Welcome back! Our heroes Bardic, Celo, Keth and Morath, and Bardic’s new cohort Kayan, have safely guided eleven children to an underground cavern of ultimate evil. They are surrounded by seven huge demons, and are facing the Mediator, a strange female who wears a fuliginous cloak over whatever lies beneath it.
She speaks: they listen – then bicker
Bardic checked his instinctive forward momentum, and seeing that, Celo, standing off to his right, also paused. The children clustered tight around Keth’s flanks while Morath made some space for himself off left of Keth and Kayan turned to face the demons to the group’s rear.
“You are wise!” The Mediator continued, “and I hope you will show further wisdom. I am not here to fight you, but to offer you a chance to avoid the worst fate that might befall you and any loved ones.”
“You must not know me! I am Morath, spiller of demon blood, and I have no ‘loved ones’!”
“Be patient, Morath dearest,” the impossibly tall woman urged sweetly, “My master has great hopes for you! You only need take a little time, heed a few wise words, and your feet will be firmly on the path your heart most desires!”
Meanwhile Keth tried to set Georg’s insistent, loud voice to one side:
“What are you waiting for, laddie-boy?!? The gate lies beyond and there’s a demon right there! Get on with it!”
“There are also children, and several other demons!”
“Huh! This is war! Shemite children or not, you have your objective! Attack, lad, always attack!”
“I fear Georg is right Keth,” Jamalla agreed, “closing the gate is your priority!”
“I’m extending you all the help I can,” continued the Mediator persuasively. “We are too big to fight. You’ve earned your fame. You deserve a break. And my master rewards those that deserve it. If you press on, what comes next will be much worse than anything you have met so far.”
Celo then responded to the Mediator. His words sounded thin, but still sane.
“All of that may be true, and you may be able to offer stuff and threaten other stuff. But we’ve already shut most of your malarkey down so really, shouldn’t you be asking us for terms?”
“Be done, demon!” Bardic growled. He ran through a number of options in his mind, trying to come up with an attack that would defeat seven other demons in short order and leave the children safe. He could think of none. But then his keen ears caught Kayan’s murmur:
“Those demons… all moving in lock-step – like a mirror image.”
A fierce satisfaction leaped through his veins and he measured out the steps between himself and the dais on which the demon woman stood.
The true guardian
Celo, who had been taking his cue from Bardic all along, ran with him, some dozen feet away. As Bardic leaped up at the woman, sword raised, the man from the Tauran rolled both his short swords in his hands and prepared to dive round her flank.
With a kind of smirk on her strange, diamond-shaped face, she disappeared.
As Bardic landed clumsily he was struck by a blast of cold fear rolling toward him from out of a throat-like tunnel now visible behind the dais. A huge roiling mass squeezed out of it and raised itself up into humanoid shape, towering above him! Burning red eyes locked on the Cimmerian’s!
Celo, slightly to one flank, noticed a couple of things that his barbaric comrade was too focused to:
- First, the mass that made up the thing seemed composed of debris from the dungeon: bits of scarab body, fragments of bone and sarcophagus, and here and there the glint of gold funerary furniture.
- Second, strange tentacular beings, almost transparent, were crepisculating out of the tunnel and extending foam-dripping pseudopods around the monster’s flanks.
Behind the lead pair Georg materialized and with a burst of raw power sent a searing lightning stroke blazing from his great-sword and into the monster!
Finally galvanized into action, Keth swatted the lead pair of children out of his path and lumbered forward. Morath darted left, while around Kayan, the children scattered shrieking, some this way, some that. The illusory demons were already fading, so Kayan turned to face front once more and moved forward with an easy grace.
Bardic chose not to waste his position on the dais: he jumped high, and slashed his great-sword across one flank. With his follow-through he cleaved the diaphanous forms of the tentacle spawn, dropping two of them.
Wham! A vast paw slammed down, engulfing the brawny Cimmerian and near-stunning him. With a mighty heave Bardic got his arms free but was still held struggling. He felt energy being leeched out of him. Part of the chunk cut out of the monster’s flank repaired itself as he struggled. Then with a further heave, he wrenched free and scooped up his sword from where it lay, and sliced back up into the monster’s leg.
Rumbling ‘that man deserves Mitra’s strength!’ Georg laid Bull’s Strength into Bardic and renewed his attack at close quarters.
Morath hung back at around the same range as Keth, and flung his silver dagger. It bit home.
Celo danced around it on the other side, trying to avoid the tentacles. But even as he stabbed his shining short-sword in, one vast paw slammed down on him and plucked him up! Showing his agility, he wriggled free, only losing one sword. Seeing it fall, Kayan darted in.
The monster slammed its next attack at Keth, but the burly cleric shook it off: then at Celo again; and again the wily rogue slipped free and darted clear. Frustrated by this, the monster seemed to pause in its relentless forward progress, enabling Bardic to strike it mightily. Sweeping up Celo’s artefact-sword, Kayan stabbed it. Jamalla now materialized as well, bending her Shemite bow and unleashing a divine bolt of power at the monster. That proved the decisive strike: it began crumbling, slowly at first then in an avalanche of choking detritus. Bardic and Kayan sprang clear, while Georg dematerialized.
The Paladin departs
“I am weakened, but I need to finish this. The gate lies beyond, laddie-boy! Get to it!” Georg urged.
The remaining few tentacle spawn were cut away and having assured the children they were safe, they pressed on, coming quickly upon a strangely-shaped room, like a truncated pyramid on its side. Each of the four sides – floor, ceiling and the two walls – had a faded, painted design upon it, though one seemed less faded than others. Beyond, at what would be the tip of a pyramid were it intact, lay a strange space. The pull of the deep dark lay upon it and it did not require Georg’s words to tell them they were at another gate mouth.
“It is my time to say goodbye,” Georg said to Keth. “Just remember: Mitra’s enemies are not defeated by knocking them out or tripping them! So less of this non-lethal nonsense!
“And pass on my final words to your comrades:
Keth hurled the Lion Ring into the gate and they caught a brief glimpse of the strong, fully-armored figure of the ancient paladin, sword ready to smite: then the gate went blank and they were looking at an old faded painting of a tomb.
“His last words were, keep up the good work,” Keth lied.
“I’m a bit… smashed up,” Celo groaned.
“You are a mess,” Keth agreed, “but luckily Jamalla still has some healing power.”
“I do,” Jamalla agreed, “and will pass it to him as you lay hands on him. But this will leave me weakened as well. Do not call upon me for anything less than a life-or-death situation now.”
Once done, Morath urged haste. “These gates have the habit of crumbling remember,” he reminded them.
“I was just looking at these pictures,” Bardic called back. “We’ve seen pretty much the same thing each time. This clearer one is a temple, alone in a desert. That’s our last stop, boys!”
Celo advances to L20. He is rog15/rgr5, taking Improved Evasion from the rogue talents. He spreads his skills around search listen sense motive and escape artist. His BAB hits 16, allowing 6 attacks at full per round.
Keth advances to L15. He is sch3/cle3/ftr9, taking Improved Sunder.
A maze denizen
They re-built the order of march, with Celo to the fore and Morath as rearguard. After hoisting the smallest and weariest children up into the arms of Bardic and Keth, they made steady progress back up the winding passage and endless stairs, and into the hall wherein they had fought the golems.
Celo felt his Anu-loaned strength fade away. It had been a good long while. He crept forward softly, listening intently. From here, he could go left or right. He knew Morath had taken the Mediator’s warning literally:
If we keep going the way we have been we are going to strike trouble, the Zamorian had pointed out. This was the first place they could pick a different path.
Reluctantly, he decided to head the same way they came. He signalled the others forward and stole to the corner.
Beyond, some twenty feet distant, a vast-shouldered, bull-horned figure bearing a mighty great-axe blocked the tunnel solidly. Celo nimbly pulled back, leaving it up to Bardic to take the thing on!
With a snorting bellow, Keth plunged away from the children, past Bardic and within sunder-range of the beast-man. His staff smashed against the huge axe-shaft, but to his horror, it refused to break! In reply the axe was raised and chopped down time after time, leaving Keth stretched bleeding his life out on the ancient stone.
Back by Morath and Celo, Kayan was caught: if he moved forward, the children would flee to who knows where! He spread his longswords out in a menacing swathe of protection, and the children screamed and ran. With a sigh he wheeled back and stood guard as the nearby door creaked open…
Bardic, having seen the awful fate of Keth, was in no hurry to throw his own life away. He grinned hardily at the Minotaur, and beckoned him on. A solid stone wall was at his back, and he planned to let the thing crash by him and into it.
The Minotaur took him up on the offer: but Bardic’s body-swerve was not quick enough, and the huge axe near took his head off! But he stayed on his feet, though the gore flowed freely from under his steel cap and down his neck. Then it was his turn! He delivered massive strokes of his blade: and at the same time, Celo and Morath tumbled past, the former cutting at the Minotaur’s hamstring as he vaulted. The beast bellowed and fell, and Morath finished him.
Checking Keth’s body, Celo exclaimed:
“I’ve got some wine: pour it down his throat, and let’s be going,” Bardic urged. “Kayan, round up the children will you?”
“Just… tidying away… a few old bones!” Kayan called, his swords cutting and chopping through a small horde of undead that had emerged.
“Hmm, right, I’ll help with the children, Morath you scout the room there and let’s decided which way we are going… and make it snappy.”
Sad sacks and saps
Hours had once more passed, and Morath, now scouting, recognized the broken panel allowing entry to the underground temple of the relics. They had successfully navigated the winding, muddy, tight-squeeze tunnel. The children were exhausted, for they could not be carried along it. When Morath signalled the halt, they sank down where they were, some of them instantly falling asleep.
He listened, then turned back to warn the others:
“Just a few sad f***ers cleaning up. I’ll just kill ‘em and we can sneak out quite like.”
“May I suggest not killing? These will no doubt be slaves, and it seems a hard reward to be killed just for being in the wrong place with a mop,” Keth objected.
“You can sap them, right?” Bardic reminded Morath.
“Ohhh, sap, right, as in knock unconscious! I’ll just organize a small pouch of coins… there: that should do. Coming Celo?”
“Yeah, someone better be there to remind you not to follow up with a dagger to the kidneys,” Celo agreed.
A few minutes’ easy work and the rogues tidied the knocked-out slaves behind a tapestry and signalled the others through.
“You know, if we had gathered them all together I could have gone, bong-bong-bong-bong, that would be funnier,” Morath muttered. “Still if I keep a sharp eye out who’s to say I can’t do the same, but with a real weapon?”
As they emerged from the upper temple into the courtyard ready to choose a way towards the gates, Bardic paused in surprise.
“How long have we been under there?” wondered Morath, trying to match the star-strewn sky with his internal sense of time.
“It could be an effect of the gate…” Keth ventured.
“It’s night because we walked from after sunrise to after dark,” Kayan opined testily. “My gut feels it is nailed to my spine, and the children are completely exhausted. The sooner we get somewhere we can eat and rest, the better.”
“And clean up,” Bardic agreed, scratching some of the crusted dust, grit and blood off his neck.
That happy striking cobra feeling
The temple grounds were already well cleared of bodies. A new set of guards, wearing linen cuirasses and bearing ceremonial bronze axes, supervised servants and took evidence. They recoiled from Bardic’s fierce mien and it was not until they reach the gates that any real obstacles were presented.
There, a more senior body of judicial and enforcement officialdom were gathered under flaring lights. Evidence was being docketed and jurisdictions were being argued.
Then two Stygian-dark strangers stepped forward politely and created a moment’s distraction…
“That was worth the wait, by Zath!” Morath gloated, “I haven’t used that move since Palena!”
“Let’s push on,” Bardic grumbled, a child in each arm, “I can see the barge at last – time to have a chat about who gets to keep it.”
A short time later the barge pushed off, the judicial scribes who had been listing its contents and livestock a startled group on the jetty behind it.
“Now down the river, and… hmmm…” Bardic mused, poling as fast as practical.
“What’s hmmm?” Keth asked.
“Just tossing up between rotten choices. I’m voting for rowing straight across the Styx and off on horseback as soon as we hit the bank. I’d back us to get clear of Stygian pursuit before they can organize it.
“Now, see to the horses, and fetch some water out the river – I’m going to get me some clean!”
And so it was.
Aftermath: gods of Nippr
“Welcome, welcome and thrice welcome to the Obsidian Stables, my lords! No doubt such esteemed lords wish only the best for their magnificent steeds! And see – such a stallion! Or gelding! Nothing shall be too good for him! My two fairest daughters shall not only brush his coat daily, they shall wash him with scented oils!”
And as he agreed to this princely treatment, Celo assigned he and his fellows a new role: renowned adventurers.
They had traveled for many days, town to town, across meadow Shem, retracing the emissary’s path indeed. Nippr, a town of zikkurats and temples, terraces and gardens, river and canals and traffic with the north, seemed the best place so far to try to do right by the children.
Bardic had taken pains to teach the children that life was not sheer awfulness, though it had been hard. The question of what to do with them had been argued across the campfire or inn table several times.
Eventually they formed a half plan, which as Bardic was fond of saying, was twice as much plan as usual. Keth had somewhat reluctantly opined that Bel was the least offensive god to be found in Shem. Morath had swung in behind that with an idea to have thieves adopt the children into a gang. It had its drawbacks, for he had little to no standing in Shem.
But Bardic, Celo, and even Keth and Kayan found almost the reverse true. The faddish nobility and gentry of Nippr opened arms to the newcomers. Their reputations exploded and tales of derring-do in Koth, Corinthia and Zamora were dusted off and given a new setting by fashionable Shemitish harpists. They were the heroes of Becharadur and Zamboula, never mind the details, and their latest tweak of the Stygian lion’s snout – safely far to the south – put a gloss on all of it.
Bardic’s Leadership advances enough to move Kayan to L14. He has a number of feat options but has penciled in Web of Death.
No fewer than eight of the children were adopted into well-to-do families. That left the three least-cute children.
The thieves of Nippr were unmoved by reputation, and demanded a year’s service from Morath. Celo volunteered to stay and help him.
They were to meet Bardic in a year’s time in Shushan. It was known to them by name only, as a major trade crossroads between desert and meadow Shem. They knew that folk from many further lands mingled there.
“More to the point, it will be our setting-out-point to the last temple. We’ll need a good guide and some decent fighting-men, by Crom!”