Through the clouds
They were by now constantly amidst clouds. As best Bardic could judge, they would now need to rely on each other’s rope-craft. This called for a change of order – for Bardic, though the best free climber, was no hand with a rope.
Vorel took the lead, and they put Balatro at the end of the chain. None trusted the jester above them. Pollos proved invaluable at this time, for the Zingaran, as promised, was a good climber and skilled with ropes. He anchored the middle climbers, Roem and Morath, who were no great rope-hands. Celo, who could climb nimbly and rope adequately, climbed second to last above Balatro. Bardic climbed second so as to bring his strength and free-climbing skill to bear on any problem.
They gained another icy ledge, easily broad enough for all to rest on. Suspicious, they fanned out. Two massive armored forms materialized amidst them!
Chaos Knight construct: 10DR, Sunder attack
During the ensuing melee, Pollos’ cutlass, Roem’s huge ax, and Vorel’s masterwork Nemedian broadsword were all smashed. Balatro characteristically climbed out of danger and laughed. Morath, knowing he could not harm them himself, distracted their attention as best he could.
“I like this new Morath! Pretending to be helpful and willing has rubbed off!” – Bardic
Celo followed Morath’s lead. Knowing something about how these summoned beings operated allowed Bardic to take a few extra risks trying to smash through their defenses. With the two rogues distracting the giant axe-wielders, the Cimmerian reduced first one then the other to pieces. One axe was left lying on the ledge, and Roem grimaced and tied it on his back once more. The tough Kothian was but little injured, unlike Pollos.
So to the next stage they turned, working along and up perilous steeps. And once again, finding themselves scrambling up into a blasted wilderness of lava beds and fumaroles. Four massive red-scaled devil-beasts emerged above them and flames gushed from their jaws!
Hell hound: d4+1 flame damage, DC13 for half damage, Achaeronian fire effect (continues burning).
These foes, any stern blow could harm. But should any fiery breath catch on the furs of the climbing party, that fire would eat through! By the time the last hound had been cleaved through, and the last smoldering ember had been smothered, Pollos was badly hurt.
As they rested the Zingaran talked. He spoke earnestly of his experiences before the mast, the joys of prize-taking and the rigors of ocean sailing. His audience heard more of Captain Alleto, a bold blade though perhaps no great sailing-master. They heard of the undying enmity of Zingaran privateer for Barachan pirate, and the rivalry between Zingara and Argos for mastery of the shipping lanes.
To the third night
Pollos died during the next stage. The cold, and his untreated burns, had been the death of him. They untied his dead-weight, and laid him out. The question of what to do with his small remnant of firewood arose. Reluctantly Morath agreed to carry it along with his bow. Morath, and Celo too – and Balatro as far as they could tell – also suffered from the biting cold and thinning air, though only to the extent of slight weakening and clumsiness. They carried on, through the early darkness, to a modest-sized ledge. They fanned out, hastily lighting a brand, expecting an attack.
Then Balatro laughed and pointed:
“His majesty, Prince Icicle!” – Balatro
Looking unimpressed, Prince Houmekri strode into the circle of light. Ice had indeed formed on his cloak, scabbards and kit-bags, but he seemed no different than usual: large, powerful and unfriendly. He grunted something curtly in Stygian, gesturing to one end of the ledge. Lifting his brand higher, Morath could make out an archway.
“No welcome mat I suppose?” – Celo
“There’s a slab of tile with runes picked out in mosaic – they may say ‘welcome’ for all I know” – Morath
Balatro laughed in Houmekri’s face as the giant Stygian growled an angry sentence, gesturing at the arch and then up at the mountain slope.
“Hahaha HAAAAA heh, SO you tried already and doubt it? You have no faith? NO FAITH?!?! Hahaha not to worry my prince, Balatro knows this is but one step in the dance. Dance THIS WAY!!”
And so saying the madman rolled away from the Prince’s reach and danced, literally danced, down the tunnel.
Glancing back at the others Morath saw they were rapidly preparing for trouble, and nodding back at him. Keeping close to one side of the tunnel, Morath sidled down. The stone of the side and floor seemed worked, and in good repair. The others followed, gingerly, expecting the types of traps that Celo had described of Palena’s citadel. At length Morath spotted a glimpse of daylight.
Balatro leads the dance
No longer surprised at the abrupt change of might to day, he edged out, looking suspiciously about for Balatro. And ducked, as a sliver of steel slashed down towards his neck! Balatro tumbled away, laughing.
“Where in Zath’s foul pit did he hide that knife?” – Morath
“We don’t all keep our blades on show” – Vorel, with a knife down each boot.
“I think it’s time to see if someone can fly” – Celo
“We can’t – yet – remember?” – Bardic
Prince Houmekri seemed annoyed – still – and again snapped something uncomplimentary at Balatro.
“HaHAAAA HaHAAAA!!! You think I know nothing?! You think Balatro has led you back to the mountain!?” – Balatro, peering up and down as though looking for landmarks.
Houmekri snarled something again, and stepped menacingly towards the killer, drawing his scimitar. In response, Balatro laughed, rolled away and through the party, and tumbled – right through the blank face of the cliff!
After cautiously making sure of the nature of the hidden entrance, and that Balatro was not simply waiting on the other side of the illusory cliff face, Morath lit one of the last pieces of firewood, and sword in other hand, stepped through into another well-made tunnel. The others followed: Houmekri with a last angry look around at the cliff-side ledge.
After a short interval, the explorers felt the temperature change, and the smell and feel of the tunnel change, to a more lived-in feeling. Morath called back that the tunnel came to an end, and that there was a door to the right. He’d heard the door close ahead of them, he thought. Calling a halt, Bardic divested himself of his saddlebags, furs and reinforced hide and pulled his chilly mail shirt out of one of the bags. The others followed his lead. There seemed no immediate need for furs, which might slow down drawing weapons. The rogues unwrapped and strung their bows. Vorel uncased his Hyrkanian bow. Built to withstand the biting steppe airs it seemed in fine shape.
Morath concentrated on sorting out the sounds of the tunnel as Celo checked the door carefully. It looked fairly similar to the Palena Citadel doors. Pushing it open Morath risked a glance along what appeared to be a passage to a junction, modestly lit by clear-burning tapers. He caught a mocking laugh. Celo gasped: a stairwell down had just materialized opposite the door Morath was looking through! A dim baritone murmur, as of many men in a barracks, was audible from it.
Once all were ready, Morath began searching for Balatro. He wished, once again, that Keros was at hand. The bounty-killer had a grudge against Balatro and would have been only too glad to eliminate the madman at any stage of the journey. The others sorted out into file order behind the Zamorian. Roem stayed behind to guard the stairwell; Houmekri loomed at the rear of the file, his lip curled in a permanent sneer, and his scimitar drawn.
The junction proved a T-junction, four interior doors visible in the light of the tapers. The two rogues discussed options quietly, bows ready in case of danger. The place certainly had a lived-in feel: the smells were pleasant if anything. Then Bardic alerted them to a new development.
“Roem’s down!” – Bardic
Bardic stepped around Houmekri and back to the stairwell. Sure enough, Roem lay toes up, stone dead. Before any further conclusion could be drawn, some barely-perceived change in the air caused Bardic to duck and bring his sword to the guard!
Only just in time! Two silver arcs flashed at his throat as Balatro somersaulted out of the stairwell, over the Cimmerian and away. Blood gushed over the Cimmerian’s chain shirt, and he staggered, but the blows had not been mortal.
Balatro rolled and tumbled through the surprised search-party and landed on his feet directly in front of both Celo and Morath. At that range, their bows were useless. Celo stepped back to give himself room and Morath dropped his bow and snatched out his short-sword. As he did so two throw-blades caught him. One bounced off his reinforced hide armor, the other sank home. He felt the bite of poison!
Celo managed to hit the elusive rogue as he ducked away but in return was hit by a throw-knife.
“Where does he keep all those… oh never mind, we already did this one. Dibs on the poison” – Morath
Balatro seemed to be probing the wall behind him for something, but before he could do more than laugh once more, the combined missile fire of the others caught him. Bardic rushed through and finished the job with one immense hack of his sword.
“Damn that poison. Pity I missed the return throw – I would have liked to see him squirm! Now, I have a chore to do…” – Morath
The Zamoran lacked Vorel’s skill with a hunting knife but artistry was not required, as he gathered Balatro’s furs into a makeshift satchel, cut off the villain’s head, and bundled it in.
“Keros only needs the head” – Morath, grimdark satisfied.
An old acquaintance, a new twist
As Balatro’s corpse was finished with, and Bardic’s bleeding was stanched, Celo returned to check Roem more carefully.
“Here’s a thing. The stairs go up now” – Celo
Vorel cheerfully lined up for loot: the captain had owned a fine dagger. Vorel studied it closely and was disappointed to find its blade was not inlaid with silver, but tucked it away in his belt. He hefted the axe. It was too heavy to wield effectively but would do a great deal of damage if he could connect with it. Inside, it probably wasn’t worth using. He laid it down and resumed his stance with the bow.
The party reassessed its situation. Upwards seemed best – they were looking for an exclusive prisoner after all – so they set off upstairs. Morath had not retrieved his bow but stuck with his sword as being more use to him. Houmekri was rearguard, muttering in his beard. Unseen by Vorel above him, his deep black eyes glinted with mystery.
The stairs led up to a short landing in front of a door. Again, it seemed a well-made interior citadel door. Morath thought for a few moments. Tact seemed called for. Bardic pushed his way to the front, and knocked.
“Rainy! You there?” – Bardic the tactful
“It’s Rani, not Rainy” – Morath
“Who goes there?” – deep voice from beyond the door, in Ophirean
Something about the voice sounded very familiar to Celo. For a start, he could speak Ophirean.
“It’s that big woman who guarded Aasiyeh, what was her name?” – Celo
“Ah, yes, fine big girl, good at sports” – Bardic
“Hobrieca, is that you?” – Vorel
The Prince’s secret
The door was unlatched and swung open, and Hobrieca it was. In the light of the passage beyond her the whole search party was visible to her: and she recoiled in anger and distaste! In return, the visitors could see that Hobrieca wore well-polished armor and carried a sword. They scabbarded their swords in token of peace. But Hobrieca did not seem mollified.
“Why have you brought that…. Thing… to affront my lady!?!” – Hobrieca
“What, you mean old Houmekri? Trust us, we would have whicked his head off a long time ago, but your lady did say she wanted to speak to him…” – Morath
“THAT WAS IN ZAMBOULA YOU… YOU… MAN!!! You ally with that foul thing and dare present yourselves here! Get thee hence!”
“Right, fine! You want Houmekri gone, get the Queen to tell us so. Then we’ll be happy to get rid of him” – Morath, getting angry
Had any looked back at the subject of this argument, they might have noticed that Houmekri seemed to be able to follow everything; and indeed they could all understand the conversation as though they could speak Ophirean. None remarked on this at the time.
Bardic’s ears pricked up: a small piping voice could be heard from somewhere in the background.
“Is that little Tunu? So she’s here! That’s grand!” – Bardic
“Of course she’s here! You didn’t think I would dump her somewhere like a man would, did you? It took us a long time to get here, but you took even longer” – Hobrieca
“It wasn’t easy! We had to kind of work our way here by roundabout means” – Bardic
“Well, are we going to see the queen or aren’t we?” – Morath
“Did you miss what I said? Never while that creature lives!” – Hobrieca
“I like you – sort of – but this is making me angry. Step aside or there will be a vacancy for Queen’s bodyguard” – Morath
“Stop! Please don’t fight! Stop this!” – Tunu, running between Morath and Hobrieca and spreading her arms wide as a barrier
“Tunu!” – Prince Houmekri, drawing his scimitar and stepping forward with a snarl
Bardic lifted Tunu clear and back into Hobrieca’s safe keeping. As he did so, the young Stygian whispered quickly in her Cimmerian protector’s ear.
Vorel swung to face the Prince, bow ready. With another snarl the Prince leapt back down the stairwell to give himself room. He flexed powerful shoulders and made ready to cut the first man apart.
Instead of a rush of men, an arrow thudded into his shoulder. To Vorel, who had stepped down around the stair to get a good position by the central column, it was as though he had put an arrow into a solid tree.
“Still at least he doesn’t have protection from arrows. I’ll keep shooting” – Vorel
Morath, eager to play his part, ran lightly down the stairs, both weapons drawn. He ducked past the Prince’s swing and stabbed at the thick leg: very little damage was inflicted. Celo, now using his short swords, tried the same tactic, to no better effect.
In response, Prince Houmekri’s scimitar blurred, slashing Morath’s armor to ribbons and slicing deep into the Zamoran’s body. With a final surge the Prince pushed his victim violently, sending him rolling back along the passage towards the junction, and stepping across from Celo so that the Tauranian could not easily get away!
Bardic’s great sword screeched as it was drawn over his shoulder from its scabbard. The Cimmerian rushed down past Vorel, raising his sword as though to charge the Prince: then at the last moment, he dropped the sword and ducked under the Prince’s swing, grabbing him around the chest.
“Grapple him! We have to pull all of his ornaments off! Everything goes!” – Bardic
Morath swigged the fortified wine he still had at his belt, and staggered to his feet. The melee was formed with Celo snatching circlet, rings, arm-bands, pendants, and Vorel adding his brawn to Bardic’s. Morath – gingerly lest he took a fatal blow – added his own strength.
As Celo plucked each prize off, the Prince cried out in an increasingly inhuman voice. He seemed to shrink and become weaker. When the last kit-bag and trinket were cut away his grapplers were clutching a shriveled mummified figure, whispering curses in a dust-ancient tone. With a last angry wrench, Bardic twisted the thing’s head off, and the creature crumbled to dust.
Queen and Sorcerer
“So we worked our way through to Ophir, and I presented myself at the royal fortress and offered service as Queen’s body-servant. Simple as that. Still, being men, I understand it must have been hard for you to work out how to get here” – Hobrieca, finishing her story
Hobrieca opened the door to a well-appointed chamber, just on the simple side of luxury. A good-size fireplace provided warmth and some light onto a large bed, where lounged Queen Aasiyeh, covered in lush furs, Tunu hovering solicitously beside her. To Morath’s eyes she appeared to be wearing even more gold than previously, and her breasts in their golden cups supported by a heavy central pendant and gold-woven cords, were even more spectacular than he remembered.
“It is good to see you my queen, we are glad to see you well and safe” – Morath
“I have fared well thank you my good friends, and it is likewise good to see you after so long a separation” – Aasiyeh
The furs slipped down a little, and they could see that she was heavily pregnant.
“Who’s the father?” – Bardic the tactful, glancing suspiciously at his comrades
“That would be me” – Lil’endrash, entering stage right
Lil’endrash appeared to be a well-built blond-haired man no more than a few years more than the Queen’s age. His robes were fashioned of a deep blue color that carried hints of other colors deep within its weave. His eyes were blue and clear. His face had a well-pleased expression that hinted at smugness.
“I have been lucky enough to persuade Queen Aasiyeh to join me in matrimony. I was able to assure her that her descendants would rule Koth” – Lil’endrash
“It is true. I will place the destiny of my descendants in my husband’s hands” – Aasiyeh
It seemed that although to them three days had passed climbing the Steeps, 78 days had passed in the rest of the world. While they tried to come to grips with this, Aasiyeh delivered them from service to her. To Morath she gave a second gold bracelet. Celo she laughingly gave a single gold chain-link, set in amber. Vorel and Bardic she thanked for their loyalty and service. As for Houmekri, she explained that he had been possessed by something she called the living ka of an ancient undead sorcerer. The ornaments he wore served to fix him to the body and give great powers. Most of this went over their heads, but it did remind Morath of something.
“We promised Prince Almuric of Koth we would bring his offer to you, O Lil’endrash. Join the Prince and get access to the sacred forges and to Akbitana” – Morath
“Almuric, was it? If you don’t mind waiting I’ll need to check something” – Lil
The sorcerer passed into the next chamber and consulted a large section of shelved scrolls and books. Peering in they could see a stairwell was also access from this scriptorium.
“Edric would be green with envy” – Vorel
At length Lil’endrash appeared to find the correct entry.
“No, I don’t believe I will take him up on that offer. It’s not Almuric’s time, and probably never will be” – Lil
“Er, another thing. We have a friend named Edric, who would like to know about the White Ring, and apparently you’re one of the Ring. What can you tell us?” – Bardic
“White Ring? Ha. Hmmm. Edric?” – Lil
“Good type of priest. Runs a mob called the white mantles or some such” – Bardic
“Excuse me again, more checking to do” – Lil
As the sorcerer departed again Bardic turned to Aasiyeh
“Good to see Tunu again. She saved our lives. How come we can understand her?” – Bardic
“My husband dislikes misunderstandings. In this level of his tower – or the fortress, they are one and the same – all languages can be comprehended” – Aasiyeh
“He’s a bit of a gadget freak isn’t he?” – Bardic
Aasiyeh touched the pendant between her breasts and agreed with a light laugh.
“So, the White Ring. You’ve heard of the Black Circle?”
“Yes, we have fought them”
“Good! Keep it up. And have you heard of the Black Ring?”
“Ah, no, don’t think so”
“I’m with them, loosely. How this world works is, the masters of the Black Circle are located in the East, and their nets are spread towards the West. The Black Ring is based in Stygia, and a small number of us are affiliated with them, more or less as a defense against the Black Circle. And the White Ring is a myth”
“There’s no White Ring? At all?”
“None at all, not in this age at least. Perhaps in some other age there is a coalition of the good, but there is no such thing as good sorcery in this one. Just different shades of not-good. I’m evil myself, and I know. Listen, do any of you care to see what I’m talking about?”
Bardic was the only one to evince any interest and he followed the sorcerer up the stairs off the scriptorium. When he returned he seemed a little graver and a little grimmer. Later, he said only that he saw enough to be convinced that they should persist in foiling sorcerous plots wherever they found them.
“And now, can I send you anywhere? We seem to have arrived at the end of our business and I’m sure my Queen wishes you only the best for the future” – Lil
“We should go back to Prince Almuric to report…” – Morath
“We owe him nothing. Remember that we only agreed to his quest to help us find the Queen. No, let’s head over to the girls” – Bardic
“I agree, Kara has my lance and saddle and spare bow – we need to find the girls” – Vorel
After listening to their description of where they had sent the three slave-girls, Lil’endrash assured them that he could get them there.
“Just head down the passage you came in from, open the door and you’ll be there. I can’t guarantee the timing will be right but you’ll get there” – Lil’endrash
And so only minutes later they blinked their way into the sunlight and hubbub of a river-port, emerging from an ancient, half-ruinous watch-tower. The accents of Ophir clamored on their ears. Celo sought directions to the monastic order Marc had planned to leave the girls at, and after a few coins had changed hands they found their way to the gate.
Hyacinth and Kara were still in the nunnery. Rin had left not long after arriving.
“Possibly with a monk in tow” – Bardic
Morath was somewhat relieved. Rin had been able to twist him into agreeing with her plans. This way he was free of such a burden.
Hyacinth seemed to be happy: safe from harm and with a secure future for perhaps the first time in her life. Bardic was glad to leave her to take the oaths of the order.
Vorel was unsure what to do about Kara. The Turanian girl was not well pleased with him: she had been left there a long time. She didn’t want to give his gear back, either!
“Pay her off” was the advice and eventually he took it once he realized they were not broke any more.
“It was nice of Prince Houmekri to act as our little pack-pony and pack all his gold gewgaws up the mountain for us”
“Yes, good of him. Let’s sell it off and split the proceeds”
With Ophirean coin weighing down their pouches and Kara paid off with enough to set up in her own household, and Balatro’s head left at a tanner’s with word for Keros, it was time to decide on a direction. The remaining coin they had would not last long, but was plenty for a river voyage and fresh gear besides.
“The Red river heads west. It’s more or less the border with Aquilonia, though Ophir would like to push that north to the Tybor” – Vorel
“We heard something about a squabble when we at Almuric’s. Well, Lil’endrash told me not to go back to Aquilonia, by Crom. Is there anywhere else we aren’t outlawed or have people wanting to kill us?” – Bardic
“The Red flows into the Khorotas and that runs through Argos to the capital, Messantia” – Vorel
“Argos! At last, somewhere we aren’t going to be killed on sight!” – Morath
“Sounds good, though I may drop out part-way through, you know, if it looks like you’re getting us into trouble or an old enemy starts hunting you…” – Celo
“The country doesn’t start with Z and nor does the capital. To Argos!” – Bardic