Hyboria! H5E16.2: 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 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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Hyboria! H5E16.1: Serendipity

A strange meeting

This can’t end well, Bardic thought. A few minutes ago Keth and Cala had stepped into the small warehouse office just by the main entrance. He had padded (pantherishly) over to listen in. Just in case. And it sounded as though Keth thought Cala was lying about something.

“I never claimed to be leading the lads to any gates, Mitra-man,” Cala said, her normally-warm voice taking a cool tone. “They stand to gain weapons of power here. If there happens to be a gate nearby, that’s your good fortune. And if Shem happens to be your destination, that’s between you and your god.”

Bardic’s attention was wrested away by an urgent signal from Morath. He was signaling up in the loft level, hostiles, many.

In the next few seconds Celo Morath and Bardic arranged themselves: the two former hiding in crannies around the ladder or old crates; the latter sword-ready at the door. Kayan stood, stretched, loosened his shoulders, and prepared to draw his twin blades.

Keth emerged from the office and caught on to the situation. He stole (noisily) over to his staff and removed the leather caps to ready silver-shod ends for action.

The first one down the ladder, well, he won’t be going back up it, Morath thought, then he saw that Cala, now also out with them and up with the play, was signaling him to stand down. He waited.

“I hope those assassins don’t take us alive,” Cala announced, walking to the clearest area of the dingy warehouse and standing back-to-back with Kayan. “If they attacked us, it’s a lottery who would survive to claim the credit. But if they surrounded us and captured us and took us back to their master alive, well, I guess they could name their price.”

This strange double-bluff worked. Fifteen black-clad assassins appeared through the door, down the ladder, from the river doors, and down various cracks in the loft floor. They surrounded the adventurers, knives, swords and daggers ready.

“Before you bind us and take us to our doom, I have one thing to say,” Cala said, again using Shemitish. “No, I have two things to say,” she corrected herself. “First: I am Cala Atenoel. That is Bardic of Cimmeria. This is Kayan Haduk. If you walk away now, you get to walk away.” There was a pregnant pause, while the assassins thought through how that report would sound. Cala spoke again. “Second: watch out for the dragon.”

Celo ducked back behind his crates and Bardic, remembering some similar phrase in a warning Cala had given them in Becharadur, closed his eyes. There was a vivid flash as an immense dragon emerged from Cala’s back and breathed fire on the entire room.

The fifteen blinded and stunned assassins were immediately cut down by Bardic and Kayan. Cala did not even have to draw a sword, and by the time Celo recovered from his slight daze all he needed to do was slit throats.

Much looting ensued, and Morath had got over his blindness and was in a good mood as he lined the spoils up. Keth and Cala loaned their own experience to working out what some of it did. Bardic returned from tracking the assassins but other than being able to say they had come from further along the quays had nothing to add to what the examination of bodies and gear told them.

The assassins’ belongings had been ‘sanitised’ to the point where it was impossible to say who had hired them. A few, but only a few, had Flame Knife tattoos. Daggers, knives and short swords were there in abundance, as well as a few thin lines suitable for climbing or noosing. More significantly, the blades were all poisoned, and each assassin had a spare vial of poison, a vial of antidote, and an unguent of dark-sight.

This dark-sight was easy enough to work out how to apply, as each had his eye area carefully painted with a design using it.

Where all promises well

“So it’s agreed then? This same night we attack!”

The lads all nodded agreement. Cala continued:

“I’ve been thinking about boats and those assassins. I was planning to call in a favor to get  a boat but that would take at least a day. But now we have a chance to get one right now. Let’s see if my guess is right. Who’s the best in boats here?”

Morath put his hand up. Celo and Bardic professed to be equally good, or bad, as each other.

“And who can handle horses the best?”

This time it was Celo.

“Bardic, it is time to disguise you as a looming guard of Set. Morath, do you still have that enormous cloak? Right. Bardic, you’ll wear it over yourself so your features are shadowed. And Morath, you will act as a Set inquisitor. Check along the quayside at each boatyard. So how this works is, Bardic, you rouse them and say ‘Qut Set Khanum!’ and then Morath, you ask, ‘Kitab Rosht Papyr?’ – but be sure to ask it harshly, like a market bravo demanding blackmail. If the warehousemen produce papers – those are documents made from papyrus – then that’s not your target. If they act guilty and can’t produce papers, kill them and take their barge. Just make sure it’s big enough for horses and children and be careful that it has both poles and oars. You’ll need poles to move it back up here.”

The two practiced their lines a few times then set out, Morath’s stained-dark-skin disguise bolstered by adding a gilt ornament on his brow and breast. Bardic bore a bright link, made from the local papyrus soaked in palm oil.

Celo and Kayan set out for the official barracks of their emissary-host, and not wishing him any bad fortune, spun a reasonably convincing yarn to the guards, loaded up all the horses and the two pack horses, and brought them away with no trouble.

By the time they got the eight beasts to the old warehouse, Bardic and Morath were back with their prize. Bardic congratulated Cala on her guesswork. She passed it off, as was her wont, with a slight explanation.

“Smugglers move freight from Shem to here, all the time. Those” – she indicated the heaped bodies – “spoke Shemitish. So it put me in mind of large smuggler barges.”

The horses were embarked and then final equipment checks were made. The rogues re-donned their armor and Bardic strapped his antique but superb Kothic-steel breastplate on over his chain shirt. It wasn’t as heavy as Keth’s layers, and he didn’t have the tricky elusiveness of Celo, but it would reduce the chances of stray arrow-hits considerably. And since Keth was still the slowest his own reduced pace made little difference.

Cala supervised the face-paint and they all blinked as the strange grey-toned world came into focus.

“Remember, stay close to me, and you will be protected against spells that strike fear and to some extent against other dangers,” Keth cautioned them.

“That’s going to make kidney-stabbing a chore,” Morath grumbled as they poled off.

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Hyboria! H5E15: A Link Session

We pick up immediately after the escape from Mitra’s Fist where the lads and retainers and Keth’s two Mitran allies are organizing the draft horses to accommodate two women, some loot, and themselves. Most are wounded. Here’s a quick recap of status.

Bardic – bar15/ftr4 – HP in the high 20s. Lost main weapon, but grabbed expensive armor.

Celo – rog14/rgr5 – near full health. Has only light armor and a fancy poniard left.

Keth – sch3/cle3/ftr6 – has just gained a new ftr level – HP in single digits. Lost outer layer of armor but grabbed replacement.

Morath – rog18/rg1 – HP in the mid-20s. Has only a chain shirt and twin short-swords left.

Olly, Hafentos, Wulber and Dax – all gained a new ftr level – in good shape.

Bin and Two-heads – gained a new ftr level – HP in single digits.

Skilvashara and Inchana – in good shape.

Six draft horses – in good shape.

A place to rest

Bardic took stock, and delegated care of the women and horses to the hirelings. Keth would guide the group, Morath scout the hills, Celo sweep behind, and he himself would act as reserve in case of danger. Jackals yipped farewell as they left the gaping sinkhole that had once been Mitra’s Fist to the south and set off along the path Keth had taken to his own monastery months before.

[I planned to introduce another past acquaintance at one point, Iapet the Setite priest, but there were so many possible complications to the idea I decided not to draw things out. The ideal time would have been before they reached Mitra’s Fist but that hadn’t worked out either.]

Inchana looked to be a good deal older than she had at first glance. Bardic felt a chill as he studied her: was her hair showing more streaks of grey even as he looked?

He asked her about her background – she was a city Shemite – and her city and its king but Keth’s knowledge of Shemite affairs, though it was the most comprehensive of them all, was too vague to work out if Inchana belonged to the present or an older generation.

But as she aged visibly over the next few hours from a worn-down mid-thirties to an ancient crone, that question answered itself.

They laid her to a final rest in the evening cool. Bardic piled rocks over the withered corpse and Keth said a few words over the grave.

Careful water and livestock management allowed the trek to complete the crossing into the gentler hills on the Argos side of the border. It was a remote region, and days passed before they reached anything more than isolated wells. At last, in a small market town, their hirelings broached the subject of pay-out with Celo. The way the men saw it, they had as much loot as they would have gained riding to war for, so there was no incentive to keep heading for Koth.

But when the subject of shares was broached Bardic dismissed the idea with heavy brow:

“When I called for volunteers in exchange for shares not a hand was raised! So you get your fair pay, that’s it. And I’m covering the whole time, two months. So that’s an end of it.”

Since all of them had something a little extra stashed away that they had not chosen to add to the loot pile, none complained. Hafentos was happy he had been allowed to keep his monster bow. The five hirelings took their two months’ payout (in gold, because that was handy) headed off in search of a horse market and entertainments.

 

[After he gets his share of half the xp from surviving hirelings Bardic is very close to L20. Morath is not tremendously far behind and Celo close behind him. Keth now takes his skills up (L7 Ftr is basically a dead level) and pushes Jump up 2 and Climb up 1, to help offset his heavy armor. Next level he’ll be able to hit 5 ranks of Jump, qualifying for the Kip-up combat move. Keth earned so much xp from the adventure he is stopped just below L14. But that will soon change.]

 

The safety of Keth’s monastery allowed full rest and recovery. With the full care of Keth’s 11 surviving friars, it took only three days. And it allowed time for a serious conversation.

Keth’s mission (loudly urged on by Georg and dramatically by Jamalla) was to close two more gates. Bardic’s mission (and mainly out of loyalty, Morath’s and Celo’s) was to end child sacrifices, which tied into the gates. So forces were joined. This being the case, big-hearted Keth offered to prepare potions to aid them.

[Potion orders:

Eight healing (cure mods), three of endurance, three of strength.

Xp cost to Keth: 1680. He will recover half when an ally drinks a potion. He is no longer next door to L14. His player’s face falls when this cost is explained.]

The next move is to Khorshemish

The two months spent in the strange limbo of the war between White and Dark towers had changed the appointment with Cala Atenoel in Akbitana from a leisurely objective to a pressing one. Their next destination was Khorshemish, capital of Koth. Keth was to travel with them as local guide: he needed his gear fixed as well.

“By the time we reach it, King Strabonus will have left for a warmer palace, so there will be no danger from royal guards,” Keth assured them. “Fine smiths, the best of craftsmen indeed!”

[Strabonus is not specifically angry with the lads but they did belong to mercenaries generally operating against his interests in eastern Koth a few years back. If I’d wanted to stretch things out I would have dropped in a sighting of Kieros the Hand, a bounty-killer who works for Koth.]

Khorshemish and catching up with news

Bardic Morath and Keth had their captured armor re-fitted to them. Bardic’s helm he decided to keep: it was an antique design, and had a more enclosed face than he was used to, but fit him well. He commissioned a master smith to engrave and filigree his great-sword with silver. Celo added a new short-sword to his equipment, and they all three purchased horses for the journey to Akbitana, where even better weapons could be had.

Sojourning in such a big city allowed some leisure to get up to date with events. Some they had already heard en route.

  • Almuric’s rebellion had been over even before they had left Becharadur. King Strabonus of Koth concluded a peace that saved him money; Almuric let a whole slew of mercenaries go. A fair proportion of them went east and menaced the borders of Koth, Ophir, Zamora and Turan impartially…
  • Until the Shah Amurath (whom the lads had crossed paths with in Zamboula) was put in charge of a clean-up campaign. He massacred every last one of them.
  • The Prince of Khoraja was captured in eastern Koth, presumably as fall-out over the Almuric deal. It left Khoraja without a ruler, though Princess Yasmela acted in his stead…
  • In time to be pinpointed by the dread sorcerer-warlord Natohk, who had swept through a bunch of eastern Shem’s cities.
  • Morath’s acquaintance Shevatas had been killed years ago, around the time Natohk showed up.
  • Their old friend Captain Amalric meanwhile was still employed in Khoraja. Conan, the Cimmerian they partly remembered from the sack of Venarium eight years ago, somehow leap-frogged from mercenary grunt serving under Amalric to general of Khoraja. It is said an oracle was involved. He led the Princess’s forces in the defeat of Natohk and was said to be Princess Yasmela’s consort now.
  • Ophir’s war with Aquilonia was also short-lived, and must have been over by the time they heard of it. The major upshot was: the river Tybor is now the border between the two.
  • The Da Kovas had returned to influence in Zingara following the return of status quo between Argos, the Barachas and Zingara. War with Aquilonia seems imminent: part of the ongoing rivalry between Da Kova and Terentius.
  • The fourth Peoples’ Games was to be held in Nemedia.
  • Ophir was sending a trade delegation south to talk to Stygia now that peace ruled in both Koth and Shem. It was to travel by land, pass through central Koth, and on to Akbitana.

 

Aside from these pieces of information, Celo asked Morath to mentor him through paying respects to Bel. It had taken a decade, but the Aquilonian had finally gotten the message.

[Another great chance for a heist or assassin gig, but not this session.]

Once the weapons were delivered the three travelers mounted their Stygian-Shem crossbreeds, which promised great endurance across dry rugged terrain, and led off their three packhorses. All wore muffling cloaks or robes: Celo, now dressed in good trader-style clothes, was Simon, a trader seeking a better score from the Spring Weapons fair, and Morath and Bardic were his hired guards.

“I’ll catch up with you as soon as I can!” Keth promised, waving them farewell heartily, “Remember! Spring brings renewal and fresh hope!”

[Keth has hired potion-brewing space and bought in any herbs needed using the pearls from Venari’s cutlery. It will take him longer to finish the potions than it did the smiths to complete short-swords or armor refits.]

 

The quick way south

Given the time factor, the three comrades decided to head south through Prince Almuric’s domain directly towards Akbitana rather than take the wagon road around through Khoraja then back west. The pass south led through the Mountains of Fire: a switchback, difficult road at this time of year, but not closed.

Other traders and merchants were traveling the same road, headed for the same big event. They passed a few accidents en route but in the main these were hardy, road-wise men, with small trains and few slack hands. The big merchants would have set out weeks before, along the easier road through Khoraja, which was now made safe by Princess Yasmela’s sensational victory.

 

Akbitana lodgings

“Where would Cala stay?” Bardic asked rhetorically as the Akbitanan gate guards waved them through. Their equipment was far too costly for them to be criminals. The guards were a mix of local city Shemites and Asshuri from back west. They appeared to be tough and competent.

“Somewhere down-market,” he answered himself. “She won’t be trying to attract attention.”

“Wonder what she’s calling herself now,” Celo commented. In Becharadur, where she had been hunted, she had adopted the guise of Lilit, a high-priced whore.

Morath checked for hangers-on routinely, and estimated the city’s layout. Situated on a steep slope, the well-to-do and great manufactories seemed to share the lower ground near or on the river. The poor dwellings were consigned to far upslope where water was difficult to come by.

Rewarding the urchin who had guided them to “somewhere cheap, with a place for horses” as required, Bardic swung off his horse and led it to the ostlery across the road from a run-down inn.

“Book us in, Celo?” Bardic suggested.

The innkeeper’s fawning hospitality changed to cool indifference once “Simon” decided that a corner of the common room would do for he and his two guards. Shortly after they concluded terms – a silver a day each – Bardic stomped in crossly, complaining about the high price of stables.

“Still, we did decide to feed our horses on good grain, so that’s to be expected,” he cheered himself, helping pile the gear into a corner and gazing around to see if any of the wayfarers were going to be a problem.

Buying and selling

One of them did recognize him, but this proved to be good news not trouble. The man claimed to be a trader out of Palena, named Kostigarian, and he hailed Bardic and Morath as the heroes of Palena’s liberation. He didn’t recognize Celo: he had witnessed Celo’s fiery death and only saw the struggling trader Celo was playing.

Thanks to Kostigarian they were cued in to the length of the weapons fair’s duration, and to avoid journeyman-fashioned weapons. The true masters did not drop their prices much, but those were the ones worth buying. He himself was looking for the same high quality to resell back in Corinthia. Markup was excellent.

So for the next few days, worrying a little about their dwindling silver, Simon the weapons trader ordered a sample of a couple of short-swords, and a batch of daggers. Bardic sold the great gem off his broken great-sword hilt, not without a twinge of nostalgia:

“I remember being in a tight clinch, pounding a fellow’s eye out with the pommel – good times! But nothing lasts forever save Crom, and he doesn’t care.”

With the release of these funds he added a further commission: replacing the haft of his broad-ax with a steel core. He’d seen the same kind of thing back in the gendarmerie, and liked the idea of having a hafted weapon that would be much sturdier than usual.

The team is complete

Keth found them without even the trouble of scrying. The fame of two of Palena’s heroes had spread, so one late spring day Keth rolled into the inn, greeting them with a hug or slap on the back each. He had the 14 potions they had decided on. Two healing potions apiece; Endurance for Celo Morath and himself; and Strength for Morath, Bardic and himself. Celo would be using the Belt of Anu that Bardic had turned over to him.

 

[This happened around the time they rested in Keth’s monastery. Bardic mentioned the belt and how he was reluctant to invoke a god. I suggested that Celo would benefit most from it, and he’s always been Mitran by convenience not by conscious adherence. Celo can now expect to do significantly more damage with his full-round attacks.]

 

Not long after that, with weapons finished and scabbards or sheaths all made up, word reached them to visit an elite stable at the better end of town and watch the horses being exercised. It was easy to spot Cala’s Balkhana crossbreed: she had showed it off to them after Becharadur, just before they parted ways. She had bred it out of Yataghan, the matchless Balkhana she had got from Vivo’s stables.

And Cala was watching them, from the shadows. Catching their eye as they looked about, she motioned Celo over.

“Who’s the priest?”

“Keth Alkaran, a friar we worked with a few times and is on the same path we are. Are you known as someone in particular here?”

“Call me Lilit still. Is he okay with killing?”

“He prefers not to himself but doesn’t object to us doing it as long as we are killing bad guys.”

“All right, Celo, I’ll put my faith in your judgment. For now. Now listen to the directions I’m about to give you. All of you meet me there tonight.”

The outline

It was an upstairs loft. Once Morath had patrolled the area and assured himself that Kayan Haduk, who was taking his ease seated on the floor against one wall, was the only other soul within earshot, the briefing began.

“So, are you comfortable with a lot of bloodshed, Mitra man?” Cala wanted to know. Keth repeated very much what Celo had already told her. She seemed satisfied.

Unrolling a sketch of a large walled complex of square-sided, flat-topped buildings, Cala announced:

“Blood will be shed. A great deal of blood. And you will be doing it here. The temple of Derketo.”

Her slim, strong left hand moved over the sketch and one finger tapped a side-exit, where the walls were sketched as leading to something not shown as part of the sketch.

“My part of the mission is here. For that to succeed, I need a lot of noise and killing back in the main compound. No fire though, because that will be obvious to other temples not far away. I need the guards fighting you, not worrying about what I’m doing.

“Now, your objective, after the distraction, is probably here” – her finger moved across to the opposite side and touched an isolated building – “or here, in this wing. I can’t be sure. Probably the second option because these are artifacts of ancient times and most likely tucked under one of the main altars, not off in a separate building.

“As far as I can tell your best way in is straight in, from the river through the main approach.” Cala gestured to a broad roadway leading into the center of the compound. “But I’m sure if there’s a better way you’ll come up with it. But don’t forget, I need bodies piling up, guards panicking.”

“Apart from guards – and how many are there by the way? – what kind of things could we expect?” Bardic asked.

“Wizards. Things wizards might use. As for guards, dozens not hundreds. Probably less than a hundred.”

“Well, we’re in, obviously. We’ll just need some details…”

“Including an escape plan, I know. Your own final objective is a lot further. This temple is in Stygia. How much do you know of Stygia?”

Bardic groaned slightly.

“Is this river the Styx? Because Stygia has the Styx, and this is a temple on a river.”

“Pretty close, Bardic! This is on a river off the Styx. Here’s how it would look from a god’s eye.”

Cala sketched a line from right to left, which bent up and away from her.

“This is the Styx. Imagine us looking down from over Shem, like hawks. It turns away into Kushite lands and through to mythical Zembabwei. But about here” – she made a dash about midway along – “lies the city of Luxur, where there are many temples. This is one of them, and it’s where the artifacts are stored. And where I will take my revenge and my exit.

“Look: I could give you a big story about Derketo, but let’s just say it needs doing. Are you all with me?”

Here, she looked at Keth in particular. The friar nodded. His two Lions of Mitra were vociferously with Cala. Bardic summed up for the others by recapping the evil of Derketo.

“What about you Kayan,” Bardic asked curiously, “is this your exit too?”

“I’m not planning to die!” the Asuran laughed. “I’m all for a nice safe passage away.”

“I plan to retire, not die either,” Cala retorted. “I have my exit thought out, is all.”

“Somewhere nice?”

“Somewhere very nice.”

A codicil to the delegation

“So, if this place is in Stygia, how do we get there?” Morath asked somewhat suspiciously. His faith in Cala was deep but Stygia was notoriously closed to outsiders. Even trading ships were given very limited access to Khemi out on the coast.

“I have come up with a way in,” Cala replied, her dark eyes sparkling more than usual with mischief. “You may have heard that Ophir is sending an emissary across the land route to Stygia to talk about trade. Well, there will be five extra guards!”

“Hmm, that seems… far-fetched. Are they not going to notice us?”

“I’ll take care of the details. I have contacts. As for the disguises, remember when we went on the trail of the lost Envoy? Those gold-scale hauberks? You’ll be dressed in shiny gold-scale armor, shining so bright, you’ll be so spectacular that no-one will dream that you have designs on a temple!”

Luxur

Weeks later the Ophirean trade delegate, his traveling household, and his fifty elite guards watched an official Stygian river-barge moving sedately up to the mooring-point on the north bank of the Styx. It was three stories high, brightly colored, powered by two tiers of oars, with fans, and feathers, and canopies and a ridiculously high stern. No doubt it would sink in any kind of open water but here it was beyond impressive.

The barge’s progress was slow but certain. Its passage from the Styx to the Harakht River afforded its passengers their first look at gigantic cocodrills, lying log-like in the poisonous waters. And approaching the south bank of the Styx, they got their first good look at pyramids. Some were stepped, some smooth-sided. But since those were in the background, the huge pylons, most carved in the shape of gods or goddesses, standing along the river marking this or that approach or entrance, were far more impressive.

As the official greeting songs and prayers were exchanged on the Luxur landing, a woman of the delegate’s household nodded to five of the elite guards.

The five had got on well with the Ophireans, many of whom were professional mercenaries. And the journey through Shem had been relatively easy: from city to city, enjoying the admiration and hospitality of the women. Following the crushing defeat handed to Natohk’s followers, men were a little scarce in central Shem, and the Shemitish girls loved the gold scale outfits. A happy memory for Bardic at least.

Now, they trooped into what was apparently going to be the official accommodation compound and put their heads together, figuratively speaking.

“Time for us to move out to a new base. We’ll need somewhere on the waterfront. Who speaks Stygian?” Cala asked. No-one raised a hand. She smiled a grimace.

“That will be me then. Kayan you be with me. Women don’t do much business in Stygia.” Cala studied the others as though to match their faces to a mental image. “How do you feel about shaving, O priest of Koth?”

Keth stroked his luxuriant black beard protectively.

“Uhrn, hmm. It would not be manly.”

“And the rest of him’s so hairy it would take days anyway,” Bardic added dryly.

“And I don’t see you Bardic being able to pass as Stygian, no matter what. So that’s Celo and Morath as scouts once we strip you down and stain you dark.”

 

Scouting and a plan

That night two sturdy Stygian commoners slipped from shadow to shadow, away from the royal compound and towards Derketo’s temple compound. Lights on the walls and waterfront glowed.

Making a complete circuit of the landward wall, they made efforts to count guards, patterns and dominant features. On the side opposite the river-front walls rose a small stepped pyramid. The compound walls surrounded it, but they in turn were abutted onto a lower walled area, making it hard to tell if that offered easy access.

The river-front side could not be studied in detail, but they could tell that the walls were very high above the river. The approachway, from whence passengers of river-craft entered the compound, did seem to be the best way in.

Around dawn the darkened Celo and Morath reported back at Cala’s new river-side headquarters, a dingy warehouse. Bardic asked a good many questions and thought through various challenges. And one of the key issues was the escape. The plan was to pass back out of the river and away.

[Bardic's Military Tactics skill helps him reach an impressive check of 24. He's able to assemble some guidelines for what the team need to look for and what not to do, such as sit and wait for spellcasters to find them.]

“We’ll have the boat we need,” Cala assured him.

“As long as it’s big enough to carry children out?”

“It should be. Are you really bringing them back out?”

“Of course!”

We ended a bit early, all ready for final equipment decisions, then a huge mook fight and some magic smack-down next session. Stay tuned!

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Hyboria! H5E14: The Lions of Mitra, Part Two

Time is of the essence

“Grab what you need quickly my friends!” Keth cried, “We’ve got a third Lion to find and a Gate to close before all the demons of hell are let loose…”

“Lion?…”

Moving past this small slip of the tongue, Keth Alkaran encouraged Gan to keep docketing the contents of the portable writing-desk found in Venari’s manor house. As for the two Lions, Carolus had receded into silence now that there was no danger; but Georg continued his comments, encouragement and singing.

For his part Bardic was more interested in questioning Skilvashara: the dancing-girl and Venari’s plaything. She had gone for the Cimmerian with a poisoned dagger on first sight, but ‘mistakes should not be dwelt on’ as he put it and he asked her where she came from, how long she had been there, Venari’s minions, and so forth.

Skilvashara was straight out of Becharadur, shipped up as slave merchandise, and arriving a couple of weeks ago. She knew something of Venari’s underground enterprise, and aside from the men and hyena-men just slain, described a couple of weedy-cleric-type minions.

Something about the time scale sounded a little off to Bardic. He had experience in traveling with caravans that included slaves, and it seemed a little odd that he and his retainers had not overtaken such a caravan, considering traveling seasons and speeds. Still it was possible, so he put it to one side.

Checking to make sure the precious items found had been distributed, he returned to find Keth and Morath listening to Gan, who was reading out what he had found among the papers. None of sounded useful for traveling below in the tunnels.

“You’re pressing us to go?” Bardic asked Keth. “We could really use a rest – perhaps a day?”

“There is a good reason,” Keth said, then paused to marshal his thoughts.

“Time here does not move in the same stream as it does outside the valley. I discovered this when I made a round trip back to my monastery. It took me around two months, but here, only about a day had gone by.”

“Now what the lass said makes more sense,” Bardic muttered. “You are right, we can’t delay.”

[Keth’s player earns a fate point for a skilful in-character explanation.]

Then he turned to the retainers, who had finished the messy job of dragging bodies outside.

“All of you men! Listen! You are clear of the bugs here, and we’ve killed the worst of our enemies. So, you should be safe now. Wait here for us and when we return we’ll settle up pay and set you on the road to Koth as agreed.”

Naturally the Mitrans Olly and Gan were to come with Keth. To everyone’s surprise, Hafentos also volunteered. Morath studied him with deep suspicion, but realized that the man was simply so scared he felt safer with them than staying to see what else might attack.

[There’s always room for a Nobbyfoot. And in fact Hafentos as lantern-bearer worked remarkably well. Everyone could be sure he would try to stay right with the party, preferably close to Bardic.]

With reasonably cheerful mien the others – Bin, Two-heads, Wulber and Dax – settled down to dice for the various bits of unclaimed loot and dream about what they would spend their gold on. Bardic warned them sternly that Skilvashara was now under his protection and they were not to take liberties there, and followed the others out the door and up towards the Mitran shrine.

 

Welcome back! That’s the prelude to the finale of the Dark Tower. In the intervening week the players have been given a loot list from the manor, and now tuck away a couple of extra goodies as they set about traveling down. In particular Morath now has good-quality walking boots again, Bardic has a spare broadax, and Keth has a presentation-quality Mitran symbol. Hafentos has decided to carry a massive-pull Shemite bow, far too strong for him, figuring he can sell it for a fortune if and when he gets to civilization. Olly is juggling the last flame lance and his own staff.

Following the ‘advice’ of the jackal princess, Keth has decided to use the tunnels directly below the Mitran shrine. He knows that the inhabitants of the White Tower of Mitra will not actively help him, but nor will they hinder him. It remains to be seen how much he has to explain. Now read on!

 

Mitra’s White Tower

Olly passed the ornate Tome of Mitran Rite over to Keth and the Kothian laid it reverently back on the clean stone altar in the shrine. If he was right about what his mission would achieve, this book would probably not survive, but better to finish its service to Mitra here than in the sordid belongings of the apostate Venari! He turned to the others and pointed out the concealed trapdoor in the floor.

“My scout died finding that. We descend here: it is a long way down, but we have a rope ladder.”

Celo led off, clambering steadily down. Even as the light above him dimmed he picked up a glow below. Bardic placed himself second, and at length stepped down close behind the Aquilonian rogue who was gazing uneasily at a strange, glowing barrier over a broad opening in one wall.

“Don’t stand in line with it,” Bardic suggested, “use your mirror.”

Bardic assessed the rest of the smallish chamber while Celo fished out the small mirror-polished piece of metal. A pile of rubble had been rammed up against the only other door, as though to stop it being forced open.

“There are ghouls on the other side of the door,” Keth confirmed as he joined Bardic. “They ate one of my company when we first explored here.”

“I can see a warrior-size figure with a golden glow in its chest,” Celo reported.

“Alright Keth, we’re working on not much information here. What’s with the strange barrier and the gold-glowing chesty fellow?” Bardic asked suspiciously. Meanwhile the remainder of the party clambered down. Morath, who was suffering the pangs of three deep arrow-wounds, came last, breathing heavily.

“This is the entrance to an ancient tower of Mitra, known as the White Tower,” Keth explained a trifle reluctantly. “The inhabitants have been warring with the forces of Set since centuries ago, and even to them it seems decades. Their fight is not ours, and our path lies through the ghouls’ caverns.”

 

Ghoul caverns

The ghouls heard the sounds of the door being unblocked: two rushed Bardic as Celo flung it open, and were swiftly dispatched.

In the adjoining cavern, three ghouls lay in cover of tumbled, part-buried chests and a statue, but Celo’s sharp eyes and extra lights brought in by Keth and Hafentos revealed them. The fight was brief though fierce.

“Gy-arh! This is some slimy, smelly mud,” Celo complained as he checked over the chests and statue.

“These ghouls have been eating and shitting here for decades. ‘Mud’ is maybe not the right word,” Bardic laughed. “But it does make tracking easy – this panel here is where they ambushed us last time. So we’ve come to the other side of where we were.”

“Hard left here, according to the jackal princess,” Keth murmured.

Taking down the panel quietly, Bardic could see the intersection he expected. His keen ears picked up an almost-metallic sounding clicking and scratching. Glad that it did not come from the left he waved Celo forward. Hafentos tucked in behind, carrying a lantern, then Keth.

 

Sword bane

The left-hand tunnel curved left and down. The followed it for quite some depth. The lantern light showed that it widened ahead. Rock shards and boulders lay scattered there, as though the tunnel had suffered a partial breach.

With due care, and hugging the left-hand wall as much as they could, they picked their way through single file.

At the midway point, four ‘rocks’ unfolded wings and dropped from above, attempting to seize the lead four. Keth and Bardic avoided the creatures’ grasp but received a light wound. Hafentos was grabbed but with a convulsive heave wrenched himself free and fled back, leaving the lantern fallen and spilling oil onto the ground.

Keth swept his quarterstaff confidently at the nearest creature, but though his sweep was powerful, the thing simply used its wings to correct its stance. Olly and Gan had no better luck. Reluctantly Keth decided to use lethal force!

Meanwhile Celo had swept out both his sword and dagger and stabbed at his attacker in a flurry of blows that barely nicked its surface. This thing was like rock!

“Sculpt here!” he cried to Bardic.

Mighty Cimmerian muscles powered the great-sword in a vicious arc designed to take out the three nearest creatures: the first creature struck shattered at the pulverizing blow: but so did the great-sword!

[Bardic’s sword has been ‘on notice’ since Tortage when he cut a couple of acid-oozing demons apart.]

Barely checking to curse, Bardic smashed the hilt-shard into the next creature, cutting deep. It fell apart! The third one hopped close, wrapped its wings around him, opened stony fangs, and drew him into a death-lock grip!

But by that time Celo had worked out where the things would feel a stab, and sliding behind it, rammed his sword home. With a further stab from Bardic the thing fell to rubble. Bardic drew his broadax.

Keth and Gan were defending themselves valiantly against the fourth. With Olly lighting up his flame-lance from the burning spilled oil, the fight was easier to manage. Celo and Bardic helped trap and dismantle the thing.

Bardic now took leisure to curse.

 

A series of very strange traps

Immediately beyond the broader, fallen-rock area, the tunnel joined a well-shaped passage of ancient design as the leg of a T-junction.

Keth’s two mentor Lions were uncertain which way would lead most directly to the third Lion. They could feel it strongly. Possibly right?

Celo paced quietly down the broad passage, Bardic not far behind, and Hafentos near him. The half-Stygian had taken up his lantern again: it had lost around half its oil but no other harm. The tunnel ended tidily at a blank wall, but a well-fashioned archway on the left framed a very solid-looking, ornate door.

Celo studied the door closely, listened at it and felt it.

“Feels a little too cold. And it fits very snugly. Too snugly. Let’s try a different route,” he suggested.

[Celo earns a fate point for excellent scouting. The door was indeed fashioned to stop smoke, gas or water from getting out once hapless adventurers were safely past it.]

Passing the passage up on their left, Celo, Bardic and the others paced at least sixty feet and came to an arch on the left. The high arch let into a tunnel that led away in both directions, curving convexly away from them. Hafentos held the lantern high. The passage beyond seemed so ancient that its surface had become worn down.

But by the light, Celo noticed stone dust in the passage, not the smooth gloss of innumerable feet. He could also pick out – just – an exit arch either way, near-hidden by the convexity.

“And look!” Celo pointed out, “A groove about five feet up has been worn along the wall!”

“Let’s just wait,” Bardic decided.

Suddenly the passage was blocked momentarily: an eerily silent stone ball, occupying the entire width, rolled past clockwise at speed. Only a faint tremor in the stone under their feet betrayed the enormous forces at work.

“Whew! Mitra save us! I dread to think what would have happened if you hadn’t spotted that one, Celo my friend!” Keth marveled.

“Let’s just time it,” Bardic decided. “Once we get the timing we can run behind it to the next arch.”

The count was a minute for a complete revolution. Sorting the party into two groups made the progress easy. After two more revolutions all seven were safe in the next-clockwise tunnel. But now, Keth’s mentors were fairly sure another quadrant had to be crossed.

The layout was the same, so the same procedure was followed. Now, the entire party of seven: Celo, Bardic, Hafentos, Keth, Gan, Olly and Morath; were 180 degrees from where they had begun navigating this lethal silent tunnel.

They appeared to be on the top-left arm of a T-junction, both arms and leg broad and fairly clear. The lantern light picked out what were probably heavy double doors down the leg of the T, but Keth’s mentors – Carolus was still alert and present – were sure it was the opposite direction. Not far down the next arm of the T, a passage led left, but before that point, it seemed prudent to check the wall for hidden panels again.

As Celo, Morath and Keth searched, Celo heard a quiet clack. He hurled himself to one side. More by luck than anything else, Morath narrowly missed being skewered by a spear or something similar, which shot out of the wall they were searching and slammed into the double-doors down the passage opposite!

[Morath burns a fate point to make sure he does not miss the reflex save. Celo had not yelled a warning.]

“I’ve found a secret door,” Celo announced from the prone position. Indeed, at creeping-insect level, he had found a latch.

 

With prejudice

As Bardic, Celo and Hafentos peered along a narrower, lower passage, Keth had a suggestion to make to Gan.

“It may be time to push our healing powers out beyond their normal limit, Gan. I fear that we may need Morath soon.”

“But master, is that wise? He is a devil-worshiping Zamorian! The legends of his exploits are beyond unsavory!”

“It seems the right thing to do, Gan. Trust me! Now, I have to retain enough power to re-consecrate a shrine, so I’m afraid this duty falls to you.”

Sighing reluctantly, Gan turned to Morath.

“I shall heal you, O wretched Zamorian…”

He extended his hand as though to touch a plague victim and healing power flowed into Morath. Gan was visibly wearied by this. [Cure Moderate, 2d8+5, Morath moves from 13 to 24hp. This takes 4 minutes, while at the same time Celo and Bardic are debating and prepping gas-masks as described below.]

 

Smoke and stabbing

Meanwhile, Celo set off down the passage, only to retreat hastily as a lotus-bomb was hurled over his head to let lotus-smoke drift down.

Morath, now awaiting his healing, sniffed expertly:

“Yellow Lotus. Not lethal – just sweet dreams. A year or two ago I would have been snorting that stuff.”

In fact it had been back in the Year of the Rat over four years ago that Morath had sworn off the drug.

With one ear near the spear-hatch Bardic could overhear some squeaking discussion, and general sounds of hasty retreat.

“Let’s get going! They are reorganizing! Celo, I’m sure you can dodge anything they send down – you run for them and I’ll follow up!”

After some rather needless debate, and wrapping wine-soaked cloth around their mouths, Celo raced and tumbled down the passage again. He evaded the next gas grenade easily. For his part Bardic simply walked through it. But meanwhile…

Clack. Wham! Gan, who had been distracted by all the healing and planning, had wandered in front of the spear trap’s zone. This time it was aimed to one side, and the ballista bolt went right through him and into the wall opposite!

Keth pulled him down and began easing the shaft out, but Gan was finished. All Keth could do was offer a blessing to send the faithful scholar on his path to Mitra.

[Keth plays a destiny point for “wait! breath remains in him yet!” but Morath plays a counter-destiny for “it’s worse than that he’s dead Jim” so the status quo remains. Let’s hope Morath isn’t needing healing again anytime soon.]

Celo and Bardic stabbed and hacked their way through small, reddish-brown, bipedal, dog-lizard-like creatures that while wiry and quick were not sturdy. The passage wove in a zig and zag away from the ballista-trap room, and into a great circular chamber that might once have been a chapel. There were two other exits but the little creatures did not use them, and were quickly finished.

“I don’t know what those goblins were, but I doubt we’ll see them again,” Bardic commented, wiping his axe clean. “Keth! You were saying weird things are seeping out of the gate, right? So once it’s shut, that’s the end of it? Why, what troubles you man?”

Keth, ignoring Bardic, hurried to the left-hand exit and forced open the ancient door. Georg and Carolus were both loud in his head.

“Yes! It is here!” Keth cried, unearthing an ancient cracked belt from detritus. As he touched it, it reshaped itself into a magnificent war-girdle, with a Lion motif on the buckle. And then something black, segmented and shiny struck from the shadows!

 

The third Lion

“A giant scorpion! Just what you’d expect in an ancient tomb! What were you thinking, Keth!” Bardic reproved humorously, wiping his broad-ax clean once more. It was obvious the broad-shouldered friar had eyes only for the belt.

As Keth donned the girdle, a pale light glowed around him, and three ghostly figures became visible to the onlookers.

“He’s been cursed by ghosts, he must be stopped,” joked Celo. It was fairly obvious that Keth was happy to have their company. Celo peered at the group:

“So that’s the third Lion? Looks female.”

“Praise Mitra! I walk the earth once more! Now comrades, we join to destroy evil!”

The speaker was a lusciously beautiful Shemitess, garbed in light war-gear and bearing a Shemite bow. Her raven hair was bound loosely and fell about her shoulders, and her large sloe-dark eyes seemed to glow with inner beauty.

“Welcome, lady! Whom do I have the honor of bearing?” Keth asked.

“I am Jamalla, The Wise, High Priestess of Mitra. Now united, we three Lions of Mitra assure your victory!”

“Shemite eh? And a priestess? By Mitra, things are coming to a pretty pass when Shemites are let loose in the priesthood! I don’t know…”

“Brother Georg, be silent! High Priestess Jamalla, forgive this ancient paladin: he was originally killed by Shemites. It still rankles, apparently.”

“I understand. Georg the paladin, know that in life I converted to Mitra from the cult of Ishtar. I was persecuted for my conversion and all my relatives… suffered. Some were sacrificed to foul deities. Only my solid faith in Mitra kept me whole. Like you, I made war on my kinfolk, though unlike you I died after a long and full life.”

“Well, if you put it that way… oh, by Mitra, welcome! Now let our strength be united!”

“Now let our strength be united!”

The air seemed to freshen around Keth and those close to him felt braver and stronger. With good heart, they turned to the final phase of the mission.

 

A big step

The three Lions spent some time discussing the best way down. For some minutes all Keth could say to the others was “it’s downward.”

The other five used the time to check weapons – Celo was using Bardic’s silvered poniard while Bardic kept the silver-chased shard of great-sword – swig wine, renew the torch or oil, and kick idly through the trash left around the area.

“We’ll try the next left from the main passage,” Keth at last announced.

“I think it’s your time to lead off, you and your ghostly gang,” Bardic told him.

The five others rearranged their order behind Keth. Hafentos was now some way behind Keth with his lantern, then Celo and Bardic, Olly with another torch, and finally Morath still rearguard.

The left-hand passage proved as well-formed as the main one. Ahead, Keth could see double doors: and as he neared them, he could also see a large glowing rune across them. He slowed his pace.

“I’m seeing some sort of gas, pooling on the ground,” Celo reported. Hafentos started violently and hung back, allowing Celo and Bardic to overtake him. Bardic clapped him on the shoulder:

“You won’t want to be left alone! Keep up lad!”

[Good Leadership check from Bardic]

Meanwhile Keth was trying to nerve himself. The doors looked ominous to say the least.

“Buck up, laddie-boy,” growled Georg, “pick a door, by Mitra!”

He extended his hand and seized a door-handle: and winked out. Hafentos let out a frightened bleat and grabbed an amulet at his neck.

“We’ve seen this before. In fact we’ve done this before, remember?” Bardic reminded his two other comrades. “We vanished and reappeared inside a rock cyst. And besides, the gas is knee-height and rising.”

So saying he strode forward, grabbed the same handle Keth had touched and disappeared. Hafentos looked nervously back at his line of retreat: but the rising gas was mysteriously cut off from rolling away back into the main passage. With a heavy sigh and another muttered invocation against evil spirits he followed the others, who were already ahead of him and disappearing in succession.

 

The choices of Keth Alkaran

Keth found he could see in tones of grey. He was in a small, cold chamber, one side of which allowed access to a steep flight of steps down. Down seeming to be the right way, he set off.

The cold grew more acute as he went. Which was not what other explorers had told him about the depths of the earth. He could hear the others setting off down the steps behind him, and light came from their lights as well as from the seeming rock. At last, he came to the end. Another small chamber, and bitterly cold. He could feel it cutting into his bones. The only exit was a sturdy door, set deep in what looked like fortification-thick wall. Beckoning Celo forward, he waited to hear what his mentors thought.

“The gate is now close, Keth Alkaran. We have been discussing who will have the honor of sacrificing themselves to seal it,” Carolus told him dryly. “We  – I – can clearly perceive that High Priestess Jamalla must be destined for the next gate. So it is between Georg and myself.”

“Aye, it is true! My destiny has always lain in Shem, and Mitra’s fate for you will take you there!” Jamalla exclaimed. “The gate that is guarded by the devils of Derketa and the head-takers of Sabatea is mine alone to close!”

“So, laddie-boy, neither I nor Carolus care to let the other have right of way. We’ll accept your decision,” Georg finished.

Keth thought for a time as Celo wrestled the cold-stiffened mechanism of the door into moving.

“It will be you, Carolus. Until this time I did not fully realize that you each must be sacrificed. I and all mankind gives you thanks. But, it will be you.”

“It will be my honor to do so! There is one other thing: as you may know, the White Tower lies on the far side of the gate from where we are. It would be wise to fling my amulet once you are closer to the Tower than the gate, else you may never be able to get out at all!”

 

The last abomination

“There’s something big pacing around outside,” Celo muttered to Bardic. “I can feel the stone shaking.”

“I’d like to count how long it takes him to patrol but Hafentos is turning blue and even I’m feeling the cold,” Bardic replied. “Let’s heave the door open and have at it!”

It took both Bardic and Keth to push the door open. Bardic took a few steps clear of the wall, into what looked like a rough and fairly open cavern passage, and found that, as Keth had while descending, there was some ambient light. Even before Olly got out the door with his torch, Bardic could pick out something massive approaching from his left.

Celo dropped further out and beyond Bardic, while Keth arranged himself within support reach of the Cimmerian. Morath slid out and hard right, and Hafentos staggered a few steps that way as well.

[The cold chamber has a spell-like effect equivalent to Slow as Fort checks are failed, though all characters have good Con and Bardic would take a long time to succumb.]

The monstrosity bearing down on them was at least twenty feet tall, with three cobra-like heads, thick scale armor, two arms and two legs. Its feet ended in blunt claws. Each fist bore a weapon: a great axe in its left and a great sword in its right. Its eyes were the blank remorseless eyes of a serpent.

[Terror of the unknown applies to those outside of 10’ from Keth, which is Morath. He burns his 2nd-last fate point.]

The air around Keth glowed and those within ten feet felt strong and confident again. The three Lions materialized: Georg and Carolus in front of Keth with shields and weapons raised, Jamalla behind him nocking an arrow. Blasts of white light beamed from each weapon and struck the monster. It screamed from all three heads and kept coming on!

[The Searing Light effect is a constant 50 points/rnd]

The monster smashed its weapons down at Keth, sending him reeling back with robe shredded and deep cuts to his brigandine!

[Keth takes around 70 points after the Lions take some DR off for him, burns two fate points for Saving Grace, and does not get knocked flying, just back 10’. He has 8hp left.]

Bardic assessed his options. Then fueled his limbs with rage! He rushed at the monster, leaped high and smote hard once then a second time with his great-sword fragment.

[Bardic pours a bit too much power attack in and only connects once.]

Timing their run to Bardic’s, Celo and Morath ran forward. Celo rolled between the mighty legs and behind it, Morath along the wall. Both stabbed hard. To Celo’s surprise even his normal iron short-sword sank home.

Olly and Hafentos made ready their weapons, still rather slowly.

Keth was not out of the fight! He strode forward amidst the blaze of white beams searing the monster, and smashed its axe with his staff!

[Keth finally puts in a serious power attack and breaks even the extra-hardness axe haft.]

Left with only one weapon, the monster smashed Bardic three times with its huge sword, sending him bowling back, blood streaming from under his shattered helm, but still able to roll to his feet!

[Bardic takes 74 damage before his own DR reduces that to 68, and also uses Saving Grace to stay in the fight. He is only knocked back 10’]

With only Olly and Keth to contain the monster things looked grim, but the rogues were stabbing deep now and ichor was flowing down its legs. Keth risked another huge blow at the other weapon, and it broke as well! [I was expecting Keth to back hastily away but the sunder did work, so well done Keth!] The three Lions continued to pour searing damage into the creature: its flesh was cooking off!

Bardic raced forward once more, this time gripping the broadax. He cleaved the thing’s knee and kept running!

A couple of extra stabs by the rogues, and at last the thing fell!

[567hp thank you very much – and its size meant that without his great-sword even Bardic could not force a massive damage test on it. That felt like a real battle! Bardic made some great rolls and Celo got at least one crit, but Morath was rolling like he was Hafentos. Maybe the ghost of Gan was clutching his dice…]

 

Flight

“We must flee now, my friends. Lighten your loads! Beyond the passage past the gate lies help, but speed is our friend now!”

So urged Keth and as Celo took the lead past the giant corpse, each member dropped whatever they thought necessary. Bardic wiped the blood off his face and cast his helm aside. He’d picked it up in Becharadur: easy come, easy go. Keth struggled out of his ruined brigandine.

Celo swung right, and put on speed as he glimpsed three bizarre misshapen giant shapes peering out of a tunnel. He tossed aside spare daggers, rope, food and wine as he ran. A strange, darkly-lit garden spread out to his left.

“That could be where the hyena-men range! Keep running!” Keth called. The three Lions were still visible to Keth, jogging alongside him, looking eager and determined.

Morath moved past him smoothly: in strange underground passages the Zamorian was in his element. He too had shucked off spare daggers. Hafentos and Olly struggled along behind Keth. Ahead of Keth, Bardic checked: made sure his retainer was heading forward.

“I think I’ve found it!” Celo called.

 

The gate

The entire floor of the huge open cavern ahead glowed with eldritch light: as though seen through a parchment, strange demonic shapes pressed against the floor, waiting to be pulled through. A hint of winged shapes in the deep darkness of the cavern above.

“Follow the path, laddie-boy!”

Inside the skein of demonic web-stone, Keth could see a glimmer of gold. It followed no regular track but bent now one way, now another.

“Follow me, all: I can see the path we can travel!”

“Lead on!”

Keth took the lead, reluctantly dragging the amulet off his neck. He reached the far side, after some eighty feet of winding path. The others ran past him, Bardic practically carrying Hafentos who seemed to be in shock. [Will checks are all good except for Hafentos]

“Throw hard and throw true!”

Keth followed Carolus’ injunction, and the amulet arced into the center of the gate. As a split-second image Keth glimpsed a proud, strong cleric lofting a mace on high: then the gate shattered.

Rock tumbled inwards and down, more and more. Nothing else could be heard above the roaring.

Keth dashed after his comrades, gesturing to where he thought they would be safe: he found them caught in a quandary between a seeming sanctuary from which peered a mild old cleric, and massive double-gates that must mark the White Tower itself.

There was no time to debate whether they could avail themselves of healing: the ground was crumbling behind them. Keth ran to the gates and knocked for admittance. And the doors swung open.

 

Leaving Mitra’s Fist

The sights the six saw as they were admitted up through Mitra’s White Tower were haunting. Men of past ages, caught out of time, resting and healing wounds as though fresh from the combat. Strange beasts and half-beasts, machine-like creatures and creature-like machines. As they passed through an inner chapel, Keth’s power came flooding back. But the tower was shaking too: cracks were forming along one wall. As they passed the final guardian, he looked at them with age-old eyes that if anything seemed relieved that at last the struggle was finished: neither Mitra nor Set would win but all be extinguished deep beneath the earth.

“It’s a steep climb: let’s make it as fast as we can!” Bardic cried. They all did so, save for Hafentos. [Str checks all good] Bardic and Keth simply pulled him up as he clutched the rungs.

Bardic had had plenty of time to think about where to run next. Moving to the shrine’s entrance, he could see that the tavern was already sinking and crumbling apart.

“I’m going to loop around to the gendarmerie by way of the manor house,” he called back. “You can help the retainers get the horses clear.”

“Or we can run for the hills,” Morath muttered. But Bardic was already gone.

“MEN! CLEAR OUT! GRAB YOUR GEAR AND THE HORSES! FOLLOW ME SOUTH!” Bardic’s bellow could be heard above the rumbling now growing in intensity. And none of the retainers had been sleeping. Skirting some crumbling patches Bardic ran through the sagging gates and waved at the horses furiously, then turned and ran on to the gendarmerie.

Shortly, Celo, Morath, Olly Keth and Hafentos made their way through the crumbling manor wall and were able to assist with the horses. There was no time to hitch the wagon: but horses would make the difference between travel and bare survival. Wulber, Dax, Bin and Two-heads brought Skilvashara and Inchana, the servant-woman, out with them.

Meanwhile Bardic ran around the now gaping pit occupying the center of Mitra’s Fist, vaulted the gendarmerie wall, and assessed the stable-yard. The bugs had gone but the carcasses of the camels and horses were still there. Not worth grabbing saddles. Right! To the armory! In the next minute he had swept up that Kothic great-sword and the best open-face helm. As cracks formed in the north wall of the place Bardic grabbed the Kothic breastplate, ran back out, threw the gear over the south wall, vaulted after it, and rallied to help the others.

Within the next ten minutes the whole train was working its way around the steep hills, well away from what was now a huge pit. Their last sight of the dark tower that had guided them to this destined place was of it falling into the pit.

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Tuesday Teaser: Manor and Means

The Manor House

“Celo, my friend! Beware of the ring of Set upon the evil Venari’s hand!” Keth called. The Aquilonian hastily drew back his own hand.

“What’s up with it?” he asked. It looked a plain copper coil, perhaps in the manner of a serpent. Two tiny dull gems marked the eyes.

“Other than being evil?” Keth replied. “I’m not sure any man should touch it, but I must keep it safe.”

“You could try those noncy green gloves,” Morath snarked. His wounds were really hurting and he had missed out on stabbing the archer that gave him them. He was currently trying to work out if the man’s armor was better than the chain shirt he was presently using.

“Good idea,” Celo agreed, delighted to have a chance to try them.

“Ah, hold on!” Keth cried. But Celo had already slipped the gloves on and wiggled the ring loose.

Nothing happened.

Keth, taking no great comfort from this, since neither of his particular Lions had said or done anything initially, bustled over to the dead cleric, and extended his open healer’s kit to Celo, pointing out a pocket the ring could go in. Celo reluctantly dropped the band in.

The lay of the land

“This is supposed to be a manor house?” Bardic mused, returning down the stairs. “I’ve seen brothels smaller than this. In fact I’ve seen smaller ale-houses.”

“What did you find up there?” Keth asked alertly. He was sure that Venari must have some kind of drug-making equipment.

“A fairly nice chamber; it doubles as sleeping-quarters and dressing-room too. Sort of good-quality inn grade, I suppose. And a big silver dish. And a decent view of the rest of this little hell-hole. And Venari’s woman.”

“Oh Bel’s Balls, Bardic, not another dancing-girl!” The cry came from Morath.

“Yep, ’fraid so. She says, her name is Skilvashara, and she’s his latest concubine. Gotta say she’s the best argument for joining the priesthood I’ve seen so far. Sorry Keth but there it is.”

“You didn’t just leave her up there, did you?” Celo queried nervously.

“I don’t make war on women,” Bardic retorted coolly. “I slapped a dagger out of her hand, is all. I did make her touch the Mitran design in the dish and I did check her reflection. For now that’ll do.”

The manor house was indeed modest in size. Thick stone walls to regulate the fierce cold and heat of this region made the three downstairs rooms seem smaller than they really were. It seemed that food and drink were brought in from the nearby inn, for only the most rudimentary cooking facilities were available in the manor itself.

From the top floor, which covered two-thirds the bottom, one could see over the high stone walls protecting the compound. This allowed Keth to get his bearings, when he had the chance later.

Three stout doors on the south-west side of the compound let into ancillary buildings: probably guard-rooms or even servants’ quarters. A scared, slatternly-looking woman could be seen peeking out of the north-most door there from time to time.

On the north end of the compound, an enclosure contained a luxury covered wagon, a simple kennel, a line of stables and troughs, and some mounts or draft-horses.

The main gate of the compound was sited on the north-east, facing the inn and trade-post and not far from the well.

Keth told them his own mission had accounted for the war-dog and most of the guards, leaving Venari with only his two best men, and now extra hyena men.

A pile of loot

Working over the half-hour subsequent to their victory, the men assembled a small amount of loot taken from the two dead warriors, two dead hyena-men, and Venari. The scaled demonic-looking figure had not conveniently melted away – though it had shrunk back to a slightly scaly man – but nor had it been carrying treasure.

  • A variety of gold pieces and coins, weighing around two pounds.
  • A variety of silver quarter-mina and coins, weighing the equivalent of 649 silver coins.
  • Necklaces, amulets, rings, worth a small amount based on intrinsic value.
  • An ornamented Tome of Mitran Rite, with gilt lettering.**
  • One fine silver candelabra and five fine-quality candles.
  • A masterwork set of personalized cutlery, goblets and flatware, all gold with pearl ornament.
  • A polished silver scrying-dish with Mitran designs engraved.
  • A velvet-padded portable commode.
  • A clothes-press with interior detachable mirror, and some changes of fine clerical robes and under-clothes.
  • Fine hangings of velvet and similar.
  • A portable writing-desk with a relatively small number of documents, some useful for traveling through Hyborian lands including Aquilonia.*
  • Venari’s personal seal, in iron, and some sealing wax.
  • Packets of incense of various kinds.
  • Prepared herbs, but in very small quantities.
  • A fine ceremonial Mitran mace, in silver and gold. Probably won’t stand up to more than one solid blow.
  • A presentation-quality Mitran symbol (Mitra the Lawgiver) with Venari’s ordination date on the reverse.
  • Three serviceable and two worn belt-knives.
  • A masterwork throw-blade in masterwork concealed boot-sheath. The boots fit Morath.
  • Three daggers: one is a masterwork Akbitanan of Shemite design and another is a masterwork Poniard, though of an odd design. The third is a poisoned lady’s stiletto seized from Skilvashara.
  • One very heavy-pull masterwork Shemite composite bow and a quiver of 15 masterwork arrows.
  • One masterwork scimitar.
  • One masterwork broadax.
  • Two axes weighted for throwing or chopping, and a hatchet.
  • Blood-soaked masterwork brigandined leather armor, in black, because Morath is not the only one that obsesses about looking ‘dark.’
  • Masterwork chain shirt. Also blood-soaked.
  • Helmets to match the above.
  • Belts and belt-pouches to go with the above. One set is black with jet decoration.
  • A few not-very-clean serving platters and tankards and spare unmatched flatware and kitchen utensils.
  • A part-empty barrel of really good wine.
  • A part-empty barrel of cheap wine.
  • Three gourds of what was probably magical healing potion.
  • Two Hyborian-style costrels of wine.

Means to the same end

Keth had begun to be anxious about pushing on, as soon as he realized that there was nothing he could use to brew potions. He concluded his bargain with the jackal-woman, and said to her:

“May Mitra bless you if you keep to your word, my daughter! Now one thing further: we seek a deeper path. I have heard that your tunnels might lead to one way down?”

“Don’t fanny about lad! Warn the little vixen you’ll take the fires of Mitra to her warren unless she guides you!”

“You prove yourself a man by asking for more as soon as a bargain is made! If you seek a way down, ask the men in the inn to guide you!”

“Oh, my daughter! We cannot trust them!”

“What, you haven’t put paid to traitors?”

“You say you trust a jackal? More than you do men?”

“Of course I trust you, my daughter! Have we not just agreed on a pact?”

“A pact with the forces of darkness!”

“You should return up to your shrine, man of Mitra. There is a swift way down from there, through the ghouls, then hard left when you reach the point where you were ambushed.”

Keth was reluctant to show some of his allies this option, but left the discussion there for the time being. For Georg was loud in his head.

“Grab what you need quickly my friends!” Keth cried, “We’ve got a third Lion to find and a Gate to close before all the demons of hell are let loose…”

“Lion?…”

*The contents of the desk can be classified by Gan, but will take an extra half-hour.

**The inscription inside shows it belongs to the Mitran shrine above the village.

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Hyboria! H5E13: The Lions of Mitra, Part One

Welcome back! Our heroes Bardic, Celo, Keth and Morath, and their various hirelings and allies, had managed to rest for eight hours following their capture of the gendarmerie in Mitra’s Fist. After a rain of fate points they have recovered some health as well!

Keth has just heard a mysterious voice telling him to get about the business!

Now read on…

We move now!

Keth had no time other than to register that, quite obviously, no-one else had heard the basso growl in his ear. For at the same time, Dooce and Bardic were sounding the alarm!

“Someone’s calling your name, Bardic!”

“I sense the movement of large masses. Up, everyone! Up and arm!”

The keen senses of the Cimmerian Bardic had indeed picked up the tremors of something through the floor of the small meeting-hall where he and Dooce were standing guard. Something large: perhaps heavy horses? Regretfully setting aside the Kothic great-sword he had been fondling he pushed through the outer doors and raised himself up onto the stables. Again, a voice cried out:

“Bar-dic! Bar-dic! Bar-dic!”

Dawn’s sun was behind the peak east of Mitra’s Fist, so the shadows obscured some details. The voice came from the direction of the solidly-built village inn, some 60 feet distant. Beside it stood a swaggering, broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped man with long, well-kept dark hair. His broad sun-burned face bore the unmistakable stamp of Cimmeria.

“Bardic! Come out and face me!”

“Ha ha… no.”

Bardic had worked out who this must be. There weren’t that many Cimmerians on the loose, and he only knew of one that had anything to do with slavers. They had last exchanged glances across a market fair-day in the Charter Town, on Poitain’s border.

The hostile Cimmerian sneered and mocked but Bardic could see no reason to pander to his obvious trap, and instead, cast his eye about suspiciously. From where had the heavy drumming sounded?

The dawn air was thick with fine dust: so much so, that had it not been a calm morning Bardic would have sworn that one of the feared desert simooms was upon them. Then he got it. And at the same time he felt a powerful compulsion to open the gates. He shrugged it off! [excellent Will save, beginning a near dream run for Bardic’s saves this session]

Cursing, he strode back into the gendarmerie, slamming and barring the doors, and rallied his allies:

“We head down now! And you men that were going to stay up here, think hard! The enemy has conjured up some devilment and it’s about to descend on your heads!”

Sure enough, insects began creeping in through cracks around the doors…

I asked Celo’s player, who had brought the loot list, to tick off things he thought they were bringing; and had previously agreed that some oil-soaked ‘flame lances’ had been prepared during the night watch. Then I asked ‘and who is opening the trapdoor?’ Eventually a large coordinated effort was required, as – gasp – a jackal was spotted waiting below.

Bardic leaped down the short drop, and cut the jackal down, then crouched forward and ducked his head around the corner. Away to his right steps descended into a darkness in which he could scent jackal, water, and wine. Morath joined him, then one of the wounded men, with a torch already lit. A short way down the steps, Bardic passed an iron bracket on the wall with a good rush taper ready in it, then further down, another one. Once lit, these shone a fair light to guide the rest of the party. Bardic and Morath crept quietly down, the remainder of the men making quite a din behind them.

 

The first Lion

By this time the congestion around the trapdoor had allowed Keth to have a ‘conversation.’

“I’m Georg, laddie-boy, a Paladin of Mitra when I was alive these many centuries past. My spirit inhabits the Ring you wear. I am a Lion of Mitra. And I don’t need to tell you, there is evil afoot and it’s time to be about flattening it!”

“Yes, the gate.”

“More than one gate, laddie! There are three! One here, two elsewhere! That’s why you must gather three Lions of Mitra! Your first task is to descend with these slack-abouts that are fannying about over a little trapdoor, and secure the second Lion. Don’t worry! I can sense it! Aye, and I can sense the gate! And what’s more I can sense the Ring of Set, so we may make time for a diversion to deal with the evil apostate now wearing it!”

Georg, feeling he had explained sufficiently, retreated into humming a military-sounding ditty.

 

Into the tunnels

More jackals seemed to be lurking just out of range of the torch-light. Bardic and Morath could see their eyes, glinting, from time to time. They had found where the smell of wine and water was coming from: the stair led down to a cool cellar in which two big barrels of each stood. A tunnel opposite led to steps heading up. Their sense of direction allowed them to guess that those must lead up into the dark tower above Mitra’s Fist.

I had already given Keth a fate point for correctly deciding to invest his original party into the Mitran shrine rather than the high ground at the tower. The latter choice would have been a disaster. He could also have chosen some other building to begin with, and except for the gendarmerie, those would probably all have been worse.

“Try left,” Keth called from back at the rear.

Bardic and Morath glanced over the barrels at the blank wall. Bardic extended his silver-chased great-sword and tapped at it. It knocked hollowly. Scrambling dexterously onto the barrels, Morath listened briefly, then kicked the panel out. Extended his torch out into the darkness.

“A landing, then more steps leading down. Keth was right. And in the dust – I see boot tracks.”

After hefting the four barrels around so that they blocked the jackals’ access, Bardic and Morath nodded to the others crowding in, and set off into the darkness. Again, a taper every so often was there to be lit. By now, lights had been redistributed: the heavily wounded Bin and Two-heads each carried a torch, and Gan and Hafentos carried a taper.

Down at the foot of the stairs, Morath and Bardic could see another landing and a door at the far end. Bardic nodded Morath forward. The Zamorian crept close, listened hard, and explored the latch and frame. He nodded an OK to Bardic. The noise level was not that of a dead tomb, but nor were there the furtive movements of anyone waiting outside the door.

“Head right,” Keth called from above.

Bardic and Morath explored the right-hand wall of the landing for at least a minute. In Keth’s head, Georg rasped some fairly critique of his traveling companions. Eventually, Morath decided to open the door. It let onto the side of a wide, well-formed but darkened corridor. After checking left – and getting a feeling that there might be some inhabitants that way – Bardic swung right. Morath moved out beside him. The remainder filed out and spread out behind them.

Keth had obviously scouted these tunnels thoroughly at some stage before his force was spent, Bardic decided. Moving swiftly past a right-hand tunnel as Keth indicated, he reached a T-junction where the right-hand tunnel was unformed and smelled rankly of jackal and worse.

“We need to go as straight ahead as we can. Right, then left,” Keth called quietly.

But as the party filed through a throat in the left-hand tunnel, a seemingly-solid piece of tunnel wall dropped away and a gaunt, muzzled, pale-grey shape lunged through and latched onto Dax! Another immediately followed! Keth swung up the heavy stone symbol of Mitra he had kept with him from the shrine’s roof: and invoked the holy name!

Nothing happened.

[Ghouls are living creatures, though with eerie strength and toughness.]

As Keth, Celo and those others near enough and willing enough helped Dax wriggle free, two more ghouls surged out of another side-tunnel! This time, Dooce was the unlucky victim: and before he could be cut free, the ghouls ripped him in half!

The fight with the ghouls is run from end to end order rather than having separate Init rolls. That way, everyone’s actions made sense in relation to what was happening immediately beside them. Even so it is a long fight. Keth does score a stun with power attack: he is learning to put plenty in to each whack.

At the head of the party, Bardic smartly cut four jackals apart before the confused light of those bearers behind him was lost. None of the other jackals he could hear out in the dark of the chamber he had reached showed any fight. Morath had headed back to help Celo. Then from the rear came a call:

“Push on fast! There are insects behind us! Big ones!”

Sure enough clambering along the walls and floor of the tunnel behind them came a carpet of hungry scarabs of immense size!

“Leave the ghouls for the bugs! Push on as best we can! Keth – which way?” Bardic called back.

“Take the left-most tunnel from where you are – then right and as straight as you may!”

 

“There’s a hidden chamber beyond on the left – and in it I can sense the next Lion,” Georg rumbled. “A sorry lot of shamblers you’ve fallen in with! Pah! When I was campaigning against the Akkadim we didn’t blunder into the first ambush laid, mark my words!”

“There’s a secret panel on the left wall,” Keth called, diplomatically choosing to ignore Georg’s other remarks.

 

The jackal princess

Jackal tracks led right up to what Keth had to be referring to: a clear set-back in the tunnel. But before Bardic could decide whether to swap places with Morath, a small, slim and somehow feral-looking woman appeared there. Her eyes gleamed yellow and her inviting smile revealed sharp teeth.

Bardic ignored the subtle hypnotic suggestion of her gaze and rushed her: she sprang back into her chamber, but it was too late for her to shut the panel. Instead she raced right across and pressed desperately against the opposite wall: then the huge sword of the Cimmerian sliced across her back and she fell with a barking cry. From all round the tunnels lamenting howls sounded.

The chamber smelled strongly of jackal, but was otherwise well-appointed. The others crowded in. Keth and Celo stooped over the corpse. Celo slipped a ring off her finger and an amulet from her blood-drenched neck.

“She is alive!” Keth exclaimed.

“Soon put that to rights,” more than one party member offered, but the Mitran had a different idea. “She may know some valuable secrets – and remember our real goal, against which the sparing of one misguided creature is as nothing.” He bound the deep gash in her back and dripped some wine into her mouth. Gan assisted with the bandaging. [20 on healing with the +2 help] Keth nodded with satisfaction: raised the creature to her feet. She was a tiny woman: even the shortest of the men loomed over her: it was hard not to feel sympathy. Keth turned to Celo, who was showing the others his finds:

“I shall take the amulet: it is sacred to Mitra,” Keth prompted. Celo handed it over. “Ah good, then I shall also take the ring, it may be harmful to you,” the cleric pressed. Celo lifted a skeptical eyebrow.

“Didn’t take you long to become the party leech,” he quipped, “but it’s all right – I’ll take my chances.” He slipped the ring into his coin-pouch. For his part, Keth donned the Lion-headed Amulet and waited. Nothing happened.

 

Good judgment

“I am your helpless prisoner: but I can offer you knowledge in return for my safety,” the jackal-woman murmured in a throaty, almost purring voice.

“Yes?”

“You seek to strike against Venari? I will guide you against him, and to a way out.”

“Sounds all right: guide us true and we have a deal,” Bardic agreed.

“Leave here through the other secret panel. Avoid the pit outside it. Bear always left, until I say otherwise.”

Once Morath had determined that the door seemed to work as she had indicated, he pressed the hidden release. Beyond, the jackal tunnels diverged in a crude trident shape.

Bardic stepped carefully left over the concealed pit following Morath, and the rest filed after him. With the jackal-woman securely pinioned and in Keth’s firm grip the jackals still dogging their footsteps held well back. Keth was a little distracted by Georg gruffly chanting a marching song, which involved killing a lot of Shemites, apparently.

Morath took the lead, following a couple of direction changes, until the crude tunnels changed to a formed antechamber of sorts, before a grim pair of doors, each marked with fell sigils. Morath shuddered slightly and hung back a little. A ripple of fear ran through most of the men, though Bardic, Keth and the remaining pair of Mitrans gritted their teeth and stood their ground. A new smell, a faint scent of incense, reached Bardic’s nose.

“What’s beyond the doors?” he wanted to know.

“It is a great room with a pentacle in it. The stairs that lead to Venari’s lair are reached through a door on the right wall. The pentacle does nothing. Just walk to the door and climb the stairs quietly and you will be under his lair.”

Bardic thought about this for a time. The lives of those with him could not be thrown away on a half-chance.

“A pentacle would do nothing if crossed by someone evil,” he reasoned. “Is there a way round it?”

“Aye, it does not reach clear to the walls. Even a large man such as you may walk around it.”

“Good enough, that’s the plan. Everyone! No matter what, don’t go across the lines of the pentacle!”

The black room beyond seemed vast after the cramped tunnels of the jackals. Double so for the stone it was faced with reflected hardly a glimmer of torchlight. The runes picked out with silver around a golden brazier were clear in the torchlight. But Bardic’s will was strong upon his followers and Keth’s men trusted to his lead. All present moved hard right around the pentacle.

 

Unexpected? or a trap?

Celo had assumed scout duties as Morath had pulled back. He could just pick out two gaping tunnels, one forward one left, that must lead out of the grim chamber. But he located the normal-size door on the right wall, without hearing or seeing anything from those directions. It opened into the room. Not hearing anything beyond, he checked the latch. It seemed to be locked, but with a simple latch-lock. He would not even need one of his range of implements for this. Slipping the slim throw-blade from its neck-sheath he inserted it between door and jamb, and flipped the lock off the latch.

Celo could not think what else to do to check the tunnel safely. I even threw it open to the table to see if they remembered what he had packed specifically, this trip, for this type of situation. None did. He had packed a small mirror.

Nodding to Bardic he opened the door and stepped back. Bardic slid smoothly into the entrance and towards the stairs, prodding forward with his great-sword in case there was some nasty surprise set off by heavy feet.

And indeed there was, though not of the mundane type! An awful wave of deathly energy washed over him, stripping the skin from his flesh! He flung himself back out, with a muffled curse, thankful it had been no worse than a scalding. The noise of feet scampering back up the steps drove him back to his feet with blood boiling, and heedless of the others and of the lack of light he raced, sword upraised, after the wretch! Knowing that he needed light, Wulber raced after him with flame-lance at port. Morath followed.

The light changed above: either the sorcerer had stopped to light a taper or he had exited into a room with windows or lights. By that and the light from the flame behind him Bardic picked out three circles ahead in the dust – bear-traps or something of that ilk – and easily cleared them. The trapdoor, set midway of the far side of the room’s roof, snicked down. Darting over to it, and pressing up with his great-sword, Bardic learned that it had been locked.

 

The second Lion

Below, the jackal-woman appeared to want to flee: Keth punched her a solid buffet, and she slumped unconscious. He slung her over his shoulder, handing his torch to Olly, and hastened after the others. Gan brought up the rear, nervously aiming his massive stone Mitran symbol back at the pentacle.

But with the biffing of the bad, a new voice made itself known!

“So must be dealt with all foul fiends and enemies of Mitra! And now to tear the Ring of Set from the cold dead hand of evil!”

“You appear to be a priest of Mitra?” Georg asked.

“I am Carolus, the Just, Priest of Mitra and at the forefront in the glorious advance of Aquilonia! And now that I am here, retrieving the Girdle is a foregone conclusion.”

“Aquilonian advance eh? Why you’re just a youngster then. I was fighting Shemites before Aquilonia extended down the Khorotas!”

“Advanced age is not an indicator of effectiveness, and I see you are a Knight.”

“A Paladin!”

“Mmm, an outdated concept I think you will find. Best leave the strategizing to those trained to it.”

“By Mitra, my strategy has worked fine! I found you didn’t I?”

“By strategy I take it you mean plowing through regardless. May I inquire how you passed into the blessed eternal service?”

“Shemites surrounded me! I fought valiantly and died gloriously!”

“So, could it be that you plowed headlong into these Shemites you speak of?”

 

The assault on Venari’s manor

Keth had no leisure to deal with this exchange, for he had at last clambered the stairs, over the trap and into the now-crowded basement. Bardic, and Wulber were ready to push on the trapdoor. Keth moved around to lend his staff and mighty strength as well. A heave, and it snapped up.

“At them, men!”

The call came from above. With a mighty bellow, the handsome Cimmerian earlier seen leaped down: Keth whipped the tip of his staff across the man’s ankles, turning him topsy-turvy and landing him flat on his face. Morath immediately lunged down and stabbed him on one end and Celo plunged his short swords in the other end. With a few gurgling flops, the man died. Not waiting to see if more idiots wanted to leap down, Bardic leaped up, one hand enough to power him up through the trap and into what appeared to be a fairly tidy but bare dining chamber. An archer, wielding a powerful Shemitish bow, scrambled back away from him. A fleeting impression of daylight, and a doorway opposite, and a huge scaly shape squeezing through it! Morath used his own strength and agility to vault up, then Wulber did the same. Bardic cut at the archer, sending him scurrying back further! Then the scaled fiendish creature was upon him, hammering him back and down through the trapdoor! Before Morath could decide whether to wait for Celo or take action himself, the archer stepped to one side to get a good line, and blazed five searing arrows at him! Three found their mark, drilling deep, and Morath retreated back down the hole as well. [39 damage in three shots]

Luckily Bardic had not taken any great hurt, and was already on his feet. Raging now, he leaped, caught the edge of the trapdoor with one hand, [he scored a 27 jump so I allowed the vault but a one-handed attack at -4] and lunged up and back into the room. One-handed, he cut at the great scaled fiend’s legs and severed its thighs above the back-turned knee! [Bardic scores a crit-max for 68] No matter how tough, it could not stand. As it crashed to the ground Bardic plunged past it, towards the archer, knowing the sorcerer was somewhere nearby but unwilling to leave Wulber to be slain.

Celo vaulted up and joined the fight. He didn’t have silver weapons but he could really hurt a normal man. The fight was soon over as the archer had nothing to prevent Celo getting around behind him and giving him two deadly stabs.

Then the entire room echoed to a powerful command that seemed to drive into all present:

“Fight one another!”

Bardic, shaking the thought off his brain like a wet cobweb, charged through the open doorway. [Bardic’s only real fail and a fate point to reroll meant the Greater Command is ignored. A brave choice as it is his last fp, but a good one!] A scent of rank fur made him duck as he lunged through: two hyena-men chopped heavy axes where he had been: but he was already past them and at the man that must have given the command: He wore long, rich clerical robes and his face was a rictus of snarling panic. Before he could unleash another attack, Bardic chopped his head off, then swung back and sheared a leg off one hyena-man and the arms off the other!

As Venari died, the compulsion many had been feeling broke, and all breathed a sigh of relief.

[Bardic gets two fp back, once for the showy, skill-using takedown of the scaled fiend and once for offing the BBEG before he can escape.]

 

Keth’s choice

Reviving once more as the party took control of the small manor house, the jackal-woman offered another deal to Keth:

“Free me, and in return I will call my people away. I will also provide you with information on what the hyena folk are doing.”

“How about this?” Keth bargained, “You convert to Mitra and do all that?”

“You are demanding a condition I cannot fulfil. My offer is a good one. If I withdraw my people, they will not spy on you. And the hyena folk are powerful still.”

Keth communed with his two Lions. Both wondered why he hadn’t killed the vile creature yet. He turned to the woman and said:

“We have a deal.”

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H5E12.1: Loot list

A list of loot tallied up at the gendarmerie, Mitra’s Fist.

(excluding two masterwork chain shirts, a pair of masterwork Kordavan leather boots, a pair of normal boots, and a masterwork short-sword)

The gendarmerie itself: it is built to withstand a siege. Its weak points are a seeming lack of access to the roof, somewhat low stable-yard walls, and lack of all-round visibility. If approached by more than a token force it could easily be climbed and a number of access points chopped or burned through the roof all at once.

General stores such as tools and rope.
Spare timbers and nails.
Light sources ranging from candles to lamps, with an amount of oil.
Chains and manacles (the portable type).
Keys to manacles.
A grappling hook.
Hard-tack, dried fruit, salt, peppercorns, milled and unmilled cereal, pickled meat and fish.
One part-empty amphorae of wine.
One bucket of water.
A short ladder, about 5′ long.
Three barrels of sand.

General utensils, cups and flatware suitable for about a dozen people.
Small cauldron, pots and pans.

Spare or stored clothing, all needing laundering but some of excellent quality. Some articles look very old-fashioned, including a Kothic knight’s cloak.
Accessories such as pouches, belts, purses.
A range of used boots of varying but mostly large sizes.
A nice pair of green cloth gloves.
A wax tablet and stylus. Some Kothic text is written on the tablet case.
A small brass case with a few grains of lotus powder still stuck in the corners.

Seven war-horses, probably Hyborian.
General farrier-smith gear and enough tools, spare horse-shoes, and nails to maintain seven horses for a year.
A small forge and ordinary anvil.
Twelve general-purpose saddles, most well-maintained but five dry and stiff from lack of care, and roughly the same amount of horse furniture.
Five masterwork war-saddles.
Twenty lances, mixed but not fine qualiity.
Feed-bags, saddle-bags.
Six pairs of riding boots.
Loose unmilled corn.

438 copper pieces.
1136 silver pieces or the quarter-talent equivalent.
2 small gems.
A well-made cash box.
A short poisoned needle that fits into the cash box hasp.

Six broadswords or equivalent, one of them an Akbitanan steel masterwork arming-sword of Kothic design, three other normal masterwork.
One bastard sword, Akbitanan steel master-work of Kothic design.
Two maces, one designed as a horseman’s mace, probably Nemedian.
One horseman’s war-hammer, with a head in the shape of a snarling bear. It looks like an antique, but of fine quality.
Two fine scimitars of a standard Shemite pattern.
Five berdiche axes or similar, one masterwork of Kothic origin.
One fine short-sword.
One masterwork great-sword with jewelled pommel, of distinctly Kothic design.
One battle-axe, probably masterwork but quite battered. Its haft seems to have a steel core.
One masterwork Shemite bow and quiver with 10 shafts.
Eight daggers of varied types. One is a heavy gaudy poniard with red gems on the quillons.

One complete suit of vintage Kothic plate. No, it doesn’t fit you.
One vintage Kothic breastplate. It will add 3 to armor such as mail shirt or hauberk. It weighs less than a normal breastplate, but until re-fitted will not offer any other advantage.
One mail hauberk.
Four chain shirts, one masterwork.
Two Kothic steel-face shields.
Eight steel caps, three battered, three fair quality, two probably masterwork but quite old-fashioned.

Just outside the gates, where all the zombies collapsed, lie a number (at least 30) of average to shoddy weapons, ranging from heavy war spears down to hatchets. Most of the corpses also have a belt-knife or dagger. Wulber already took all belt-pouches while he was looting jet, and the coins are included in the coin count above.

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