In the immediate aftermath of Zerbaal’s death, the four non-complicit killers retired to the caravanserai, fearing some extreme reaction. Following a discussion with Ginnoc about police shakedowns, they checked the caravanserai layout and disposed themselves to watch. They soon observed a strong police presence on the square and ways nearby. From where he stood at the public door, Vorel spotted a small group of Pelishtim approaching. He whistled sharply, and Celo and Morath made themselves scarce. Bardic joined Vorel at the front entrance.
It was a trio of Pelishtim, one much larger than the others, escorting a shaven-headed, dark-robed man. Bardic and Morath vaguely recognized him: Iapet, scholar of Set.
“Our enemy approaches” – Vorel
“The one who put us onto the great slab of treasure in Astola, and whose guards helped fight off the Picts? I count him not among my enemies, Vorel” – Bardic
Bardic elected himself diplomat-in-chief, and strode forward. Finding himself speaking only to Bardic, Iapet seemed discontented. They agreed to speak in the courtyard of the caravanserai, and the four proceeded through the roofed alley between the main wings. Vorel followed, shadowing the trio of guards, marveling at the sheer size of the third: a giant of a man, reminiscent of Vivo in breadth of chest, and perhaps a shade taller. Morath and Celo were invisible among the wagons.
At length, seated across a table from one another, the two exchanged thoughts, Iapet speaking loudly and clearly so that the others could hear. His main object seemed to be to find out what they were doing there and if they had formed some alliance with the Hyrkanians. They admitted to being friendly with the Hyrkanians, and also intimated that they would like to meet Houmekri, though without giving any detail as to why.
Unable to obtain any clarity, Iapet contented himself with stating that he thought they were in a position to each do one another a service, and left.
More leads and a diversion
Sensational as the killing of Zerbaal had been, there remained tasks at hand. In what remained of the day Bardic completed winding up his dancing-girl network (spending only a dozen more silver coins) and learned that Quorra Kang was riding out; Celo made a careful study of the palace and found two possibly unguarded entry points; Morath tracked down a fortunate of Bel named Ya Nashor and an unscrupulous scholar named Shah Goanix; and Vorel shared flagons of wine with various Hyrkanian warriors and learned that the enterprise they were engaged in was timed for the next few days.
Morath was diverted. As he bade farewell to Shah Goanix, deciding not to have too much to do with someone who seemed to have his own agenda, he noticed Quorra Kang at the same tavern. She seemed restless. A drink, a few words in the Brythunian language they barely shared, and an assignation.
Celo joins the team
Late evening found Bardic Celo and Vorel back at the Looting Soldier caravanserai and their information exchanged. Rollo, loitering around Bardic in hopes of employment, was given a small pile of silver and told to enjoy himself. Though tired from the days of business, and nights of broken sleep, the three checked the caravanserai for security. Celo was introduced properly to Rani and was paid a gold chain-link in token of service. With a last check of the security, the four bade goodnight, and left Hobrieca securely on guard outside Rani’s chamber.
It was deep night. Celo stirred in his sleep: ill dreams of black, claw-nailed, groping hands. Then awoke. Something had come to his ears while he slept: a susurration of bare feet, slow yet heavy. He slid his dagger out of its sheath about his neck, and felt about his roof-top pallet for the rest of his gear.
A rending crash and clang came from below: Celo realized it must be from the Rani’s chamber. A terrified duo of screams confirmed this. Around the roof, other sleepers stirred. Not wasting time on further searching Celo darted to the parapet’s edge. The sturdy bars over Rani’s window had been pulled right off and flung across the way. Two huge, hairy, ape-like brutes were lumbering away, each clasping a screaming girl in one arm while knuckling along rapidly on three limbs. Celo leapt down upon the nearest, driving his dagger deep into the point between head and neck!
Over on the further half of the roof Bardic tumbled Katrusha to one side, swept up his sword, and jinked and hurdled over the mass of sleepers to where the trouble was. Starlight was all he needed to pick out Celo being flung violently across the street, tumbling over and over, and two hulking shapes rapidly moving away! With a bellow of rage Bardic continued his dash and launched himself off the parapet, sweeping his sword down onto the nearest brute as he arced down onto it. The sword bit deep! An almost manlike groan came from the beast, but it continued to move away. The other however dropped its captive and swiped at Bardic with huge clawed hands!
Vorel and Rollo, more circumspect than Bardic, dropped down onto the street and raced around the wall to join battle. By the time they got there, Celo had returned to the fray and Bardic, blood gleaming in the starlight like black trails on his naked body, was clear of the second man-beast’s grapple and had dealt another frightful cut to it.
Celo cut viciously at the first man-ape’s leg as he dashed past it, dodging under its claws. Burdened by Rani, it was unable to fight effectively. It seemed to stare at him resentfully, as a man would, as Rollo charged and delivered the death-blow. Rani tumbled clear and Celo guided her safely away.
Vorel, too, charged. He caught the second beast off-guard and sank his swords deep in its back. With a shriek of agony it reared up then fell dying!
The four fighting men caught their breath, counted their wounds and looked around. It seemed a certainty that these enormous man-apes were none other than those said to execute sacrifices in the Temple of Hanuman. Bardic had torn himself free of the throttling paws not once but twice, and blood was running freely from his muscle-sheathed neck and down his naked chest. Celo was scratched and torn, both from the claws of the ape and being flung across the way. His opponent had caught him a heavy blow as he slid past, and his face was already swelling. Vorel and Rollo were merely a little bruised from the drop to the street.
It seemed that little Tunu had been knocked unconscious by the fall from the ape’s clutches, or had swooned. Bardic plucked the limp form up off the street, and carried her back to safety. And became aware that he was still naked and that an audience was watching him from the roof.
“Rescuing the child again? Once may be a misfortune; twice looks like carelessness” – Katrusha
The next moves are planned
Dawn: and looking like something the cat dragged in, Morath appeared. Over a strong wine, he updated Rani and the others on his contacts.
“The fortunate is a local Zuagir named Ya Nashor. I’d like to speak with him in a lot more detail, but he’s the sort that speaks the language of money. The other is some foreign johnny named Shah Goanix… or so he says. I don’t doubt he’s got a lot of knowledge but I think he’d want to know more than we want him to. Again, money” – Morath
Rani gave over two further gold links.
There remained to decide what to do with the new day: what further information would bring them certainty, not only as to Houmekri’s treatment of his sister, but as to the factions’ plans.
“I’ll try to get more out of Kuruk and the other Hyrkanians. They’re close-mouthed” – Vorel
“You probably want to get them away from town, bragging over goat’s milk or whatever horrid thing they like” – Celo
“That’s not a bad idea. I’ll work on that angle. If we can find out what happens now Quorra Kang has ridden out, who’s the next target, we can get somewhere” – Vorel
“She rode hard all night” – Morath
There was a pregnant pause. Then Bardic expressed concerns about the defensiveness of the caravanserai, and all agreed they should be keeping a closer watch. Carpenters were already being hired to repair the damage to the Queen’s chamber and she should be back in her own bed by nightfall. For Celo, the idea of entering the palace secretly held attractions. He volunteered to check the security once more. Morath crawled off to bed.
The Turanian offer
Celo returned not long later, mostly via rooftops. Safe at last, he drew three shafts out of his hide.
“They were quite wary. I don’t think we can just sneak in” – Celo
Vorel managed to convince Kuruk to put him in touch with someone who could negotiate. Evening found the pair riding out into the wilds. And over a campfire not far away, Vorel was introduced to Jagpa, a Turanian agent. Jagpa proved a man of the world and raconteur, silken-tongued and convincing. Somewhat to his surprise, Vorel found himself admitting who it was they guarded, what her hopes were, and who they most distrusted. In return, he learned that Turan would back Queen Hotep in her bid for the throne of Koth. He also heard something else of interest. Jagpa explained that Ma’ay Kheru had an association with a temple far to the south – virtually unknown to Stygia’s main network of temples. Jagpa professed himself ignorant as to what the temple represented. Giving Vorel a gift of a silver dagger in an antique case to seal the deal, the suave Jagpa bade him and Kuruk a good ride back. Bats wheeled in their course, giving the night air a mystery and horror.
From the Outer Dark
Meanwhile, Bardic, Celo and Morath saw the Queen safely back in her chamber, this time with Hobrieca on the inside. Bardic was on edge. Something, almost subconsciously, was telling him to be ready. They checked dispositions again. The streets were now completely deserted. As a precaution against further attack, carts had been dragged across each entrance and overturned. Weapons and quivers were stowed strategically around the roof. And then Bardic realized what it was that had him on edge. Coming from the direction of the palace, at the very limits of hearing, the throbbing of drums pulsed through the velvet night.
As the last of the moonlight ebbed, it seemed the stars themselves grew dim. Bardic selected the cart blocking the narrow front entrance: he would be at his best on the ground. Celo stood ready with longbow over the Queen’s wing of the caravanserai and Morath sat patiently near him. Rollo stood ready there as well: he would have preferred to fight at Bardic’s side, but the more guards near the Queen the better. Bats wheeled above.
On the other end of town, Kuruk parted ways with Vorel, leaving the Bossonian to trot on his own. Batwings seemed to flit above him, and the few street tapers were visibly dimming. Vorel urged his horse on to a faster gait, and soon came within earshot of the caravanserai.
“Hurry and get your horse stabled! There’s trouble tonight!” – Celo
Leaving the Hyrkanian bow and case down at the stable, Vorel joined his fellows. His longbow and spare quiver were on the entrance wing of the caravanserai. Taking up the great staff he spanned it and tested its string: grunted in satisfaction. This would do some damage tonight!
A target was not long in coming! Shuffling towards the front appeared a mob of child-size beings. The greyish glistening of their hide spoke of otherworldly origin! Celo and Vorel loosed at range: the target was unmissable to men of their expertise. But the shafts seemed to do nothing. At closer range, they loosed again: this time, one or two shafts struck and stayed in their target. A third time they loosed, with little effect: then Morath screamed warning:
“In the sky! Those aren’t bats – they’re demons!”
The Zamorian clutched his neck where a sting had caught him, and cursed by several of his homeland’s foul deities. He hated poison!
The bowmen switched their aim to the sky, but again the shafts seemed to do little damage, and the darkness made a hit chancy. Vorel managed to strike one through the middle of its foul little body: as it sank down, it disintegrated, leaving only the shaft. Rollo showed his willingness, leaping high and striking one a thunderous slash with his tulwar: it squawked shrilly and fled back up! In the street, the mob of greylings shuffled on, grunting and groaning as under an unseen, unheard lash.
Bardic considered his post an easy one: until something dark with teeth and glowing yellow eyes caught the corner of his vision and he wheeled, narrowly missing being pulled down. A searing pain ran down his calf, and blood ran freely. He strained his eyes. The courtyard within the caravanserai was heavily shadowed despite the tapers burning here and there, and all he could make out were glimpses of two sets of teeth and eyes. What was the thing that had attacked him? The narrowness of the snout suggested jackal, but it had seemed too large. Then the shadow jackals struck again, and Bardic was in an eerie melee of dodging, cutting, leaping and turning, against silent shadows with teeth!
A scream sounded from the Queen’s chamber. Up on the roof, Morath, who thus far could only cut at the imps as they swooped, cursed again and raced down the stairs leading to her door. Hobrieca lay across the threshold. At first he thought her dead, but her mouth worked and she whispered:
“In the shadows… something struck me!”
Beyond, the terrified Queen clutched a burning rush-light. Near her Morath could see the limp form of Tunu, who appeared to have fainted. Again.
Something struck him two terrible blows, and Morath near-collapsed as burning cold seared into his limbs. But with an impressive show of grit he shrugged off the pain and rolled further into the room, ready to defend his paymistress.
“Fire and silver!” – Hotep, tossing the rushlight
Morath caught it expertly and adopted a two-fisted stance with short-sword and torch. Virtually invisible, something man-size lurked in the deep shadows of the chamber. Then it pounced again! Fast as Morath was, it belabored him with a series of blows, and he felt himself weakening. He thrust the flame into it, and it sped back, leaving only the impression of a tattered form and eye-sockets that glowed with eldritch sparks.
“Ware demons here! Fire and Silver!” – Morath
Vorel raced across the roof, weaving between the various impedimenta and dodging swooping imps, and down the stair. Celo loosed off another volley of shafts, and slowly worked his way towards Vorel’s spare quiver. At this rate, forty shafts would not be enough! He could hurt the demons, but not bring them down without a lucky shot. Equally, he made a hard target. The less-elusive Rollo was already down, bellowing in agony as the poison coursed through his veins.
Roughly the same situation applied in the courtyard. Bardic was gashed by sharp teeth several times but managed to avoid being tripped and mauled. He realized he was not helping win the fight, and that the greylings, now in the alley, were pushing the cart forward, so as to make a step they could climb. Waiting until they had obliged, he made the roof in two great vaults, and raised his sword ready to defend against the greylings.
A terrible howling resounded from the courtyard. Save for the defending heroes, all shrieked and clutched at their ears, unable to do more than huddle or flee. For our heroes it was just another day fighting unspeakable menaces from beyond!
Vorel reached the chamber and hurdled Hobrieca as Morath had done. Morath was defending the Queen, who cowered in the corner, but was on his last legs. But the strange darkling being was clearly visible against the torchlight! With a savage burst of speed, Vorel rammed both silver dagger and longsword through the creature! It seemed to dwindle, as it left the mortal plane.
Vorel breathed a sigh of relief and turned and raced away back to the stairs. Queen Hotep threw herself into Morath’s arms: in that moment she was but Rani, the woman.
Up on the roof, Celo continued his volleys against the wheeling imps. There seemed to be only half a dozen, but he simply could not bring them down. Bardic hewed into the greylings as they clambered over the parapet: so powerful were his blows that each dissected one or two of them. Imp-stings meant nothing to the Cimmerian, who simply ignored them. Then a shadow-jackal struck Celo! He fell, and fangs gleamed in the starlight!
“Silver and flame!” – Vorel
Gashed heavily, the Tauranian rolled clear as Vorel raced up the stairs and into action. The silver knife sliced down, and the jackal vanished.
And with that, the fight was over. The imps sped away, squeaking in dismal fury. If there was another shadow beast, it made no further attack.
Down in the Queen’s chamber Morath felt a stirring of human emotion for the lovely woman clutching him.
“I think you may wish to arrange yourself, majesty” – Morath
The Queen came to herself, no longer the terrified woman and once more the royal with ambitions. She thanked Morath gravely, adjusted her clothing, and the two turned their attention to reviving Tunu and making Hobrieca as comfortable as possible. The tough bodyguard was able to speak, but otherwise paralyzed. Like Morath she bore the white marks of a freezing grip on her arm. The cold beyond cold of deep space had marked them both forever.