Hyboria! H5E94: Heart of Darkness

The company

“This ought not to take long. As I guessed, they threw everything they could scrape together at us back at the ruins. My other guess is they will only have the chiefs left, lurking around the gate. Maintain your station here; keep a sharp lookout; watch for our fire-arrow. That will be the signal that we are pulling out.”

Thus spake Bardic: and, leaving Russ muttering about grandmothers and eggs, he shouldered his kit of tools and spare weapon, and without further speechifying strode off with the “charge-in team” in the direction of the shadow-shrouded temple lying squat athwart the sands some 200 yards distant. Herez Wolf-kin lifted a hand in salute as the magnificent seven departed: Phaedra Grey merely watched them leave.

Bardic: bar16/ftr4, St20 Dx13 Cn14 In10 Wi10 Ch10. Init+1, BAB+20, F16 R7 W6+3. HP142, MV40’.

Gimmicks: d12+2 ‘ancestor’ great-sword, greater rage adds 6 to St and Cn, Leadership 23 can help in some situations.

Celo (no player this session): rog15/rgr5, St14 Dx22 Cn13 In 14 Wi13 Ch16. Init+10, BAB+16, F10 R17 W7+3. HP70, MV30’.

Gimmicks: d8+2 ‘relic’ short-sword, Impr Feint allows feint as move action in combat, 6 attacks in full-round combat, 8d6 sneak attack damage.

Keth: ftr10/sch3/cle3, St20 Dx13 Cn16 In13 Wi14 Ch16. Init+5, BAB+13, F14 R8 W9+3. HP96, MV25’.

Gimmicks: Wears a belt that carries the spirit of Jamalla (Cle20); d6+2+d8electrical staff, Trips and Sunders combined with Whirlwind attack.

Morath: rog19/rgr1, St16 Dx20 Cn14 In11 Wi14 Ch13. Init+9, BAB+15, F10 R15 W7+3-2. HP78, Mv30’.

Gimmicks: d8+2 ‘relic’ short-sword, 10d6 sneak attack damage.

Kayan (NPC): ftr16, St16 Dx22 Cn16 In13 Wi12 Ch11. Init+5, BAB+16, F14 R10 W4+3+2=8. HP123. Mv30’.

Gimmicks: d8+2 ‘relic’ short-sword, 6 attacks in full-round combat, advantage in seeing through illusion and disguise.

Forgrim (NPC): ftr16, St20 Dx12 Cn18 In12 Wi12 Ch9. Init+1, BAB+16, F14 R6 W6+4. HP168, Mv20’.

Gimmicks: heavy armor combined with shield-bash technique.

Vikos (NPC): ftr16, St20 Dx13 Cn18 In10 Wi10 Ch10. Init+1, BAB+16, F14 R6 W5+3. HP128, Mv25’.

Gimmicks: powered overwhelming sunder adding 5 to St.

 

Some strategy required

The temple’s entrance was flanked by twin pylons. The approaching questers found it hard to estimate height and size: the whole seemed shrouded in an intense gloom that reminded them of Cresh’s manor in the Barachas. They skirted it a little first, this way and that, and stopped within easy bowshot.

“I’d guess an inner courtyard,” Bardic mused. “Maybe two. The walls seem long, don’t you think?”

“Yes, remember Luxur? That raised section of stone mid-wall might be a mid-rib arched passage between two courtyards,” Morath agreed.

“I’d rather not just rumble in if we don’t have to,” Bardic continued.

“We brought everything including pulleys, if you want to get Keth and Forgrim up the wall,” Morath reminded him.

“That could take a lot longer than us going over then linking with a rumble-through brigade.”

“Sound all right to me,” Morath agreed.

“Still I don’t like to just let them get hit by whatever the enemy has ready,” the Cimmerian continued, “so Celo, are you up for searching for traps through the gate?”

“It never hurts to help!” Celo agreed enthusiastically.

 

 

Here Be Demons!

Making quick work of the scramble, Bardic and Morath vaulted onto a broad stone parapet. But before they could do more than register that the darkness was still present, something winged and large descended from the nearest pylon with a fearsome screech! Morath slunk back readying for what his fighting-partner would do. The swooping thing speared Bardic a sharp blow with its war-fork and at the same time, an ash-like cloud surrounded both men, stinging and burning into exposed skin! With a blur of shining metal the ancestor-sword was drawn and bisected the creature, which dissolved, affording only a dim glimpse of beak and talons. But already another such being could be glimpsed!

Alerted by the screech, Keth cried:

“Our comrades are under attack! Forward!”

“Hey I hadn’t fin…” Celo began then shrugged as Forgrim and Vikos rushed past him to the far gateway into a courtyard so dark no detail could be seen. “Oh well, that’s another way of checking for traps!”

But even as Forgrim and Vikos reached the cover afforded by the open gate’s columns, two whips snaked out and tangled their weapons!

The wielders were huge, dark, winged demons, each bearing a vast sword and whip, and now each sword burst into dark flames as they pulled the burly men toward them!

Kayan dashed up to the gate, his swords flicking out. He cut Forgrim’s tangling cord. Vikos turned the tables on his attacker: instead of straining back, he launched forward, smashing his great hammer into the creature’s sword, shattering it and driving the great being back into the courtyard wall! It fell and Vikos raised his hammer for another stroke!

Celo moved with Kayan, but rather than trying for a tricky cut to free Forgrim, vaulted around the demon, taking a massive cut from the sword as he did so, but ramming his relic-sword deep in the thing’s leg. Keth smashed its sword, Forgrim rammed it, it fell and Celo finished it off, sending it back to hell.

The other fallen demon struggled back to its feet, wings beating, under a flurry of blows. With one final leap and smash Vikos beat it to death as it flapped up over his head.

Meanwhile atop the wall Morath and Bardic had dealt with three more screeching, spore-raining demons, all of which seemed to be intent on killing Bardic. He and Morath hastily drank an antidote each, and clambered down to assess the damage overall.

“I’ll take another antidote thanks,” Morath announced and Bardic did the same.

“So that went about as well as expected,” Bardic summed up buoyantly. “Don’t let the place get to you. It’s creepy but we’ve seen creepy before.”

“We feel fine! As long as we are near good old Keth!” Celo assured him.

“Holy Jamalla is sending her courage to all near me,” Keth agreed, referring to the shade of a long-dead servant of Mitra who – in theory – had the power to sunder the gate.

“Then I hope it keeps fine for her,” Morath snarled darkly.

“Hush now! I hear children crying!” Bardic warned.

The Mediator’s Last Taunt

Straining their eyes, and with the aid of the potion Keth had given them, Celo Morath and Kayan peered through the next gateway to an inner courtyard.

Four pairs of children stood in a rough circle: each child clutched a knife and pressed it to the other’s throat. They were crying with fright: unable to break the compulsion, but aware of every moment. A now-familiar diamond-shaped face towered over them.

“It’s that woman! She works illusions! We need to just charge and get her!” Morath advocated.

“What do you think?” Bardic asked Kayan.

“I don’t think they can be illusions… but I’m not sure.”

Bardic Keth and Morath discussed options for a few moments, then Bardic murmured a plan.

 

Keth stepped boldly through the gateway and addressed the face at the far end of it so:

“So! We meet again!”

Her violet eyes seemed to glow venomously and she seemed to stand even taller, if that were possible:

“Yes we do! And this will be your final warning: and so that you understand it, I have prepared an entertainment! These brats will kill each other slowly while you watch: and then I shall retire to ready your final doom should you be witless enough not to heed!

“And heed this!”

She threw back her fuligin cloak, and now revealed rose on a great serpentine lower half, raising six mighty swords with her six arms.

“She’s monologuing! Now!”

 

Vikos and Keth burst across the courtyard and charged – not the demonic woman, but the children! Blades smashed around Keth’s armor as he whirled his staff, but so good were his defenses that they did no damage! Vikos swung his hammer aiming for accuracy not power: he smashed first one knife, then the other. Two children safe! But Vikos too was sore hurt.

Morath raced forward then broke left, steering well clear – or so he thought! A flick of her tail sent him crashing into the wall, to fall sick and dizzy.

Kayan charged, flicking his swords like lightning: but her defenses were excellent as well, and he barely scratched her flank. And his lightning reflexes could not prevent him being cut three times.

Celo aimed a poisoned arrow from the gateway, but the arrow veered well wide. He drew his relic sword and loped forward.

Bardic raged, raced forward and leaped over the children, cutting the demon’s shoulder deeply but not enough to make her drop a sword. In reply, the blows rained on him heavily and blood ran freely from his flanks and neck. The six children still with knives began cutting one another’s throat, slowly.

Then Keth struck! His whirling silver staff stunned all six. With a scream of anger, the demoness retreated. Forgrim charged across the courtyard, past Keth, to smash his shield into the demon: but her tail gave her plenty of stability and instead it was the big man that was flung back.

Making no mistake this time about avoiding attacks, Morath tumbled around her to prevent her retiring through the final gate. He stabbed his relic sword deep in her back. Kayan again scored a nick in her hide. Then Celo’s voice came from behind Bardic:

“Anu!! Up and away!”

Bardic instinctively ducked, hunching his shoulders: Celo jumped, launched himself off the Cimmerian’s back, and somersaulted over the woman, burying his relic-sword in her neck as he did so. The blade snapped, but she was badly hurt! Vikos smashed her on one side and Bardic on the other: and she fell, writhing and rolling in her death-throes like a gigantic serpent! Keth and Forgrim dragged the children clear.

“I need some help here!” Keth called.

 

The lower temple

Children made safe and escorted back to the horses, Bardic rejoined his crew, strapping on his breastplate. “How’s it looking?” he asked.

“Tracks a-plenty, leading down the ramp.”

“And that smell, part carrion, part dog.”

“Hyena lair, huh? Thought so. Ready torches and form up: it’s slow and steady from here. All potions drunk? Let’s head out!”

The ramp led down to a large chamber, with plenty of sign that this was used as camel yards as well as for hyena-men and other creatures. Stove-in or heavily-used boxes and barrels around the walls gave evidence of long occupation by men and other things that needed to eat and drink. Heavy sigil-covered doors sealed some inner chamber while a pair of tunnels offered left or right exits.

Keth studied the sigils.

“It is hard to guess the age of this place and I am no scholar of ancient times, but it could mark the temple of the ghoul-god, worshipped from Acheronian times?” he speculated.

The right-hand tunnel led to accommodation for hyena-men. The left hand tunnel led to a convocation room of sorts, then around to a long dark stretch of tunnel. A faint carrion smell persisted near the next door. Bardic had it wedged shut. “Better safe than sorry,” as he said.

 

A last puzzle

“I can’t be sure but I think there’s a secret door just left of the next fork,” Celo announced from his scout vantage. Morath checked the ground where the Tauranian was looking. “Yep, snakey woman was here: she came out from the wall there.”

The secret entrance was bashed in. “More tunnel. Hmm, maybe someone who is you know, Zamorian and has an affinity for tombs and tunnels should take over,” Celo suggested, dropping back to rearguard.

Morath led off, noting that the wall frescoes seemed blasted as though by storms, and fine drifts of sand lay in crevices. “Trouble,” he muttered.

Sure enough the wind picked up to such an extent that only the strength of the warriors advancing allowed them to push forward, and only extreme nimbleness allowed them to keep torches lit. Each torch still only illuminated a small dismal circle around the holder, so every second person wielded one.

As he probed forward, near-blind, Morath felt rather than heard a click and ducked double just in time to avoid a colossal axe-blade scything out across the tunnel.

Once past the wind-and-axe trap, the tunnel seemed deathly quiet. “There’s a black door off to the right,” Morath announced, “but I can’t see any handle.”

Studying the set-up, the few at the fore could see that the solid ebony door could be pushed up manually, using two stanchions that jutted out from it. Vikos and Forgrim stepped forward, setting aside their weapons and Forgrim his shield.

After some straining – made a little harder by Forgrim not actually speaking – they got their count right and surged up as high as they could reach, while Kayan jammed Forgrim’s shield under the door. Bardic rolled through, torch in one hand and the mighty sword he thought of as Kull’s in the other.

 

The guardian of the gate

Bardic rose, lofting the torch, and gaining a momentary impression of two pillars near at hand in a large chamber: then from the dark a tentacle lashed out and slammed around him! He clove it: and as more tentacles lashed at him, those were cleft apart as well! Each stroke contained some foul poison that sent his mind reeling, back to the primitive age before ages, where the demon was born:

From the dark we came

To the dark we drag you

From chaos we came

To chaos we pull you

For harm we come

To harm we consign you

From dust

To dust

Lungs screaming, legs shaking, Bardic noted dimly that his torch had fallen and gone out. Then as though years later, another form leaped past him, and snarled:

“Die already!”

He blinked: the light seemed to grow: then realized that the material darkness that had swathed the temple was fading rapidly away. Morath stood smugly a few feet away from him, watching the last of the demon boiling away.

“Hee hee, kidneys! Always nice to get the kill! I do have a rep to maintain!”

 

The high priestess departs

“I do not know if I have enough power to close the final gate. If not, it may need your relics to be sacrificed.”

Thus warned Jamalla. With the masking darkness and enchantments now vanished, she had easily been able to locate the final gate below the last chamber.

“Mitra guide you, holy one! I look forward to our final meeting in Mitra’s care!” Keth replied. The priestess took near-solid form, raised her hand in final blessing, and walked away from the group towards the strange shifting colors that marked the last gate.

As before, a preliminary chamber contained views of the other four gates on its walls. This was where the others were watching from. Something about them was bothering Bardic: but even as he peered, then cursed, Jamalla’s form strode into the final gate, and disappeared. After a tense moment, the gate’s colors shifted violently, then went blank, leaving stone: but only for a moment. First the gate-chamber and then the annex began crumbling, and the onlookers hastened back and out.

 

The end?

With the temple collapsing behind them, and thankful that they had left all doors open behind them, the seven burst out onto the sands and gained distance before throwing themselves down to rest.

“I’ll send up an arrow in a minute… if they haven’t worked out that it’s over,” Celo panted.

“I think they may have guessed,” Kayan replied dryly.

“So, we’re all alive, we have food water and mounts, where to?” Keth wanted to know.

“If we are working backward from Cala’s trail, and we want to dodge the army that’s still out there, I’d say make for the lake area where those ratmen hail from,” speculated Bardic.

Others had other opinions but with a highly skilled ranger with them, any option would be viable so long as they had money to pay her with. Victory brought dreams of retirement: Morath to Cala’s stud farm, Keth to re-rebuilding his monastery. Bardic was silent on the subject. It was a little later that Morath decided to probe indirectly:

“What was that you saw on the wall, Bardic?” Morath asked, his paranoia still working.

“Something we probably should have seen coming.”

“So what? You were kind of looking at the mosaic of the gate under Edric’s, weren’t you?”

“Those mosaic tiles that formed the gate?” Keth verified. Bardic nodded:

“He always was fascinated by ancient secrets…”

“So?”

“Just before the place crumbled… I had a glimpse of him putting the tiles back together.”

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