘the point is an empty land, not a tomb where priests stash loot’ Bardic was willing to trust him with the horses, even Yildiz, Morath’s valuable gelding.

Whatever once closed the tomb entrance, it was now open. Celo and Morath searched the dusty steps – and walls – down to an entrance chamber where six dustily impressive columns supported the ceiling far above.

Morath checked the dust on the columns suspiciously. It was no evil explosive powder, but it did seem to conceal a translucency to the column. He jerked back with shock as he realized that inside the column a figure was frozen, in a posture of pain and torment.

“Bet it zombifies too,” he warned, drawing his relic sword. Sure enough it was glowing.

As they explored on through to a large and sturdy hardwood door, two shadow-like beings attacked, only to be withered in Mitra’s holy power.

The undead theme was continued throughout the tomb-raid. Keth’s circle of protection from evil and Turn Undead were used as they pushed past an extremely complex trapped iron door into the main tomb chamber. It was huge, discouraging detailed exploration. Loose tiles concealed zombies that rose to attack. The main risk was in taxing Keth’s Turning power too quickly so he was instructed to hold fire while the rogues and Kayan dealt with these minor nuisances with the relic swords.

Each zombie had a focal gemstone, more valuable than the normal jet bead sorcerers generally used.

The many columns of the main chamber flanked a nave dominated by two daises. The first held a sarcophagus, the second a statue of – presumably – Yog himself, pointing in menacing fashion.

Keth made what he could of the obscure relief and glyphs of the dais. Each side had a small circular depression where something like a largish ring could be placed.

It was time to explore a little wider out. Cutting down the occasional zombie that their feet triggered they moved right. The first and third chambers were disappointing while the second cost Keth another Turn Undead to deal with two flanking Wights: they chose to leave the “accursed by/of Yog” warrior in his side-chamber sarcophagus.

Intending to pass to the opposite side, Bardic noticed the corner seemed unusually bare for a dusty tomb. As they approached, a large skeletal creature, a few hideous veins seeming to pulse with sinister life, burst up and confronted them. Morath, who had been elected to probe the corner, scuttled back to Keth’s protection with a screech of fear. His relic sword was still firm in his grasp!

The great undead thing gave off a screech and three others of its kind emerged from the distant corners. The adventurers waited quietly. So long as they were within a few feet of Keth it seemed they could not be affected.

The four attacked simultaneously, but all five adventurers were ready with their best shots. Kayan did worst, as they were unnaturally hard to strike; but the blades of the others bit deep: then Keth toppled all of the creatures with cunning strokes of his staff. Being prone – and large – made them easy prey and they were finished without getting in a single attack.

Each bore a ring. Fitting each ring to its place on the dais unlocked the sarcophagus lid. But it also provoked a wraith-like shape to emerge from Yog’s statue! At the same time that they all readied for this opponent, Bardic’s keen ears caught the sound of the sarcophagus lid beginning to grind shut again. With a mighty hop-up he drew his Akbitanan dagger and wedged the lid open!

Meanwhile Keth battered the shape with another Turn Undead and Morath and Celo’s silver-tipped arrows persuaded it to go defend Yog someplace else.

The remains of whatever priest or ruler lay in the sarcophagus included some rich items. But Celo also matched the sinister bone mace it bore to a concealed niche in the underside of the lid. Operating it like a key caused the whole sarcophagus to slide across, revealing a cavity below it. And in that cavity were ancient gems, and relic bracers and a relic mace!

“Time to go!”

Even with the injurious rate of exchange Mickey Fel (the fence) will give them on the jewelry the characters now have over 20,000sp. Bardic is less happy when Desa Abani’s explanation of the bracers reveals that the name of Yog must be called on to operate them (mantle of protection equivalent). As he resolutely ignores gods, he is again forced to miss out on a relic. Keth is also dubious about using the mace to rebuke Yog’s followers and undead.

 

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Hyboria! H5E90: Restoration

Welcome back! Our heroes Bardic, Celo, Keth and Morath, and Bardic’s new cohort Kayan, have safely guided eleven children to an underground cavern of ultimate evil. They are surrounded by seven huge demons, and are facing the Mediator, a strange female who wears a fuliginous cloak over whatever lies beneath it.

 

She speaks: they listen – then bicker

Bardic checked his instinctive forward momentum, and seeing that, Celo, standing off to his right, also paused. The children clustered tight around Keth’s flanks while Morath made some space for himself off left of Keth and Kayan turned to face the demons to the group’s rear.

“You are wise!” The Mediator continued, “and I hope you will show further wisdom. I am not here to fight you, but to offer you a chance to avoid the worst fate that might befall you and any loved ones.”

Morath snorted.

“You must not know me! I am Morath, spiller of demon blood, and I have no ‘loved ones’!”

“Be patient, Morath dearest,” the impossibly tall woman urged sweetly, “My master has great hopes for you! You only need take a little time, heed a few wise words, and your feet will be firmly on the path your heart most desires!”

Meanwhile Keth tried to set Georg’s insistent, loud voice to one side:

“What are you waiting for, laddie-boy?!? The gate lies beyond and there’s a demon right there! Get on with it!”

“There are also children, and several other demons!”

“Huh! This is war! Shemite children or not, you have your objective! Attack, lad, always attack!”

“I fear Georg is right Keth,” Jamalla agreed, “closing the gate is your priority!”

“I’m extending you all the help I can,” continued the Mediator persuasively. “We are too big to fight. You’ve earned your fame. You deserve a break. And my master rewards those that deserve it. If you press on, what comes next will be much worse than anything you have met so far.”

Celo then responded to the Mediator. His words sounded thin, but still sane.

“All of that may be true, and you may be able to offer stuff and threaten other stuff. But we’ve already shut most of your malarkey down so really, shouldn’t you be asking us for terms?”

“Be done, demon!” Bardic growled. He ran through a number of options in his mind, trying to come up with an attack that would defeat seven other demons in short order and leave the children safe. He could think of none. But then his keen ears caught Kayan’s murmur:

“Those demons… all moving in lock-step – like a mirror image.”

A fierce satisfaction leaped through his veins and he measured out the steps between himself and the dais on which the demon woman stood.

Then charged!

 

The true guardian

Celo, who had been taking his cue from Bardic all along, ran with him, some dozen feet away. As Bardic leaped up at the woman, sword raised, the man from the Tauran rolled both his short swords in his hands and prepared to dive round her flank.

With a kind of smirk on her strange, diamond-shaped face, she disappeared.

As Bardic landed clumsily he was struck by a blast of cold fear rolling toward him from out of a throat-like tunnel now visible behind the dais. A huge roiling mass squeezed out of it and raised itself up into humanoid shape, towering above him! Burning red eyes locked on the Cimmerian’s!

Celo, slightly to one flank, noticed a couple of things that his barbaric comrade was too focused to:

  • First, the mass that made up the thing seemed composed of debris from the dungeon: bits of scarab body, fragments of bone and sarcophagus, and here and there the glint of gold funerary furniture.
  • Second, strange tentacular beings, almost transparent, were crepisculating out of the tunnel and extending foam-dripping pseudopods around the monster’s flanks.

Behind the lead pair Georg materialized and with a burst of raw power sent a searing lightning stroke blazing from his great-sword and into the monster!

Finally galvanized into action, Keth swatted the lead pair of children out of his path and lumbered forward. Morath darted left, while around Kayan, the children scattered shrieking, some this way, some that. The illusory demons were already fading, so Kayan turned to face front once more and moved forward with an easy grace.

Bardic chose not to waste his position on the dais: he jumped high, and slashed his great-sword across one flank. With his follow-through he cleaved the diaphanous forms of the tentacle spawn, dropping two of them.

Wham! A vast paw slammed down, engulfing the brawny Cimmerian and near-stunning him. With a mighty heave Bardic got his arms free but was still held struggling. He felt energy being leeched out of him. Part of the chunk cut out of the monster’s flank repaired itself as he struggled. Then with a further heave, he wrenched free and scooped up his sword from where it lay, and sliced back up into the monster’s leg.

Rumbling ‘that man deserves Mitra’s strength!’ Georg laid Bull’s Strength into Bardic and renewed his attack at close quarters.

Morath hung back at around the same range as Keth, and flung his silver dagger. It bit home.

Celo danced around it on the other side, trying to avoid the tentacles. But even as he stabbed his shining short-sword in, one vast paw slammed down on him and plucked him up! Showing his agility, he wriggled free, only losing one sword. Seeing it fall, Kayan darted in.

The monster slammed its next attack at Keth, but the burly cleric shook it off: then at Celo again; and again the wily rogue slipped free and darted clear. Frustrated by this, the monster seemed to pause in its relentless forward progress, enabling Bardic to strike it mightily. Sweeping up Celo’s artefact-sword, Kayan stabbed it. Jamalla now materialized as well, bending her Shemite bow and unleashing a divine bolt of power at the monster. That proved the decisive strike: it began crumbling, slowly at first then in an avalanche of choking detritus. Bardic and Kayan sprang clear, while Georg dematerialized.

 

The Paladin departs

“I am weakened, but I need to finish this. The gate lies beyond, laddie-boy! Get to it!” Georg urged.

The remaining few tentacle spawn were cut away and having assured the children they were safe, they pressed on, coming quickly upon a strangely-shaped room, like a truncated pyramid on its side. Each of the four sides – floor, ceiling and the two walls – had a faded, painted design upon it, though one seemed less faded than others. Beyond, at what would be the tip of a pyramid were it intact, lay a strange space. The pull of the deep dark lay upon it and it did not require Georg’s words to tell them they were at another gate mouth.

“It is my time to say goodbye,” Georg said to Keth. “Just remember: Mitra’s enemies are not defeated by knocking them out or tripping them! So less of this non-lethal nonsense!

“And pass on my final words to your comrades:

“Shape up!”

Keth hurled the Lion Ring into the gate and they caught a brief glimpse of the strong, fully-armored figure of the ancient paladin, sword ready to smite: then the gate went blank and they were looking at an old faded painting of a tomb.

“His last words were, keep up the good work,” Keth lied.

“I’m a bit… smashed up,” Celo groaned.

“You are a mess,” Keth agreed, “but luckily Jamalla still has some healing power.”

“I do,” Jamalla agreed, “and will pass it to him as you lay hands on him. But this will leave me weakened as well. Do not call upon me for anything less than a life-or-death situation now.”

Once done, Morath urged haste. “These gates have the habit of crumbling remember,” he reminded them.

“I was just looking at these pictures,” Bardic called back. “We’ve seen pretty much the same thing each time. This clearer one is a temple, alone in a desert. That’s our last stop, boys!”

Celo advances to L20. He is rog15/rgr5, taking Improved Evasion from the rogue talents. He spreads his skills around search listen sense motive and escape artist. His BAB hits 16, allowing 6 attacks at full per round.

Keth advances to L15. He is sch3/cle3/ftr9, taking Improved Sunder. 

A maze denizen

They re-built the order of march, with Celo to the fore and Morath as rearguard. After hoisting the smallest and weariest children up into the arms of Bardic and Keth, they made steady progress back up the winding passage and endless stairs, and into the hall wherein they had fought the golems.

Celo felt his Anu-loaned strength fade away. It had been a good long while. He crept forward softly, listening intently. From here, he could go left or right. He knew Morath had taken the Mediator’s warning literally:

If we keep going the way we have been we are going to strike trouble, the Zamorian had pointed out. This was the first place they could pick a different path.

Reluctantly, he decided to head the same way they came. He signalled the others forward and stole to the corner.

Beyond, some twenty feet distant, a vast-shouldered, bull-horned figure bearing a mighty great-axe blocked the tunnel solidly. Celo nimbly pulled back, leaving it up to Bardic to take the thing on!

With a snorting bellow, Keth plunged away from the children, past Bardic and within sunder-range of the beast-man. His staff smashed against the huge axe-shaft, but to his horror, it refused to break! In reply the axe was raised and chopped down time after time, leaving Keth stretched bleeding his life out on the ancient stone.

Back by Morath and Celo, Kayan was caught: if he moved forward, the children would flee to who knows where! He spread his longswords out in a menacing swathe of protection, and the children screamed and ran. With a sigh he wheeled back and stood guard as the nearby door creaked open…

Bardic, having seen the awful fate of Keth, was in no hurry to throw his own life away. He grinned hardily at the Minotaur, and beckoned him on. A solid stone wall was at his back, and he planned to let the thing crash by him and into it.

The Minotaur took him up on the offer: but Bardic’s body-swerve was not quick enough, and the huge axe near took his head off! But he stayed on his feet, though the gore flowed freely from under his steel cap and down his neck. Then it was his turn! He delivered massive strokes of his blade: and at the same time, Celo and Morath tumbled past, the former cutting at the Minotaur’s hamstring as he vaulted. The beast bellowed and fell, and Morath finished him.

Checking Keth’s body, Celo exclaimed:

“He’s alive!”

“I’ve got some wine: pour it down his throat, and let’s be going,” Bardic urged. “Kayan, round up the children will you?”

“Just… tidying away… a few old bones!” Kayan called, his swords cutting and chopping through a small horde of undead that had emerged.

“Hmm, right, I’ll help with the children, Morath you scout the room there and let’s decided which way we are going… and make it snappy.”

 

Sad sacks and saps

Hours had once more passed, and Morath, now scouting, recognized the broken panel allowing entry to the underground temple of the relics. They had successfully navigated the winding, muddy, tight-squeeze tunnel. The children were exhausted, for they could not be carried along it. When Morath signalled the halt, they sank down where they were, some of them instantly falling asleep.

He listened, then turned back to warn the others:

“Just a few sad f***ers cleaning up. I’ll just kill ‘em and we can sneak out quite like.”

“May I suggest not killing? These will no doubt be slaves, and it seems a hard reward to be killed just for being in the wrong place with a mop,” Keth objected.

“You can sap them, right?” Bardic reminded Morath.

“Ohhh, sap, right, as in knock unconscious! I’ll just organize a small pouch of coins… there: that should do. Coming Celo?”

“Yeah, someone better be there to remind you not to follow up with a dagger to the kidneys,” Celo agreed.

A few minutes’ easy work and the rogues tidied the knocked-out slaves behind a tapestry and signalled the others through.

“You know, if we had gathered them all together I could have gone, bong-bong-bong-bong, that would be funnier,” Morath muttered. “Still if I keep a sharp eye out who’s to say I can’t do the same, but with a real weapon?”

As they emerged from the upper temple into the courtyard ready to choose a way towards the gates, Bardic paused in surprise.

“It’s night!”

“How long have we been under there?” wondered Morath, trying to match the star-strewn sky with his internal sense of time.

“It could be an effect of the gate…” Keth ventured.

“It’s night because we walked from after sunrise to after dark,” Kayan opined testily. “My gut feels it is nailed to my spine, and the children are completely exhausted. The sooner we get somewhere we can eat and rest, the better.”

“And clean up,” Bardic agreed, scratching some of the crusted dust, grit and blood off his neck.

 

That happy striking cobra feeling

The temple grounds were already well cleared of bodies. A new set of guards, wearing linen cuirasses and bearing ceremonial bronze axes, supervised servants and took evidence. They recoiled from Bardic’s fierce mien and it was not until they reach the gates that any real obstacles were presented.

There, a more senior body of judicial and enforcement officialdom were gathered under flaring lights. Evidence was being docketed and jurisdictions were being argued.

Then two Stygian-dark strangers stepped forward politely and created a moment’s distraction…

“That was worth the wait, by Zath!” Morath gloated, “I haven’t used that move since Palena!”

“Let’s push on,” Bardic grumbled, a child in each arm, “I can see the barge at last – time to have a chat about who gets to keep it.”

A short time later the barge pushed off, the judicial scribes who had been listing its contents and livestock a startled group on the jetty behind it.

“Now down the river, and… hmmm…” Bardic mused, poling as fast as practical.

“What’s hmmm?” Keth asked.

“Just tossing up between rotten choices. I’m voting for rowing straight across the Styx and off on horseback as soon as we hit the bank. I’d back us to get clear of Stygian pursuit before they can organize it.

“Now, see to the horses, and fetch some water out the river – I’m going to get me some clean!”

And so it was.

 

Aftermath: gods of Nippr

“Welcome, welcome and thrice welcome to the Obsidian Stables, my lords! No doubt such esteemed lords wish only the best for their magnificent steeds! And see – such a stallion! Or gelding! Nothing shall be too good for him! My two fairest daughters shall not only brush his coat daily, they shall wash him with scented oils!”

And as he agreed to this princely treatment, Celo assigned he and his fellows a new role: renowned adventurers.

They had traveled for many days, town to town, across meadow Shem, retracing the emissary’s path indeed. Nippr, a town of zikkurats and temples, terraces and gardens, river and canals and traffic with the north, seemed the best place so far to try to do right by the children.

Bardic had taken pains to teach the children that life was not sheer awfulness, though it had been hard. The question of what to do with them had been argued across the campfire or inn table several times.

Eventually they formed a half plan, which as Bardic was fond of saying, was twice as much plan as usual. Keth had somewhat reluctantly opined that Bel was the least offensive god to be found in Shem. Morath had swung in behind that with an idea to have thieves adopt the children into a gang. It had its drawbacks, for he had little to no standing in Shem.

But Bardic, Celo, and even Keth and Kayan found almost the reverse true. The faddish nobility and gentry of Nippr opened arms to the newcomers. Their reputations exploded and tales of derring-do in Koth, Corinthia and Zamora were dusted off and given a new setting by fashionable Shemitish harpists. They were the heroes of Becharadur and Zamboula, never mind the details, and their latest tweak of the Stygian lion’s snout – safely far to the south – put a gloss on all of it.

Bardic’s Leadership advances enough to move Kayan to L14. He has a number of feat options but has penciled in Web of Death.

No fewer than eight of the children were adopted into well-to-do families. That left the three least-cute children.

The thieves of Nippr were unmoved by reputation, and demanded a year’s service from Morath. Celo volunteered to stay and help him.

They were to meet Bardic in a year’s time in Shushan. It was known to them by name only, as a major trade crossroads between desert and meadow Shem. They knew that folk from many further lands mingled there.

“More to the point, it will be our setting-out-point to the last temple. We’ll need a good guide and some decent fighting-men, by Crom!”

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Hyboria! H5E89: Beneath Luxur

The first search

Kayan Haduk departed at a deceptively fast run, his shaven head gleaming in the dawn’s early light. No surviving archer bothered trying to shoot him on his return run.

“He looks in better shape than we are,” Bardic the Cimmerian commented.

He returned his attention to the lone-standing temple below.

“Ah! Looks like they’ve, uh, cleared the way up the steps. Bring the children will you Keth?”

So saying he leaped down off the precinct wall’s corner bastion, and strode over to the rear steps up to the temple. Celo finished wiping blood and guts off the steps with a hank of linen ripped from a guard’s corpse. The bisected halves of the corpse – the two rogues had used it to set off a scythe trap – lay nearby.

“Noice an’ clean guv, orl fit fer the kiddies,” he beamed cheerfully. Morath’s face, suffused with a manic gleam, appeared in the doorway above.

“Yemmi???”

“It’s just Celo doing a bad impression of a Zamorian gutter rat,” Bardic reassured him, waving Keth and the four children on.

“Oh! Well stop it you idiot, there’ve been so many people turning up out of our past in the last couple of years I almost believed it.”

By the time the Mitran friar Keth Alkaran, and his four young charges joined them the rogues Celo the Aquilonian and Morath the Zamorian had finished showing Bardic the relatively empty temple.

“So whose body is this,” Bardic asked with a slight frown.

“Some fucker that thought he could backstab me,” Morath replied, rubbing behind his shoulder.

“He did backstab you,” Celo pointed out helpfully.

“And then I front-stabbed him.”

“Tee-hee, front-stabbed…”

The conversation was headed downhill fast: then Keth arrived:

“In here, children, see, no danger… GAAH!!! Unhallowed Evil! And a body! And chains and whips! And a hideous statue of Derketo, the goddess that presided over the bestialities inflicted on these children!!! My friends, you may wish to rethink your ‘all clear’ preparations!”

 

Welcome back! This session was a blast with both rogues concentrating very hard on searching, disarming and all the other classics associated with tomb-robbery.

Right away let me apologize to the writers and editors of JG2 Citadel of Fire, a really good product, virtually a mega-dungeon, that I strip-mined for a much more linear adventure. Thanks Goodman Games!

Our heroes Bardic Celo Keth and Morath have butchered their way to complete domination of the Temple of Derketo outside Luxur, in the process rescuing four young children.

Their main objective is to retrieve ancient weapons that will hurt demons. They are currently searching the two most likely sections of the wide temple precinct for those relics. Their ally Cala Atenoel had requested they occupy the guards for about an hour: but her cohort Kayan has now updated the situation, and they can signal Cala and Kayan once they are ready to move. Their next objective will be to locate and close the penultimate gate that lies somewhere nearby.

Time is a factor in their minds, for at some point authorities are going to respond to the battle, and the barge with all their spare gear and all their horses is moored alongside the temple.

Now read on!

The second search

The next area to search was a wing of the main temple complex. Wishing to approach it without having to pick their way through innumerable doors made for some head-scratching. At length they decided, partly influenced by the Bull’s Strength spells that still enhanced Celo Bardic and Keth, to climb there by way of the crumbled site of the Elemental fight and the pyramid. Celo rigged a fire arrow for the guard’s bow he had looted, and shot it high in a vague arc pointing that way, and they set off.

It took some athletic abdominal crunches, but Bardic lifted each lofted child up to the roof of the wing. Archers could be seen keeping them in sight but from a distance, and none tried a shot. Then crossing over and dropping into the small courtyard of the wing, Bardic and Celo caught the children safely as Morath and Keth dropped them down. Keth had a kindly way about him and the children trusted him, which helped make all this an easy operation.

Celo and Morath called Keth in for a consultation on the next direction. Three sets of double doors, bronze and inscribed with sigils, offered possibilities.

“These to the west seem to have more of an everyday purpose, don’t you think? And opposite, these sigils suggest more of a preparatory nature. South, though, these doors are less used and the sigils read ‘hall of guard’ as best I can translate.”

“’Guard’ eh, some new demon-god we haven’t heard of yet,” Morath mused. Keth chose not to respond.

The mechanism was stiff but Celo and Morath managed to persuade the lock open, and pushed one door open to find a broad chancel and another set of double doors opposite.

This time, there was a trap: a deadfall slab. Celo used his considerable climbing and balance abilities to brace himself up above the door lintel while he disarmed it, then dropped down.

“Well, that should be safe,” he announced cheerfully. “Now, who do we know that could survive being hit by a ton of marble? Keth?”

Cala’s advice

Meanwhile, out in the courtyard, Bardic’s sharp ears had caught the sound of two people walking fairly carelessly, armor chiming softly, as though they feared no ambush from lesser beings. He hailed them, and it was indeed Cala and Kayan.

After some explanation of how they had got into the courtyard, he heard the sound of a grapnel line catching and within half a minute both had joined him. Cala was blood-spattered, though not so much as Bardic perhaps, and seemed slightly listless. She bore a silver staff, its ends enlarged. The four children drew back from it nervously.

“Oh… we have children too,” Kayan exclaimed. “Help me with them Bardic, and we’ll soon have them over here.”

Ten more children were transported over using a stirrup-loop and knotting the line for them to hold onto.

Meanwhile, Cala wandered in to see how the search was going and found Keth. She tossed the staff to him.

GAAH, evil! Georg cried.

Indeed it has taken much innocent blood, Jamalla agreed.

“It’s a nice weapon, but I cannot use it,” Keth said, laying it down.

“What’s wrong with it?” Cala asked, puzzled.

“It is drenched with the blood of innocents!”

“Pffhh. Weapons are as good or evil as their wielders,” she retorted dismissively. “Anyway you can get it scrubbed can’t you?”

It is true, it could be sanctified, Jamalla agreed.

Cala went back outside to see how Bardic and Kayan were getting on, and found fourteen children, two of them boys and the rest girls, now assembled.

“I would have killed those three,” she said casually to Bardic, indicating the three oldest girls, “But Kayan told me you wouldn’t do that. You’ll have trouble with them though. They are from Stygian noble families. If you keep them you could try asking for ransom, but it’s more trouble than it’s worth if you ask me. In the twisted world of Stygia, noble houses think it an honor to have a child brought to Derketo and taught to fuck snakes and lizards and to love the taste of pain.”

 

The pillared hall

Leaving Kayan to play child-minder, Bardic and Cala rallied through to find the other three. By that time Celo had decided that it would be he that opened the doors. He did so, and found that his trap-disarming had been successful. The temple beyond contained twelve pillars in three ranks of four. A statue of Derketo triumphant could be glimpsed beyond heavy tapestries on the right. A flight of steps hard left of the doorway led down.

“Looks too easy,” Morath commented, and Celo nodded. “Let’s search: they are not going to leave ancient relics just down steps anyone can get to.”

Waiting for the scouts: Conversations in the courtyard

While the pillared hall eventually surrendered its concealed panel in the far side, Bardic had time for two short conversations back out in the open air.

Away from the others, he listened to Cala’s instructions as to how to find the lone temple in the desert, which must mark the final gate. He heard her out, which took even less time than her usual laconic style.

“You seem a little, well, not yourself,” Bardic commented.

“You know what they say… may all your dreams but one come true?”

“You still have that plan to retire somewhere nice, right?”

“Yes… that’s true,” she replied, brightening a little.

 

Then separately, “What are you doing after this?” Bardic asked Kayan. The shaven-headed Asuran devotee shrugged, hands out and palm up.

“Think about joining me,” Bardic suggested.

“It’s taken me a while to catch up with things,” the hillman laughed, “but as I understand it, you are questing to prevent child sacrifice and close demon gates?”

“That’s it.”

“I am completely in accord with that! If Cala no longer needs me, I’m your man!”

 

Keth meanwhile cut a length of tapestry from the pillared hall, and tied the silver staff up in it. It made for a clumsy bundle, so for now it lay by the group of children. He headed back in: his Lions were beginning to sense the direction of the next gate.

Kayan maintained his guard there while Bardic and Cala returned to learn what the rogues had found.

 

The last defense

“We followed this secret trapdoor down, and killed a guard. Celo’s just checking the door,” Morath reported. Down below, in a broad hallway lit by red-glowing lamps, Celo swung the door open.

Beyond, two huge braziers lent a dull orange highlight to the altar to Derketo on a raised sacristy at the far end of the hall, and two smaller unlit braziers. The main body of the hall featured a number of shallow pits.

Celo’s keen vision picked up a slight distortion of the light, high up on the right. He pulled his head back and just in time! For a roiling mass of acidic gas occupied the doorway a moment later.

“Wizard, invisible, up floating below the ceiling, what have we got?”

“I’ve had time to re-poison a dagger I took off the assassin back there. I’ll throw it, you try one of yours,” Morath replied.

Signaling the count to one another while behind them Cala and Bardic waited, the two sprang into the hall, staring around and quickly picking up the invisible presence among the pillars opposite its original post. They hurled daggers accurately enough, only to see them curve off at the last moment. But this was sufficient to give Bardic a clue as to the sorcerer’s whereabouts, and he ran, leaped high, and slashed his great-sword across. By his standards the leap was not his best: a single booted foot whirled away and bounced onto the marble flags near Morath. A horrible screech of pain resounded, but the invisible enemy was still in the fight!

Cala stepped a few paces forward and cast her two remaining black Corinthian-style throw blades:

“Ninurta! Ningal!”

As each blade struck it ripped away spells protecting the caster: a robed man: now falling.

As Celo hurled his back-up dagger, Morath scooped up the foot and hurled that. As the doomed caster took the dagger in his breast he had the further indignity of being beaned by his own shod foot.

“You’ve been preparing for this some time, haven’t you?” Bardic asked Cala as she retrieved the daggers.

“Years,” she agreed.

The relics of Atlantis

The vaulted underground hall featured a number of side-passages, but no further opposition emerged. Searching the altar carefully, Celo found a hidden latch and as he moved it, a well-hidden door opened in the sacristy’s rear wall.

Beyond lay a reasonably large chamber, wherein lay shelves containing various objects, and beyond them, a boat.

Once light was brought in and a good search made, three silver-blue short-swords, one black-silver two-hander sword, and one onyx and ivory ornamental-size steering sweep proved of interest.

The rogues studied the short-swords and Bardic studied the great-sword while Cala pondered the sweep.

The swords were made all of one piece, with stub hilts and heavy, oddly-shaped pommel. They all needed a master smith to properly set grips and binding on them, for the exact shape of the wielder’s hand. Each seemed lighter than its size would suggest, and broader in the near third of the blade than any current fashion.

 

Goodbye Cala

Cala seemed to reach a decision:

“Let me have a look at this boat.”

On closer inspection, the small Stygian-style river-boat seemed to be suspended in air, not supported by stanchions as they had supposed. Bardic made a stirrup of his hands and hoisted Cala up: she swung nimbly aboard.

“I’m going to try something. Stand back a little.”

She placed the sweep where a full-size sweep would normally sit, and recited an incantation. The model sweep changed to a full-size sweep and the boat seemed to shift and swing a little, as though anchored in a strong current.

Cala’s eyes sparkled with new life.

“You know what this means?”

“Yes! It’s a flying boat! We can lift the children out and get everything done easy!”

“No… it won’t take horses. You can’t leave them! What it means is, I get a new adventure! I’m going to sail this off into wherever. Do any of you want to join me?”

“Uh, we have this gate to close… and the next one.”

“Ah well! I’ll let you have my horse. I named him Yildiz, after the king of Turan, because he’s biddable and a gelding. Kayan knows where my stud farm is, too. Oh, and you remember the directions? Well, it’s been fun, you’ve been great guys to adventure with!”

“May Mitra bless you and guide your path!” Keth cried heartily.

“Pffhhh a second time. You three have been great to adventure with. I may see you again!”

She pressed the sweep and the ship dwindled and vanished on the stream of time.

“Damn,” Morath muttered.

 Morath hits level 20, taking his final class level, rog19, meaning 10d6 sneak damage; and adding 1 to Dex for 20 Dex.

A tight squeeze

Bardic eyed the children. It went against his code to execute youngsters, even tainted ones. But as he watched he noticed the Stygian noble-children establishing dominance and grooming the smaller ones. It decided him. But as he hardened his features, Kayan stepped in front of him:

“If there be some evil to do, let it fall to me,” he said.

“All right. I’ll move the others in. Make it quick.”

“Quick and painless, you have my word.”

The remaining eleven children were shepherded into the lower hallway and then past the slain mage to a secret tunnel the rogues had found and kicked open. There, they learned that the big blood-encrusted men were going to bring them into a deep dark tunnel. It took Keth’s reassuring nature to keep them calm.

“Leading where, I wonder,” Celo asked as he led off. The tunnel was cramped, so much so that he could only use one short-sword.

“We’re following the voices in Keth’s head, apparently,” Morath replied.

Morath followed Celo, then Bardic, Keth, the eleven children, and finally Kayan. Bardic and Keth could only barely squeeze their shoulders and chests through. Luckily they had enough of the dark-sight paste left that they could all see. The children held onto a rope stretched between Keth and Kayan: , and Kayan was dragging the spare staff along behind him at the end of that rope.

 

Ambush!

The tunnel sloped down, winding a little, and often the explorers found themselves splashing through muddy water. The walls were wet too. They began to think they had crossed under the river. At length, Celo reached a rough T-junction.

“Which way, Keth’s ghost voices?” he called back.

“More to the right than left,” came the reply.

The party worked its way that way. As Kayan moved off past the junction, he missed the soft sound of air being displaced and knew not his danger until a saw-toothed glaive rammed through his back!

With a groan of fear, he fell back on the defensive. Keth moved the children past himself as quickly as he could, while Celo and Morath, having the size to fight, moved back the other way.

A large, tailed demon with a beard that seemed somehow like a prehensile appendage dominated the intersection, trying to cut its way through Kayan’s remarkable defenses.

“I know those things: they keep going on about how they owe Bardic payback for killing their cousins – we can’t get behind it because of the tail! I’ll roll left and you fake it out from the front,” Morath decided. Celo nodded.

Between the two rogues, the demon was wrong-footed and their silver-chased swords make quick work of it. “At least I wasn’t killed by Bardic!” it lamented as it dissolved into a foul stain. The saw-toothed glaive followed it back to hell.

 

The Lions intervene

Kayan had been seriously weakened by the glaive and the weakness did not fade.

“He needs serious healing!” Bardic told Keth worriedly.

“I have very little in the way of healing,” Keth replied. “I will commune with my mentors to see what they can do.”

“By Mitra laddie-boy, he’s an Asuran! You don’t expect me to be wiping an Asuran’s nose and patching up every little scratch do you?” Georg growled.

“An Asuran who serves Bardic, my leader.”

“Who is a Cimmerian, who worships Crom, who doesn’t care whether his followers get hurt!”

“Ahem. With respect: who is a Cimmerian who is striving to do the work of Mitra, closing gates to the outer dark.”

“True, Keth. We are well reminded. I have some powers that I can use, and so does Georg,” Jamalla acknowledged. “Georg, perhaps you could heal the Asuran and I will sanctify the staff once we reach a clear space.”

Grumbling a little Georg told Keth to lay his hands on Kayan and healing power restored the fighter’s strength. Keth relayed the need for a clear space, and the march recommenced with Morath now rearguard.

After much more walking, most of it downward, they reached a formed tunnel. It was a relief to tread on stone between stone walls, though those seemed ancient and moisture still stood out on them. Down a flight of steps, which had the children stumbling with weariness, along to a right turn, and there at a second right turn Keth told them the gate was left, not right.

Celo kicked out yet another false panel, revealing an even less-used stretch of tunnel. The dust of ages lay upon it. Insects and ghosts might use it, but no man had for generations.

Following that down and around, they found it ended at last in a somewhat enlarged area where water and time had formed more of a natural cavern.

“This will do. The staff can be sanctified here, and the children rested. Oh, and the gate lies through the left wall somewhere,” Keth announced.

 

What weapon works?

“I spy with my little mirror, a big statue exactly the same as big ugly there. Seeing as they face each other it has ‘animate statue’ all over it, dontcha think?” Celo reported quietly.

They were close enough to the rest area that Kayan was still back there guarding the children, who were still rubbing their eyes and stretching after their nap. Morath and Bardic were guarding a door on the right, and Celo had just used his little metal mirror to scope a large chamber on the left. The architecture was vaguely Stygian, but not of any god they recognized. The two big statues stood against each wall some twenty feet apart. Enough dim light came from unseen sources to light the place up perfectly to the dark-sighted explorers.

The group closed in a little as the next stage was planned out in a murmur, though Bardic made sure the children were kept well back in case a hasty retreat needed to be called.

Celo, who alone of the group still had Bull’s Strength, volunteered to ‘set the thing off’ as he put it. The others readied the weapons they thought would work best: Bardic his steel-hafted axe, Morath his silver-chased short-sword, Keth his sanctified silver staff.

Sure enough, as soon as Celo passed the left-hand statue by, both animated. But they shifted shape, as well! Now both seemed hulking, rather formless humanoid shapes, with rudimentary features.

Celo, figuring that eyes were carved in them for some reason, sprang up and vaulted to shoulder level, wrapping his arms around the creature’s eyes. It responded by grabbing him and hurling him with brutal force at its mate! Only the Tauranian’s incredible agility allowed him to tuck and tumble off the other rather than being shattered on it.

Bardic sprang in and slammed his axe two-handed deep in the thigh of the left-hand creature. It ignored the blow and the axe stuck. Using the distraction though, Morath raced around the first’s rear, dropping his silver-chased sword and drawing his silver-steel sword and ramming up deep where no sun would ever shine. It appeared to ignore the blow. Undeterred Keth sprang forward with his silver staff and smacked the thing heartily in the flank. Nothing much happened.

The other thing was now within reach of the first. And were they moving a little faster? Celo decided to keep living dangerously. He danced between them, and dodged aside: instead of smashing him to sticky paste, each pounded on the other with massive fists!

“Nice! Now all we need is something that will hurt these mothers!” Morath complimented him. He used his own fake-out powers to ready for another leap if neeed.

“I have the reserve sword!” Kayan called. Bardic held his hand up for it and the strange black-silver blade was hurled over the children and into his grasp. He raced in, rage powering his limbs, leaped high and crashed the blade down onto the first one. It worked!

A further duck and dodge from Celo and the second one crumbled under Bardic’s shearing stroke and then the first one followed it.

“I don’t understand why my staff didn’t harm it,” Keth worried. The others shrugged.

“More importantly which way to the gate? We should move fast, that did make quite a noise,” Bardic prompted.

 

The mediator at the gate

A door at the end of that chamber led directly away into a downward tunnel, flights of stairs carrying them even deeper. This section, like the chamber, was not as disused as the secret passage had been, but the stone floor was clean enough that no distinct tracks could be picked out.

The tunnel wound around and at length came to a deep chamber that groaned with the spirits of the sacrificed. The children were reluctantly kept moving forward. Keth’s Lions were certain of the direction now. The passage through led to a smooth, black, oval chamber and at its end, a dais: and on the dais, a very tall cloaked female figure that they had last seen on a mosaic in the hidden gate chamber below Edric’s monastery!

“Welcome!” she said. “I am the Mediator. I have things you need to hear!”

“I don’t like the look of these walls!” Kayan warned. “They don’t look like stone at all!”

As he gave this warning the walls drew back, revealing a larger cruder chamber and seven enormous demons, now all around the group. Beyond the woman the suggestion of an exit could be glimpsed.

“I really do think you can spare the time,” she said, her violet eyes glowing in her diamond-shape face, her cloak shifting in ways that suggested no human shape lay beneath it.

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Hyboria! H5E88: Carnage in the Temple of Derketo

This is Death!

The barge was belayed to the Derketo jetty without incident, and the ‘frontal assault, makes lots of noise’ team vaulted onto the massive stone. Cala and Kayan drifted along somewhat behind. The flare of tapers and braziers in the incomers’ dark-vision made the gate hard to study, but all seemed normal. No massive increase in security nor ominous absence of activity. The pre-dawn was busy with a few porters staggering in with heavy loads from their craft. Others were heading back to their craft along the jetty, casting nervous looks at the armed men they were passing. Guards, moderately well armored and armed, checked the loads and permitted ingress.

Bardic took the fore. Strode forward purposefully yet casually, as though entitled. Drew level with the first few guards.

“Oi” quoth a guard, surprised and beginning to block the way.

Bardic snaked out a huge mitt, and wrenched the man’s head around. The guard collapsed, neck broken, and Bardic strode through the gates, drawing his great-sword. Keth was swigging a potion already.

“I am Bardic and this is death! Death! Death!” he bellowed, and began moving through the now-alarmed guards, chopping them down mercilessly.

Once through the gates, Cala and Kayan ghosted away right, heading for the side compound that could only be reached from inside the main temple compound. But that is another story.

 

A battle of attrition: the fight through the temple

So, we now move to mook fighting. Each round is a minute, and given the exigencies of fighting, a ‘win’ would advance the group 100’ along a grid map of the temple. A ‘loss’ would force them to stop or move half that distance forward or back, depending on severity. If the heavies had worn light armor, the rate of travel would have been a lot more, but on the other hand the damage taken would have been higher.

In mook fights, damage is usually sustained on both sides. It’s a race to inflict at least half the enemy mook HP in damage, before your own resources (and characters) are exhausted (or dead).

Bardic has chosen to go with reputation, adding fear to his already good BAB (20) plus Leadership bonus (4). In Stygia, however, his rep barely registers so he’s added 1, for a total of +25. It will mean that Derketo and perhaps the wider Stygian hierarchy remember him for future vengeance.

Naturally the lads can all help, provided they can hit DC10 on BAB. So they need a 2 or better. I’m ruling Keth’s mentors are passively supporting him with the greater magic circle against evil effect, plus holy smite if something fiendish hits that circle, plus helping him Turn undead, but no other proactive help. In each round save one, all three support characters helped.

The defense is directed by an evil witch (not a priestess per se) who has a major demon pact and some pretty adequate subordinates. With the arcane help she’s getting, she rolls +23. So close-order guards are efficiently directed to choke points and archers (probably half the guards) are directed to angles from where they can shower arrows.

Round 1: (PCs win) Keth lumbers behind Bardic, tripping the guards and making them easy prey for Celo and Morath. Any guards that work around behind are bamboozled by Celo then stabbed. Morath bounds back and forth, working off Bardic’s great shearing strokes. Surprise is near-complete and Bardic and Morath take a pin-prick of hurt (1) while Celo and Keth are unscathed.

Round 2: (PCs win) Having pushed through to a wide court, options seem limited. Bardic gestures half-right to a tall, broad arch in the far wall. This run is going to hurt if the guards are smart enough to pull back and let archers sheet their arrows home. But they don’t, at least at this stage. The group fights its way to the arch. Bardic and Morath each take 13 damage, Celo 8 and Keth 5.

Round 3: (PCs lose) It’s a real choke-point and nearly makes Bardic lose heart! Guards blocking the tunnel and archers slamming shots home. They can’t move and slug it out for what seems like an eternity. Morath is worst off as he lacks the feats to avoid damage in close-quarters and lacks the armor and HP to soak it up. Bardic and Morath each take 20 damage, Celo 13 and Keth 7. Morath quaffs his first healing dose and gets a rather inadequate 8 back.

Round 4: (PCs win) Flesh and bone can only stand so much and the gore-drenched attackers wade over bodies to the end of the tunnel to gaze out over a long, broad courtyard. Bardic knows that the building to the left has access to the roof, but the difficulty of dragging Keth up persuades him to look for proper stairwells. There’s an ornate and menacing arch on the left wall of the courtyard, leading into the main buildings, so that’s where they head. Sounds of chanting can be heard from the general direction of the pyramid. Bardic and Morath take 10 damage and Celo takes 7, Keth 4. Morath quaffs his second healing dose and gets the 10 back.

Round 5: (PCs win) Hah ha, it’s a huge evil temple, excellent. Carefully avoiding the obvious evil sigils on the floor, they fight off the last few guards behind them, and search. Onwards seems to be the best option as it leads to a fine balustrade stairwell leading upward to the next floor. Bardic and Morath take 9 damage, Celo 6, Keth 3. Morath slugs back his Endurance potion, 2 Con, it adds 10 HP (L1 to L10) as well as a better Fort save.

Round 6: (PCs win) Idly debating how many guards they have slain already, they hack their way past archers up the stairwell. The chanting can now be heard again, over the noise of the dying. Archers seem to be re-positioning. Pooh! The stairwell leads only to administrative quarters around the upper floor of the same vaulted temple. Finding the roof access takes some time. But wait! Isn’t that scratching claws on the roof above? We need to head back to the ground floor! Bardic and Morath take 8 damage, Celo 5, Keth 3. Celo takes a healing potion, Bardic takes one then tosses his other to Morath, who gladly drinks.

Round 7: (PCs win) So it’s down the circular stairwell instead of heading up. The stair does continue down, but probing the cellars does not seem appealing. The ground floor is gained: two exits, one open. Not that way! Instead let’s try the door towards the pyramid! The open exit does lead to more guards. Bardic and Morath take 7 damage, Celo 5 and Keth 3.

Round 8: (PCs win) Nothing stops our mighty Bull’s Strength imbibing heroes! Keth and Bardic bash the barred door in. It allows access to a pillared, smaller courtyard. The last of the guards is also hacked down and all remaining guards and archers are prudently withdrawing. Bardic and Morath take 6 damage, Celo 4 and Keth 2.

End of the mook fight.

 

Demonic foes swoop

The next move, via an arched hall, was along a narrower courtyard.

“Keth, I wish you could move just a little faster,” Bardic grumbled as he studied the opposite arch.

“If it’s vital, I can remove my outer layer of armor,” Keth offered, “but really, you’re only slightly faster than I.”

“Right, well, you murderers sprint across and cover us. We’ll follow and fight off the flying things.”

Celo and Morath did so, and an angry screech from above followed them. But in the meantime, a rolling evil yellowish mist also engulfed Bardic and Keth! They struggled through as best they could, skin burning. Then as they jogged forward, two winged demon-like creatures swooped at them.

Bardic judged his moment and leaped to meet one, nearly bisecting it with his massive sword. Keth smacked it crisply, finishing it. The other finished its swoop, but as it entered the zone around Keth, its skin began searing off! Keth and Bardic hammered into it, and that one dissolved as well.

 

The dead rise (then run away)

Meanwhile Morath and Celo were in cover at the opposite arch. Morath picked up shadowy movement on the stone coping above to the right, at the limit of his dark-sight. He had a chilling flashback to the vault under Shadizar:

“Vampire!”

Having been spotted, the vampire lord reared  up and a wave of skeletal warriors, clutching decayed spears and age-pitted scimitars, scraped over the coping and dropped down to the courtyard.

“Well Keth, this is what you are waiting for!”

Indeed not merely Keth but his two Lions as well! A sheet of white light raced over the bony warriors and they collapsed into dust. The vampire was gone – presumably fled!

The struggle across the courtyard was not over. Now clear of the choking mist, Bardic and Keth rallied to the rogues’ shelter, only to receive a report that it led away back to the entrance if anywhere!

 

Scarabs sting

Bardic groaned and cursed and chose an exit back off the courtyard left of where they were. As they raced out of the arch, a vast swarm of cat-sized scarabs closed around them!

Bardic and Keth were in their element as they smashed vast numbers of bugs, while Celo yelped in pain from a poisoned bite and Morath dodged and cut. Celo used his antidote, but found that the painful bite made him move slower.

 

Children are found

Kicking the intended door in with some difficulty, they moved across a lofty vaulted hall, kicked another door open, and emerged onto a large pillared courtyard. And here they found their first children to rescue as they hacked down the priestesses that were hurrying them off stage left.

Keth found the four children spoke Shemitish and reassured them as much as he could. The oldest was around seven. Bardic ground his teeth and promised even more revenge. But before he could ‘kill them a second time’ he needed to find them. The most promising exit seemed to be heavy double doors.

Since the arch was wide enough, Bardic Keth and Morath all put their shoulder to the doors and they burst open. Beyond, across a fairly narrow vault, was another set of heavy double doors. And after that, another set, opposite across an open vault.

 

Celo excels

Wary eye to the sky, which now showed a pre-dawn hue, they hurried to it. Two monsters materialized behind them, but were swiftly dealt with. They smashed the far door open as well. And there across another vault was a much heavier pair of doors.

“This is one we’ll have to ease open,” Bardic declared. “Celo?”

Celo tested the doors and first removed a trap trigger, then eased the heavy, time-worn chambers inside the huge lock around and pushed them cautiously open.

“Finally!” Celo exclaimed, peering out from the arch. “And look! It’s open right out to the walls. That must be the stand-alone tomb-temple Cala thought might just have the loot in it, but more importantly if we climb the wall out there we can easily work back round to the pyramid.”

“Sounds good. Though we’re bound to have some trouble in open ground like that. This is what I’ll do. I’m going to let the breastplate go. You rogues and me’ll sprint for the wall and cut down archers, Keth’ll shelter the children and follow up.”

“A good plan my friend! And see – your fine Kothic breastplate will act as a shield from stray arrows!”

From the half-crouch the barbarian and the two rogues sprinted forward, Bardic speeding away, Morath perhaps a trifle faster than Celo but all moving so fast in the limited light thrown by wall bale-fires that archers missed them completely. As they ran up the steps, the archers hastily cleared back, allowing Keth an easy job with the children.

 

The pyramid lies beyond!

From their new vantage Bardic studied the precincts. They were one-quarter of the wall’s circumference away from the pyramid. The corner bastion seemed to offer some shelter so that was their next stop.

“I’m thinking the children can wait here while we take on the child-sacrificing monsters that run this joint. Keth, back us up if you can,” Bardic announced.

“My help might be better spent warding you as best I can,” Keth replied. As they rested briefly and checked weapons – Morath and Celo both had poison daggers ready to throw at mages – the friar cast blessings on Bardic and Celo.

The dawn’s light was growing stronger as the three set off at Celo’s pace, Keth some distance behind them. Ahead, it looked as though the final barrier to gaining the pyramid would be an easy jump up to a narrow, long wing of the temple that their length of wall terminated at. But as they neared it, the wing shook and crumbled and a huge slab of shifting rock, with vaguely human features, rose out of the rubble!

 

Monster slayer

Bravely, Keth pushed forward to test the thing’s defences. He smote it mightily with his quarterstaff, though its rocky nature soaked up much of the impact. Then two room-size fists smashed down, one narrowly missing Keth and one sending him bowling backward!

Bardic had worked out his best measure, though. He had met one of these “earth elementals” before and had nearly died. He ran forward, raging, leaped high and smashed his sword through both its limbs. At the same time Celo distracted it by striking at its impermeable hide with his short-sword. The great-sword, forged by Kothian master-smiths, held true and the elemental crumbled.

“Now it’s an easy jump down, then we need to jump up from the rubble across to the pyramid,” Bardic pointed out.

“Hurry! She’s chanting some more!” Morath urged.

 

The witches fall

Indeed the senior witch, floating well above the pyramid’s top, was summoning again. Her junior witches were doing the same, though now they had run out of sacrifices. Their voices screeched hollowly, promising many lives to their demons.

The leap down was indeed easy. Bardic and Morath managed to keep their momentum, running up the rubble and launching themselves across the intervening gap as high up the pyramid as they could. Celo managed more of a short leap but in any case, planned to take one of the closer targets. He flung both his daggers at the lower witch menacing Bardic, killing her outright.

Bardic was immediately faced with a swooping, black-pinioned demon. He split it asunder, rage burning in his breast. Another vaster demon appeared opposite Morath, shadows seeming to cloak its vulture-like form against the growing light, but backed off behind the remaining lesser witch. That was room enough for Morath: he flung one dagger up at the floating witch, and the other at the lesser witch. Both penetrated whatever protections they had prepared and threw their targets into convulsions as the poison took hold!

Uttering a croak of dissatisfaction or contempt, the vulture-like demon seized its summoner and disappeared back to hell.

“Done!” Bardic triumphed, wiping blood off his face and using a dead witch’s robe to clean his blade. “Well lads the compound is as safe as we can make it. I think we’re even close to the time Cala wanted. Let’s head back, make sure the children are safe: then we’ll take a look at the lone tomb building.”

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