Before the last water-hole
It had been three nights and three days of travel across the burning waste that lay between the dried lake and the next real water-hole. Seven of the camels had now perished, and even mighty Forgrim was down to a stumbling walk. The horses, though unladen, were in sad shape.
Bardic finished running through the plan with his comrades Celo and Morath, and the mercenary ranger Phaedra Grey. He was loath to see both rogues go, but as Morath pointed out, if the big tiger turned on them, two would be needed.
Keth joined Bardic, and watched them go without offering to bless them. Phaedra had surprised him by demanding his pledge that should she die, her bow and gold be delivered to the nearest Ashtoreth temple in Hyborian lands, which suggested she had some kind of piety. Which was more than could be said for the other two.
They watched the trio fade away into the shimmering heat-waves. As best the mirages would allow guessing, they faced only a short walk before reaching the ruins around the water-hole. There, they were to hunt down the mage that must be there to control the great cat, kill him, and try to suggest to the cat that it should move on.
An hour passed and with the horses and camels becoming uncontrollable it was time to let them seek out the water. Even as the eight travelers struggled to keep them off the ruined stone flags, a signal arrow arced over the ruins and landed there by the caravan.
“The plan worked perfectly,” Celo reported, sounding very surprised. “I spotted the mage, told Phaedra to shoot where I was shooting, and he tumbled dead.”
“Then we annoyed the tiger – which by the way was as big as two houses, not just one – but only enough to get it to move on,” Morath concluded.
At the last water-hole
Later, with horses, camels and travelers watered, the ruins yielded some further information. Some thirty corpses, most likely caravaneers, were stacked up in a ruined tower like logs waiting for splitting. Each had a Zugite coin, marked with a necromantic rune, under its tongue.
“So we killed two birds with one stone. We got rid of the tiger and we didn’t meet risen dead,” Celo concluded.
“I’m uneasy about those strange clouds in the desert. They supposedly mask forces,” Morath responded.
“Yeah, both Russ and Herez seem pretty sure about that,” Bardic growled.
“And more will be gathering. Like you said, the demons are gathering everything they can scrape together,” Morath persisted.
“We need to move on,” Bardic conceded, “and once Kayan agrees with my sight-line, and I’ve got day-landmarks and star-pointers, we’ll move out.”
Two days later, all were recovered from fatigue, and Vikos’ arm had healed from the vicious Hyena-bite he had sustained in the fight at the lake bed. A feeling of tension ran throughout the company. Not nervousness, or not that alone. Exactly how far they were yet to travel was unsure, but perhaps two days would be enough? And more mystical fogs were now moving in. They could guess that they were being surrounded.
The ruined fort
“Rouse yourselves and work like dogs!” Bardic bellowed. “Stones can be moved, rope can be lashed, and pits can be dug! We’re not dead yet by Crom!”
As expected, the course chosen had led true to this ruined fort, the last major landmark prior to the lone temple that must cover the last gate. But the enemy had been gathering from four points of the compass even as they arrived at it, and now they were surrounded.
The fort offered limited protection. There were no roofs left, but an old stone barracks was large enough to hold the horses and camels crammed in together, and the entry gate-towers offered elevated archery-posts.
The main (south) gate: the rope ladders were rigged so that Celo and Phaedra could raise them once a few of the enemy had entered, hopefully allowing a few to be dealt with at a time.
The east gate: Stone blocks were levered over and the entrance changed to a false entrance, leading north, to another blocked off alley.
Over a third of the perimeter was virtually gone. The company dug pits and planted caltrops there between remnants of walls. The rear or north gate was trapped with concealed pits with silver-tipped arrows turned into punji sticks.
This was because the enemy had now cleared its fog and was preparing for battle: and to the north, hyena-men and were-hyenas were gathering, presided over by a massive hyena lord.
To the north-west, camel-riding Zugites were preparing.
To the east, perhaps readying for the dawn, dusky-skinned Jhilites were drumming and howling.
To the south, it looked as though a company of ghouls would be first to attack.
Keth cast a charm on Rollo’s tulwar, allowing it to harm were-beings, then the five main defenders – he, Rollo, Kayan, Vikos and Bardic – rushed the north gate. Morath shadowed Keth, having been warned to stay out of the main fighting. The berserk hyena-men, each wielding twin tiger-claws, were used as human trap-clearing devices as they rushed over the punji pits and trampled each other. Some were-hyenas bounded over the low walls, others followed their berserkers. The huge hyena-lord shifted his shape into a two-legged hybrid and stalked majestically over his dead.
Vikos’ great hammer smashed men to pulp or threw hyenas down. Keth tripped those around him, allowing Morath to finish them easily. Bardic clove two or three apart at once. Kayan fought defensively at Bardic’s back, his blades whirling and cutting down any that sought to outflank his leader. Rollo surged on deeper and deeper into the midst of the enemy, screaming with unholy glee as he lopped heads off. Careless of his own safety, his armor quickly hung in tatters and his skin was flayed back as deep as the bone.
Finally all but the hyena lord and two last were-hyenas had fallen: Morath rolled past them, and came up behind the huge were-lord. Bardic leaped high and sliced his destiny blade through the great-creature’s skull: it fell.
Keth pressed a healing potion on Rollo and on Vikos, who had taken further hurt during the battle. “Get yourself into cover,” Bardic advised the huge man.
“Our only chance against those ghouls is for the sorcerer behind them to be taken out.”
With those words it only remained for a volunteer. Celo and Phaedra were standing watch atop the eastern gate-tower, so Morath set out alone.
“We’ll be sending fire-arrows out at the ghouls, so make the best of that you can,” Celo encouraged Morath.
With the gentle night breeze running to northerly, Morath swung wide, then looped back in. As he stole from dune to dune, he could see the rise and drop of fire arrows, and hear shrieking and gibbering from ghouls: the attack had begun! But all to the good: the sorcerer was so intent on directing his charges he had no idea of the danger until Morath’s sword went through his back!
Making sure the man was dead, Morath hastened north back to the fighting. His skin crawled at the thought of what else might be prowling the night.
The fight was white-hot around the main gate. Ghouls are immensely strong and durable and a mere cut will do very little. It takes a mighty blow to break one’s bones. And once they take a hold, they rend with tooth and claw.
One leaped high, grasping the lip of the ruined gate-tower Celo was shooting from. Phaedra’s bow thrummed and it lost its grasp and fell back into the broil below. The rope ladders had worked reasonably well: Bardic Rollo Keth and Forgrim could push them and crowd them back into one another, allowing Celo to pick off the wedged-in ones. Forgrim’s smashing shield-attack excelled in this, but Rollo’s tactic of leaping in to smite off heads proved fatal. One ghoul seized an arm, another closed its jaws in his leg, and he fell to be buried under the foul mass.
Bardic smote right and left, clearing a path for Kayan to fall back to. The lightly-armored fighter was doing very little damage and things were going badly. Then Morath struck! Ghouls that had previously thought their prey was to the fore were struck dead from behind. Vikos joined in, smashing ghouls down so they could be killed with ease by the rogues, until he too fell.
Panting for breath as the last few ghouls fled off into the waste, they looked about them. Bardic dug under a pile of ghouls.
“Rollo’s been torn apart: nothing we can do.”
“Couldn’t have happened to a nastier bastard,” Morath commiserated.
“Vikos will be all right: I’ve fed him a couple more potions,” Keth reported.
The arrow storm
“Dawn! The sun rises and the Kushites are moving! Russ cried from his lookout post.
“Ware arrows! They will darken the sky!” Herez cried.
“To your cover!” Bardic cried.
Much earlier, even as pits had been dug, the saddle bags, tools and tents had been converted to arrow-stopping shelters. Now all ten defenders crowded alongside the horses under them. The sky blackened and arrows drummed down, shaft after shaft. And the Jhilites moved forward, shooting as they came!
The final defense
Perhaps it was a mistake or perhaps he believed the defenders were still sheltering. Either way, the witch-man strode forward from among his Jhilite followers and gestured impressively from well within 200 feet of the defenses. As yellowish fog rolled out and up from his fingers, several answering longbow arrows smote him, driving right through him and pinning his corpse to the sand. The cursed fog disappeared, the Jhilites cried out in dismay, and halted their advance. Then they fell back to their original position.
Across the ruins on the far side, the camel-mounted archers wheeled back and reported to their own sorcerer. There would be no attack out of the dawn sun: instead, the Zugites would have to attack with the sun in their eyes.
Granted a brief respite Bardic made his final dispositions. They would fall back into the alleys between walls, finally retiring on the barracks. Vikos was back in action, though still battered, and Forgrim was ready to hold the line. Bardic strapped on his breastplate: this would be a press, not a loose skirmish.
“Do you think you can snipe the sorcerer from somewhere here?” he asked Celo.
“I’ve got the light and they won’t see me concealed on the busted corner tower,” Celo replied confidently.
“Right, that’s you and Phaedra: if you can see him, get him.”
“I’ll take some more poisoned arrows,” Celo told his archery mate.
“One gold per five arrows,” she replied promptly.
The Zugites raced their camels in, flanked by foot skirmishers. As they hit the pits along the perimeter, a whole rank of camels tumbled and Herez, screaming in glee, poured arrows at his hated foes. Then the remaining Zugites were inside and the whole become one boiling melee.
Celo took his chance: he knew he could not wait longer, lest the dying Zugites become zombies. He nodded to Phaedra, who stood:
Phaedra sent a deliberate shot, then another. Immediately after her first, Celo sent a volley of arrows arcing far over the sand. The tiny dot that was the sorcerer described a half-circle, and fell flat.
“Got him! Pitch in lads!” Celo bellowed triumphantly.
The Zugites trapped themselves in their headlong charge, and were cut apart by the dozen as their foes used the ground to their advantage. Very quickly the survivors at the front began pressing back against the rear ranks, making for even easier targets. And within a few minutes the ragged remnants were trying to leap back upon their camels and flee.
And seeing this crushing defeat, the Jhilites withdrew, fading off east and south.