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.
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.
“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.”
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 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!”
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?”
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!