The Signal is Given
The eight allies crept through squalid huddled huts – barely more than shelters – where tribal women and children hid their faces from the grisly ritual. In a murmur, Cala sought agreement on how they were to attempt the rescue: Alleto to her left with his shield warding the left flank, Vorel at the rear where his mighty longbow and two blades could deal out death, and Bardic on her right, keen Nemedian broadsword clutched in two fists. From Morath she sought assurance that he would hold Pras’ life in trust as he did the Mitran priest Edric; the Zamorian assented and slotted in behind Bardic. Celo, bow at the ready, tucked himself behind Alleto. Pras and Edric stood amidst these six, protected on all sides.
All having been arranged, the eight awaited Vivo’s signal. The wild men, chanting, hammering spear-butts on the ground and waving stone axes, were oblivious to them, though they were but a few paces behind the nearest. Though she seemed to stand at ease, to the keen observer Cala was holding herself in check, like a hunting cheetah, ready to spring into action. She muttered a coarse imprecation as the seconds ticked by and the eight could see that the previous sacrifice had been lowered: a new victim was being chosen from a mound of bound men. Then from the opposite side of the platform, a glinting missile streaked to strike full upon the shaman standing atop the platform over the crystal: flames burst around and over him, and he staggered about shrieking wretchedly!
Blood on the Crystal
Cala, Alleto and Bardic walked deliberately up to the nearest tribesmen. Cala had adopted a defensive stance, and her two companions followed her lead. From behind them, Celo Vorel and Morath flung knives or loosed shafts that felled two tribesmen before they were properly aware of their danger!
Howls of rage replaced the more ordered chanting, and wild tribesmen, faces contorted with fury and demonically masked with paint, hurled axes and literally flung themselves over the lead three like a human wave. It was a mistake: though hit hard by the volley of axes the ready swords of Alleto, Bardic and Cala licked out and up, disemboweling, hacking limbs asunder, and stabbing though vitals. Behind them Edric and Pras cleaned up a couple of mortally wounded that fell into the circle. Ahead of them, they could hear Cala and Alleto laughing and the Cimmerian bellowing. All three were liberally covered in blood: but the tribesmen gave back before the web of death before them. Around the flanks, Celo and Morath saw other tribesmen rushing to encircle the group, and their arrows and those of Vorel took a toll. But there were far too many tribesmen to drive off: and Celo groaned as he saw several applying a paste to their axes or spear-heads. Though the other two remained unscathed, Vorel was hit by flying axes: grimly he shot a final shaft and slung his bow, readying his swords for the expected onslaught.
Alleto, Cala and Bardic surged closer again to the platform. A fresh victim had been raised to dangle above the crystal. Beyond, a vast serpentine form rose, to tower above the natives at the opposite side of the platform. Edric was disturbed to note that a more than animal intelligence burned from its eyes, like twin pits of hell! Below the snake, advancing in its wake, the helmed, bearded visage of Vivo showed itself just above the platform. A fresh wave of wild men flung themselves forward and were slaughtered. Other axes rained down, occasionally braining one of their own but several managing to score on the six attackers. Alleto could not suppress a groan as poison burned its way into his thews! Behind him, Vorel found that he had been fooled into slinging his bow too soon, and he too felt the pain of poison. Then Bardic too: and they both felt weaker, as though their reserves of vitality were ebbing. This was seemingly a different poison to that used earlier: the defenders were not trying to take prisoners!
Cala lanced her broadsword up through the groin of the tribesman above her and made a low vault to the first “step” of the platform, one below its top. Bardic and Alleto were just below and behind her, one to each flank. Alleto’s blade sang out and two tribesmen fell:
“Your technique is good, Zingaran: but you ought to wear more armor!” Cala exclaimed. “I wouldn’t like to see that pretty face ruined!”
Bardic felled another tribesman then shuddered as his weakness grew. “Crom!” he muttered, knowing full well that gloomy deity cared not at all.
“Oh no!” Edric cried, pointing: somehow the Shaman had recovered and now stood again to slit the throat of the latest victim. The crystal pulsed a deeper red again. Beside and behind him, Vorel, Celo and Morath were fighting for their lives as tribesmen pressed in, hammering spears into their armor and screaming their hatred of these intruders! Morath cursed fluently, calling on a variety of dread Zamorian demons to avenge him should he fall. But their defense held: no tribesman got through to menace Edric or Pras.
As the tribesmen fell back, panting their hate, Celo seized the chance: snapping his short sword back into its scabbard he whipped his bow off his back and arced one arrow, then another, into the shaman. Screaming, toppling: the shaman somehow wrenched his body around, to fall forward, onto the crystal. Blood seeped out: drained into the crystal: a low droning sounded: somehow from everywhere: and nowhere!
The Blooded Stones
As Cala led the way on to the top of the platform, Bardic and Alleto at least could see much more of the battle. Like a god of war, Vivo made across the platform, casually batting away the odd tribesman who got within reach of his greatsword: the edges of which burnt with hellish fire! By one hand, he dragged an unconscious Zpado. Ahead of Vivo, and warding the pile of treasure, the massive demon-serpent coiled, menacing the tribesmen, who threw the odd spear or axe at it tentatively, as though such an act were a blasphemy against their dark gods. Clustered around the crane and mound of captives, a small group of wild tribesmen, more decorated than the others, stood their ground, gesturing fiercely at Vivo, who ignored them and strode towards the serpent-wrapped treasure mound. Behind Vivo ranged Fastwolf, aiming his longbow at any that durst get too close, and Clampus, declaiming unnamable incantations and gesturing at the serpent.
But now a new element introduced itself into the battle: five vast stone idols appeared from thin air, spaced equidistant around the crystal, near the edges of the platform. Each column was perhaps 10 feet across and 20 feet tall, carven – or were they? – as with the visages of malefic otherworldly beings. The stone eyes of each stared out blankly toward the crystal, yet seemed to contain… awareness.
Inimical awareness at that: for even as the wild tribesmen yelled in exultation at this the culmination of their ceremony, the idols began gliding slowly around, trapping tribesmen between each other and grinding them into bloody paste! Two sandwiched the vast serpent between them, and though it seemed to be large enough to coil around them both and toss them away, it writhed briefly then winked out of existence! Treasure spilled out from a crushed chest: gold bars mingled with scattered gold coins and jewel-adorned weapons whilst gold-leaf covered scale hauberks and gilt helms were pushed aside by the gliding juggernauts.
“So… it was but an illusion!” Breathed Edric, perhaps with relief.
Vivo took a mighty swipe at the nearest idol: then leaped back, glaring in amazement as his sword raised not even a chip from the stone face! Stooping, he flung Zpado off the platform, swept up the scroll tube, then followed his fallen comrade off.
Crouched nearby below the lip of the platform’s top, Celo ground his teeth in frustration. He had been so close! Looking back to his comrades he saw that Cala Alleto and Bardic had either been pushed or had leapt off and they too were crouched, trying to assess this deadly new force. Behind them Vorel breathed a sigh of relief: the arrival of the stones – or the unexpectedness of the stones’ attack – had unnerved most of the tribesmen to the point of flight. He and Morath began circling the platform following Bardic’s lead, trying to draw the stones away from the captives’ position.
Spotting a half-chance Cala and Alleto ran part-way along the platform, trying to get around to the captives on the other side of the crystal, then had to give way and split apart, as a mighty idol ground towards them! Alleto rolled to his feat amid scattered treasure, grabbing up a golden hauberk.
Alleto looked around, assessing the battle. On the other side Clampus and Fastwolf were still atop, but showed no sign of attempting to free captives. Instead, Clampus was holding a scroll and screaming dark liturgies at the idols, without success.
“This spell is not working!” Clampus screamed: “I can’t understand it! In Zamora where I bought it they understand demons and their dismissal!”
Ignoring Celo who was scooping loose gold into a golden helm, two idols had rolled ponderously down pursuing Vivo and Zpado: now they slammed together! Vivo strained all of his might and pushed himself clear, but of Zpado there was no sign! At the other end of the platform two other idols were ponderously gliding after Bardic, Morath and Vorel, while the fifth menaced Cala.
Alleto! Break the crystal!” Bardic hollered, dodging further around the platform. Alleto waved his understanding, and made the first platform step, grunting with the effort of lugging the armor as well as all his own gear.
But seeing his opportunity, the Cimmerian, with lightning pace, sped between the idols, vaulted the captives, and sprang up behind the crystal. The wretched captives rolled out of the idols’ way as best their bonds and numbness permitted as the two idols, stone faces impassive yet somehow blasphemously sentient, converged on Bardic. Cala dodged behind them, cutting a couple of ropes. The crystal, standing between the two idols and their prey, was smashed to shards as Bardic and Cala leapt clear of the impact!
And then, with the summoning crystal shattered and their summoning priest dead, the idols were hurled back to the demonic outer dark they came from by the spell Clampus was screaming! Their forms wavered, becoming partly immaterial, then vanished. The droning that had filled the space around the platform ceased: and only once ceased did the combatants realize how it had eaten into their will to fight.
Packing Out to Peril
Vorel leant back wearily against the platform, opening a flask of Clampus’ potions. This would give him the endurance that the poison’s bite had stolen. He missed the glint of cynical humor in Clampus’ eye as the Kothic scholar noticed the draught being swigged. Clampus resumed his discussion of the battle – from a scholar’s point of view – with Edric:
“Yes, the shadow-serpent: obtaining the shadow substance was a quest itself,” he muttered in an undertone, below Vivo’s hearing. “Worthy of five kings’ favor was its winning. And Kothic Fire” – here he broke off to show Edric a few remaining glass vials in his pouch – “why, these too are probably worth more than we have won here.”
The scholar continued explaining the workings of Kothic Fire with the enthusiasm of the true alchemist, as the six surviving captives were loaded with loot like human cattle.
“Wear a gold hauberk each, lads,” laughed Cala, “but don’t think of them as your own: think of them as rentals!”
“I nearly had that scroll,” Celo said wrathfully, “but Vivo stuck it down his hauberk. It’s somewhere under that beard.”
“Now now, Celo, play nice,” Cala replied lightly. Vivo had returned to the platform to oversee matters, but now his intimidating gaze fell upon Vorel like an ice blizzard as the ranger said:
“Vivo, you’ll not forget: we are even shares in this, even including the scroll you have tucked away.”
Somewhat overwhelmed at his own temerity before such a dread power, Vorel faded back to take post well toward the rear of the caravan as Fastwolf began navigating out of the village. Celo followed the Hyperborean, keen eyes taking in his expert techniques, then came Vivo, Cala and Alleto guarding the “human mules” and Edric Pras and Clampus, then Morath, Vorel and Bardic.
The way was hard, for until they cut back onto one of their own trails back of the pool, the tough, root-tangled brush was as bad as ever. Vorel for one was glad of it: he could barely stumble along, and looking ahead he could see the six “mules” were much the same. Ahead of them, he could see Edric and Clampus exchanging opinions on the exotic herbs and trees, Pras listening avidly the while. Having dealt with the rarity and deadliness of the upas-tree, and regretted that they had not the leisure to draw its sap, the two scholars returned to a debate on the antecedents of the wild tribesmen. Vorel grinned sardonically as they agreed that without doubt the tribe were a lost fragment of some primitive ape-like ancestor of the present-day Cimmerians, probably a brute remnant of Atlanteans or Commorians.
“I’m sure Bardic would be fascinated to hear about his low forehead and thrusting jaw,” Vorel called mockingly.
“Unh?” Bardic grunted, from the rear. He like Vorel was suffering from fatigue, though unlike Vorel he had tucked a gold bar – once intended for Aquilonia – away in his kit.
The Real Demon
At the van, Fastwolf drew up, and turned to scowl back at the chattering scholars.
“Clampus, what’d you want to go playing with that illusion again for?”
Perhaps Clampus’ suddenly-ashen face told Fastwolf the truth: none will know, for abruptly, he was smote in the back by two saber-long fangs as a massive serpent struck, demonic intelligence searing from its ophidean eyes! The Hyperborean’s eyes glazed in death even before he fell.
Panic ensued: Celo turned his back on the vast serpent and ran, rolled and scrambled past the bearers and scholars. Vivo drew his greatsword, Cala her bow: the one raised his brand, the other slipped to one side. The bearers, dropping what they could and yelling in terror, scrambled uphill off the trail as best they could. Clampus uttered a single syllable: suddenly, all the six companions save for Alleto were filled with feelings of great loyalty and protectiveness for the scholar. Of them all, only Alleto had not supped potions made by Clampus: potions with that “extra something” – the drug that lent strength to Charm spells.
“Clampus! Throw your Kothic Fire!” Edric urged, attempting to shield his new best friend. Others urged him to run or get behind them. Even Celo drew up short in his flight, in his urgent need to save his scholar friend.
“What? No! Can you throw?” Clampus passed a vial to Edric, who juggled it nervously looking for an arrow to tie it to, then handed it off to Celo. Morath, Bardic and Vorel closed on their friend, trying to get to a position to protect him while not committing suicide.
The colossal serpent struck again: Vivo grunted in agony and with a titanic effort threw the snake off him as its coils, each thicker than his own waist, tried to wrap around him and crush him. He brought his sword down, drawing ichor from the scaly hide. Cala, stepping coolly away, shot several shafts into it. Though she could not miss at such close range only two penetrated. Alleto, double-handing his bastard sword, smashed it down, cutting the snake lightly, then dodged aside from its coils.
Disappointed in its second prey, the demon serpent raked the group with eyes of evil knowledge: picked out the scholar-mage fumbling with a scroll, and struck! As it severed Clampus from all further ambition, the charm too was severed. And more than that: the remaining vials of Kothic Fire exploded, engulfing the head of the serpent and searing its gullet!
Instantly, Celo too hurled his vial, with like effect: Vivo, arms free, delivered a flurry of massive blows, each of them strong enough to cut a normal man in half. Cala, making more distance away, shot another arrow, while Pras, Alleto, Morath and Bardic sprang out of the way of the driving coils. Two of the bearers were not so lucky, and Edric was crushed near to death as a coil slammed him against a tree.
But the snake had had enough: not waiting to receive another killing blow from mighty Vivo, it fled, snaking up trees and away far more swiftly than man could run. All were content to let it! Celo raised Edric’s head, presenting a wineskin to his lips and letting him drink deep.
“I can’t believe you survived that – what was that?”
“By Mitra! I think… that was the real substance of what Clampus summoned. There are such things, gnawing deep below the bowels of the earth.”
“Clampus told me naught of this,” growled Vivo in a basso profundo tone. “Betimes he would hint at secrets he meant to probe: secrets below a mountain where, he said, great demon snakes guarded the way to treasure untold. It could be that the snake was part of his plans.” Vivo shrugged, assured himself that the treaty was still tucked away, and turned to the job of getting the surviving four bearers back into line.
After a day during which all had a chance to rest, recover from the deepest fatigue, and dress their worst hurts, the caravan arrived at the valley head where in two campsites the mounts and guards were hid. It seemed that Cala had first made a camp, leaving Motrac as guard, then Vivo had found her camp, leaving his mounts at the same site with Shasur as guard.
Somewhat comforted by the addition of two healthy men, the six watered their horses – which by that time were very dehydrated – and rejoined their erstwhile allies; and began taking measure anew.