Friday, 24 June 2022

The Road to Acheron, Part Four - "Zukundu of the Twilight" & "The Glacier of Time's Abyss"

(DM's NOTE: The first story is the conclusion of the previous sessions' adventure, and some story elements of Helena Nash's "Devils Under Green Stars" are included... with some significant alterations. The thrilling finale to the Zukundu saga is here at last - and we even had time to fit in the next adventure! Both ripping yarns are included in this post - the question being, who survives? )

("Tall Grass," The Ghost and the Darkness, Jerry Goldsmith)

The Jade Keep is empty of human life, save those remaining in the Hall of Khenaton. The adventurers - Amatagt, Arcus, Dusan, Kenyatta, Kryxus, Tiberius, and Zafia - and their Xhotatse allies are all that seem to be left... but they are not all that are breathing. 

After cleaning the blood from their weapons, Kryxus and Tiberius had a search through the cadavers, only to realise they left it too late. Zafia rummaged through the fallen Mekutu for treasure, and was delighted to find many wondrous jewel-encrusted treasures embracing the limbs and necks of Khenaton and his favoured children. She was soon weighing herself down with bracelets, anklets, necklaces, hooped earrings, and stuffed her leather pouches with hastily extracted piercings and rings. Arcus searched for artefacts, books, scrolls, anything to shed light on who the Mekutu were: unfortunately, like many peoples in the southern Black Kingdoms, the Mekutu did not appear to have any written language in evidence. It's likely that, like those other tribes and cultures, the Mekutu passed down oral traditions through generations - meaning that their history, language, culture, everything, was now extinct, save for one lone survivor. Arcus noticed that the Mekutu piper he ensnared in his net had not undertaken the ghastly sacrifice like her kin: she sat on her haunches, trembling, terrified. Arcus dropped to a knee with Kenyatta to speak to the girl. She stopped trembling: she seems to understand the most basic words and commands, but did not seem capable of responding.

The adventurers did not have much time to breathe. Just after Kosu burst into the chamber, they were suddenly aware of a great hissing - the rumbling of many scaled bodies moving - from behind the walls, under the floor, in dark corners of the room. With all the Mekutu slain by their own hands, there were none left to placate the ravenous serpent-things that dwelt below - and they knew that the horrors would soon be upon them!

Arcus turns to the piper. "Where's her flute?" "I have it!" Kenyatta turns to his satchel, where he thought he had stowed it away - only to find it empty. "What? But I just..." With a slow turn and an expression that could curdle milk, Kenyatta glared in Zafia's direction. The Zamorian's wide-eyed expression of innocence was somewhat unsuccessful given her enthusiastic ransacking left the bone pipe protruding damningly from her own satchel. She reluctantly tossed the pipe back to Kenyatta, who in turn chucked it to Arcus.

"Your flute, can you use it?"

The girl took the pipe immediately, and began to play that strange trilling sound as she walked through the double doors of the Hall of Khenaton. The room was now starting to fill with the serpent-things, issuing from every crack and crevice in the Jade stonework. Kryxus noticed a black ceramic vessel beside one of the braziers: he snatched it up on the way.

The adventurers made their way hurriedly through the corridors of the Jade Keep, following the piper as she marched as briskly as she dared. The serpent-things writhed with such congestion that it seemed the walls and floors themselves were made of the twisting black fiends. The piper led the others through hitherto-unseen parts of the Jade Keep - the feasting hall, the torture chamber, the prison - all now swarming with reptiles.

Once the companions exited the secret entrance of the Jade Keep, they took a moment to look back. Black-scaled serpent-things were pouring from every window, dripping from the balcony like slime, the keep itself looking fit to burst from the surging horde. Amatagt looked to the other buildings - the reptiles began to crawl from them, too. The entire forest of this area would soon be washed under a tidal wave of this life. The three Xhotatse shook their heads. "We have to go quickly my friends, " and burst into a sprint back to the Ebony Keep. 

Chapter 6: The Ebony Keep Burns

(The Ghost and the Darkness: Lions Attack, Jerry Goldsmith)

Jullah's Blood

Amatagt, Tiberius, and - amazingly - Dusan charge on with great speed after the guides, leaving the rest to follow their dust. The adventurers raced back through the tangled vines of the city-forest straight for the Xhotatse territory. Even as they approach, they hear the din of battle and the bellow of the Feathered Ape, smell the acrid stench of fire, and see plumes of smoke snaking into the sky.

The adventurers arrive at the Path of Skulls, expecting to see their guides picking their way through carfeully. But the Path has been revealed - a winding wooden bridge camouflaged with vines and leaves is the only way across. Where once there stretched a green field, now only gaping chasms remain, revealing pits full of sharp spears and stakes. Impaled upon many of those spears were bodies - some still twitching, others lifeless and dead. All have curiously elongated skulls. 

"The Tangini!" Jambi spits. "They are in league with the Feathered Ape! They were in league with the Mekutu!"

"Or perhaps they framed the Mekutu," Tenbo suggested. 

Jambi shook his head. "We have to hurry! Our Queen is in danger! Let's go!"

Kenyatta hears a familiar growl - following the sound, he identifies the source as a very large, very pale cat, now thoroughly soaked in blood, feasting upon the choicest cuts of now abundant meat. Incredibly, one of the Tangini still lived: as Jambi and Tenbo cross the pathed, he started to lash out, gnashing his teeth, spurts of blood arcing from his wounds as it grasps for the Xhotatse.

Kryxus, Zafia, and Arcus dared a closer look. Kryxus figured that the Tangini was simply in the throes of battle fury - he had seen such berserk rage among the Picts, the Cimmerians, the blond savages of the far north, and even among some of his own kinsmen. Arcus & Zafia saw something beyond that: there is clear evidence of some sort of stimulant at work here, perhaps a drug or a medicine. Arcus spied a small dart embedded in the Tangini's neck: seeping from the wound is not blood, but that strange red sap - a much more vibrant and viscous type, as if it was distilled and treated with some alchemical process. The sight of the dart initially concerned Arcus, but when Zafia pointed out that the dart was attached to a cord around the Tangini's neck, he frowned in further confusion. They did this to themselves?

The call of the Feathered Ape cried out. Jambi, Tenbo, & Kosu charged on. Tiberius reckons that the Tangini were no longer threats, but they may still provide some insight: just as he was pondering questioning the last living Tangini, the Moon Lion pounced and tore out the wounded warrior's throat.

The adventurers walked through the Path of Skulls into the Ebony Keep.

Beyond the Door of the Elephant

("The Funeral," The Ghost and the Darkness, Jerry Goldsmith)

The Door of the Elephant lay open, bloody handprings and the marks of Tangini clubs - vicious flat paddles studded with black obsidian teeth along the flanks - bit into the bronze. The adventurers were keenly aware of the fire and smoke billowing from within the Ebony Keep. Just as Tiberius and Arcus walked through, a gleam from the star-fruit's light caught their eyes: huge gouges torn through the black stone of the Ebony Keep's outer walls. They were certain those gouges were not there before - and they were very much the shape of the gouges they saw on the hunt for the Feathered Ape.

Many Xhotatse warriors lay where they were slain beyond the door in the courtyard, surrounded by piles of Tangini corpses. Tiberius recognised the bodies of the young men who he saw playing with the monkey yesterday, dead with spears in their hands. The older woman, too, lay still on the stone floor of the keep. All the Xhotatse bore the wounds of those wicked clubs - some beheaded through the force of the Tangini's rage.

The sounds of battle roared inside the keep itself, screams and bestial howls rangthrough the stone, the clash of weapons punctuated the rumble of flames. And before the pool, Amatagt saw one last Xhotatse figure, very close to death. Old Inokwe opened his eyes at the sound of the adventurers footsteps, his features creased in pain and hope renewed.

"They came so suddenly - led by the beast himself, and that clever woman at his heels - fighting like demons, caring nothing for their own lives. "The Dreaming Ones" - Dreams of Conquest!" he spat with bitter venom, blood spraying from his cracked lips. "The Queen! She's in the throne room. Just take her from this awful place."

"But how? Arcus asked with empathetic pain in his eyes.

The old one shook his head in devastated realisation - his eyes widening when he saw the Piper with her instrument. "The pipes - you have the Pipes of the Mekutu! It is said that their song can still the beasts - perhaps even the Sentinels beyond! Maybe you can escape from this place..." He gasped in agony, and coughed up more blood. "Just... Just save the Queen. You know she cannot defend herself. I tried, but-" he holds out his bloodied hands. "Please, just promise me, you must save my dear innocent Chitaka. Please."

Arcus solemnly pledged. "We will get the Queen."

An intense wave of relief flooded across Inokwe's face. He breathed out, his head slumped forward upon his chest.

Solemnly, the companions marched on with hardened resolve.

The Feathered Ape Revealed

("Final Attack," The Ghost in the Darkness, Jerry Goldsmith)

The main hall was strewn with bodies and debris: tapestries drooped in tatters, smashed pottery fragments scattered, pools of blood spattered across the polished black floor. The door to the throne room has been hastily barricaded by a flaming palisade of wooden wreckage: behind it Zyanya, Tenbo, Jambi, Kosu, and perhaps another dozen Xhotatse warriors battled furiously against three times as many Tangini, each side taking turns diving past the burning barrier. The Feathered Ape, his immense size and presence framed in dark silhouette against the flames, was in the thick of battle. Xhotatse reinforcements racing from other parts of the keep charged in, only to be flung bodily into the walls and ceiling with the monstrous might of the Ape. Several Xhotatse corpses were testament to that sickening power.

But at the back of the Ape and Tangini was an unexpected sight - a woman. "Scraps?" Arcus whispered. She was no longer wearing the humble attire of a berry gatherer, but the full regalia of royalty - a spectacular golden crown, breastplates and pauldrons, bracelets and anklets, with a strange, shimmering, semi-transparent veil not unlike those worn by the Devis of Vendhya covering her body, and two elegant daggers thrust in her belt. Kenyatta could not help but make a sharp intake of breath, for she resembled nothing so much as one of the great Queens of Shumballah, Punt, or even the semi-mythical Kuth of the Star Girdle.

The woman heard the adventurers, craned her neck with the supple sinuous movement of a viper, and smiled broadly. "Oh, you're here. I'm so glad you made it! I trust, then, that you have slain the Mekutu for us? Well, there are only so many of these Xhotatse left - I'm sure my husband will allow you to claim your share of their heads!"

The realisation of the woman's words - for who was this if not Princess Anepor herself - slowly dawned upon the company, a terrible realisation creeping into their minds like a venomous spider crawling into their ears.

"Where is your husband?" Dusan demanded, who clearly did not come to the same conclusion as the others.

"My husband? Do you not see him? Why, Prince Azar is right there." She pointed with a knowing, disgustingly lurid smile.

"Is he in front of the big ape?" A brief paused followed. Dusan's face fell, and he groaned with a nausea alien even to his recently assaulted innards. 

Anepor saw the disgust on their faces, and twisted her own in contempt. "You people, you outsiders, you think so small! Since my first husband was taken by the Xhotatse, I ruled alone for a time. But I saw Azar, and marvelled at his might, his power. Even in your strange lands, I wager your marriages are seldom for love - politics drive dynasties. Azar may never be my man, but he can be my champion, my prince. And who better to lead a kingdom than the mightiest warrior within it? Yes? Yes!?"

Anepor began to cackle, the madness finally breaking through her carefully controlled poise. Amatagt had heard enough: with a motion too fast for the eye to follow he drew, nocked, and loosed his bow. So confident was the Princess in her victory, and so delighting in fooling the adventurers into slaying the Mekutu for her, she did not foresee the black Stygian arrow soaring through the air - it struck her square in the left shoulder.

She staggers backwards. "I thought you would have more sense than this." Her viperish head whipped around. "Husband! deal with these interfering fools! Send them screaming to whatever Hell they fear!"

The Feathered Ape - Prince Azar - turns at Anepor's call. At the sight of his Princess bleeding, his face dropped in concern - then scowled as he howled in outrage: he grasped the corpses of two slain Tangini by their warped skulls, and launched them towards the invaders like they were dolls. Arcus and Amatagt ably dodged - but Zafia and Kryxus were struck square in their chests, thrown back several feet, and trapped under the warrior cadavers.

The party barely had time to react when Azar rushed with frightening speed towards Arcus: he grasped with his claws, gleaming goldly in the firelight. Arcus leapt with preternatural agility onto the wall, his feet touching and momentarily suspending him horizontally, as he nocked and loosed an arrow. The beast missed, the arrow sank into his chest - but in the adrenaline of the charge, the ape seemed not to notice the injury. Wheeling, the Ape turned its attention to the second largest primate in the room - Dusan. Azar loped towards the Hyperborean, and used all its primeval strength to batter Dusan with its enormous forearm. Dusan was launched backwards into the wall - but somehow, rather than knocking the wind or indeed the consciousness from him, the unholy blow from this gargantuan ape awoke something in his soul. Electrified, his entire body trembling with nervous energy, Dusan emerged from the crack in the wooden wall panelling left by the impact...

Princess Anepor wrenched the Stygian arrow from her shoulder, and reaches for a small pouch from her belt. She tears the cord around it, and thrusts it into the wound, her face tensing with pain as that familiar red sap starts to drip in rivulets from between her fingers, as her eyes roll back in her head and foam froths from her mouth. The mad princess charges towards Tiberius, flailing her daggers wildly: though he makes to parry, the tall princess is just too quick, and her daggers bit painfully into Tiberius' flanks.

With a strength belying her slighter frame, Zafia presses the Tangini corpse off, and kicks herself up to a fighting stance, scimitar at the ready with a flourish; simultaneously, Kryxus roughly tossed the corpse on him to the side. Amatagt unleashed a volley of Stygian arrows - all fell short of the mark, one splitting a dead Tangini's malformed head. Dusan, his heart bursting with an antediluvian fury, rushed at the ape, grasped it by the fur on its shoulders with his huge Hyperborean hands, and screamed a primal howl at the Ape. Azar, stunned that a blow which has slain lesser men only encouraged this strange, balder, smaller Ape, felt an alien emotion scratching his brain stem. A new emotion spread across the Ape's visage - Kenyatta could now say he saw an Ape that showed a very human emotion: fear!

As the Hyperborean roared, Tiberius saw an opening in the berserk Anepor's assault, and stabbed her in the unarmoured ribs - but where normal sheer fabric would surely have parted cleanly against a razor-sharp blade, it instead hardened like Hyrkanian silk. Tiberius glimpsed a slight bruising on Anepor's toned stomach, but no blood...

Arcus took Dusan's primal challenge, and loosed his arrows at Prince Azar once again: the arrows found their mark, the Ape howled in rage. Seeing his success, the Argossean chanced his luck - he drew a small ceramic vessel, struck a flint against the rag stopped in its mouth, and hurled it towards the Princess. The missile smote her in the back, shattered, spattering oil over her - which then burst into flames. Anepor screamed in rage, dropping her daggers and thrashing her arms furiously.

Zafia pounced at the burning princess, her scimitar flashing an arc overhead to smite Anepor on the pauldron: she hissed serpent-like at the attack. As she snarled at the Zamorian, a pike rushed from the shadows, striking her square in the chest - Kryxus used all his power to thrust his pike with enough force to launch the princess bodily through the air, tearing her shimmering veil away and sending pieces of her jewellery scattering across the floor.

Upon hearing his princess flying across the room, the Ape cried in distress. Azar shoved Dusan away, and leapt to cover Anepor's burning body, trying in vain to put the flames out. Amatagt took this opportunity to unleash another volley: the Ape saw this from the corner of his eye, and spread its arms over her, taking each arrow in his broad back. Anepor glares from under the feathered fur of her husband towards Kryxus, and screamed: it was a howl of sheer hatred and agony that almost made the stone walls themselves tremble. Her husband, feeling the pain and the rage of his still-burning princess, joins in the exultation of fury. The Gunderman, being made of exceptionally stern stuff, holds fast, and in fact roars back, matching the screams. Azar snarled, picked up a nearby Xhotatse spear, and launched it at the Gunderman - but Kryxus knocks it from the air with his pike despite the unwieldiness of his trusty weapon.

Anepor, her last gasp of hate and anger now spent, sighed, her eyes rolled forward, dilated almost black. The foam drooled from her mouth, her eyes stared sightlessly, her injured chest falling still. Azar senses her motion stopping, and looks down at his princess. A bewildered, mournful moan peals from the Ape, his brow and mouth upturned - Kenyatta recognised sadness of an all too familiar kind. Azar shook Anepor gently; then he raised her head in one enormous hand that spanned her whole skull, brushing her lips with his other hand; he pressed his forehead to hers, and drew her into a great hug. The flames which consumed Anepor spread to the Ape, his glorious feathers catching fire, his once silver fur now singed black: in sudden pain, he dropped the princess, letting her head thud sickeningly on the floor.

Azar regarded the flames creeping from his arms to his torso almost dumbly. But the fire reflecting in his great brown eyes started to kindle the only emotion that gave him security. The burning Ape inhaled deeply, and roared: he smote his chest with such emotion he left bleeding bruises where his fists beat the skin; he leapt and spun around the stone floor in a dervish, battering splinters and chunks with his great golden claws. Azar, Prince of the Tangini, was ablaze in body and in soul, and charged aflame at the slayers of his princess.

Kryxus, recalling Arcus's trick, picked up the oil vessel he liberated from the Jade Keep, and tossed it towards the Ape: it shattered full on the beast's mighty breast, drenching it in oil - which swiftly caught fire. The Ape, now resembling some fire demon of ancient myth more than a natural animal, threw its great arms in a futile attempt to smother the flames now utterly engulfing him.

Yet even this nightmarish vision ripped from a Stygian mystic's eschatologies did not deter the adventurers: Zafia darted in, her pilfered golden trinkets clinking in motion like wind chimes, danced a tarentella as deadly as those practised by the Priestesses of the Spider-God in her homeland, her scimitar singing wickedly. The blade sliced through flames and flesh alike, dodging the burning swipes of its burning arms. Amatagt lets loose with his final volley of arrows, sending them whistling into the Ape's flesh, pinioning his left arm. The Ape fell to a knee, clutching at the arrows, his great head bowed.

Much like how the power of the Ape's attack only envigorated Dusan, the image of a demon from Set's lakes of fire inspired only greater resolve in Tiberius. The Kothian climbed the back of the flaming ape, and drew his dagger neatly past its throat. Blood poured from Azar's jugular, his eyes glazed, and the mournful moan gurgled into a rasp.

Prince Azar, Lord of the Tangini, turned to the still-burning corpse of the Princess Anepor. He crawled using his one good arm towards her, finally collapsing over her small frame, his eyes staring into her dead face until the light fades from his own.

Chapter 7: What We Leave Behind

("Remington's Death," The Ghost and the Darkness, Jerry Goldsmith)

The survivors are surrounded by the dead. Of the Xhotatse warriors, only Zyanya remained standing - coated in blood, atop a small hill of Tangini warriors. Tenbo clutched his side, a grisly wound bleeding profusely: Jambi was sprawled, barely conscious, beside him.

"We did it! Brothers! We did-" Tenbo groaned with great effort, trying to get to his feet, only to collapse with pain. Arcus & Amatagt, seeing Tenbo in pain, rushed to aid him, staunching the flow of blood; Zafia saw to Jambi. The warrior awoke with a start: "My leg! I can't feel my leg! The Ape tore it off! Oh I cannot look!" Zafia frowned, and pointed at the bruised but otherwise intact limb. Jambi smiled awkwardly

Zyanya, barely daring to pause for breath, turned curtly to the barricade throne room door, knocking upon it in that familiar rhythm seen yesterday. The door swung open, and the face of the Queen peered from behind. She stares wide-eyed at the death in the throne room, shudders, screams, and runs back.

"She should be stronger than this!" Dusan muttered.

"There's nobody left," reminded Tiberius.

"Aye. She's queen of nothing but an empty worthless jungle," Amatagt snarled contemptuously.

The adventurers looked around. The Stygian was cruel, but not incorrect: of the hundreds of Xhotatse, Mekutu, and Tangini who lived in Zukundu this morning, only five remained living. And the adventurers were still trapped on this island.

Zyanya stepped through the corpses of friends and foes. Her face was inscrutable, but the pain in her eyes unmistakable. "We were preparing a great feast for you. We had fruit, wine, some meats the crawlers had not taken." She sighed, long and sad. "We are all dead now."

"But we can leave! We can escape! You can come with us," Arcus argued.

"No, we cannot. We cannot escape this place. You saw the sentinels. My duty is to a kingdom that no longer exists." The resignation in Zyanya's voice tolled like a funeral bell. She turned: Chitaka was peering from behind the throne. "At least she will be a queen wherever she goes."

"Well, that's not true. But you, Zyanya, you are a beast: you will do really well. How many men did you slay there, what, nine and a half?"

Zyanya's lip curled absently. "You trying to flirt with me, outsider?"

Arcus held up his hands. "No, no, you're far beyond my station, I know that. I'm just saying that you'll do well, and the Queen - she'll be fine, honestly."

On hearing Arcus's voice, the Queen emerges from the throne room, clutching the very doll he gifted to her yesterday. She looked out, and noticed the last survivor of the Mekutu hiding behind an upturned chair. The piper stared, frightened but curious, as the Queen approached. The piper withdrew to the corner, kicking her legs back fearfully, but the Queen simply knelt, and held the doll out to her. The piper stares for a space, then takes it. The two girls took turns stroking the doll's hair, smiling at one another.

Jambo stared, aghast. "Our Queen, and a Mekutu? It is as if she does not know what her people have done to ours?" Jambi cursed.

"That one hasn't done anything. She is a child, like her. And save for her, there are no Mekutu left anyway. Save for us, there are no Xhotatse either. Perhaps this is the last hope for all of us, then."

Jambo nodded. "But we cannot live here now. There are not enough of us alive. And there is nothing to stop the Crawlers from claiming the rest of the island..."

Amatagt turns to the adventurers. "Well, what's your plan? Tie some of those giant crocodiles together in a raft?"

Kenyatta frowned. "No, but... that gives me an idea for a better plan." Kenyatta turns to the girl. "You still have your pipes?" She shakes her head. Kenyatta closes his eyes, inhales deeply, and speaks softly while rising in volume to a crescendo: "Zamorian, while you are busy rummaging through corpses for shiny toys, would it trouble you too much to let us borrow those pipes so that we can FINALLY GET OFF THIS ACCURSED ISLAND!?"

The silence was interrupted by the clink of metal on metal. Kenyatta turned to see Safia's legs kicking absently from underneath Azar's smouldering bulk: she extricated herself triumphantly clenching Anepor's crown in her teeth. Seeing the expressions on the gathered companions, she rolled her eyes, and passed the pipes once again to Kenyatta. 

The adventurers left the Ebony Keep with piles of gold from the Xhotatse's treasury in sacks on their backs. While Zafia managed to practically encase herself in glimmering metals, the others had their share of prizes Arcus claimed the Ape's golden claws, while Dusan took the Ape's exquisite neckpiece. With time running out before sunset - and the coming of the Serpent-Things - they had little time to deal with the dead. They hastily moved the Xhotatse dead to the crypt, while unceremoniously tossing the Tangini into the lions' pit. Princess Anepor's corpse was thrown into the pool to feed the ravenous fish. And the charred carcass of Prince Azar was hauled to the top of the Ebony Keep's walls, as promised to old Inokwe.

Zyanya took the adventurers to a wall overlooking what would have been a pier in Zukundu's golden age - no boats remain, the Sentinels having destroyed them as they did to the adventurer's own craft. Kenyatta rappelled down and strode to the end of the pier, eying the several dark shadows which started to converge with interest. Kenyatta looked to the Piper, who returned his gaze expectantly, then turned to play. For a space, the great beasts did not respond. But as Kenyatta continued to play, they thrust their great heads vertically from the water, swaying like charmed snakes. The Kushite kept playing, until they finally splashed down, and floated peacefully in the water - forming a rudimentary living bridge to someone brave or foolish enough to try!

Kenyatta, still playing, motioned to the adventurers. They descended the great wall to the pier, and carefully paced on the massive backs of these monstrous beings, which seemed to tolerate their presence only while the music played. Once all had crossed, Kenyatta attempted to coax the beasts to follow - but whatever force conjured these creatures from the ancient past also bound them to this lake, and they would not move from its waters.

From there, the adventurers parted ways once more. Tiberius took the survivors of Zukundu with him to a Mitraist shelter in southern Koth, where he hoped the last remnants of a lost kingdom could find a home. Kryxus returned to Gunder's Land, where he hoped to find news of his people. The others made their own way - some secretly hoping this would be the last time they would encounter certain members of the party, though the Threads of Fate have other ideas.



Chapter 1: Xholatar Khel Must Die

("Early Arrival," The Edge, Jerry Goldsmith)

The closed wagon creaked and groaned as the stout northern horses hauled it across the rude stone blocks of the last road out of Hyperborea. Dusan the Jolly stood proudly at the front of the wain, one foot on the edge, embracing the icy wind and sleet ravaging his face - truly, it was good to be back in a more reasonable climate after his hellish sojourn in the deep jungles of Kush!

He inhaled deeply, feeling the cold air spread through his lungs and blood: he held his breath for several seconds, and exhaled a great cloud of steaming breath with a sigh of pure satisfaction. "Aaaaah, that is good weather, my friends! Welcome to Hyperborea!"

He turned momentarily to regard the huddled souls shivering under the wagon's inadequate roof. Arcus, more used to the balmy climes of the southwest, was barely visible under piles of furs and wool, only a nose red with cold peeking from his hat betraying his presence. Tiberius the Kothian and Kryxus the Gunderman, while certainly used to freezing winters in their barbaric homelands, certainly did not enjoy them with the same vigour as their Hyperborean comrade.

The three Hyborians came at Dusan's personal request. The Zamorian and the Stygian, on the other hand, came along by pure circumstance. Zafia and Amatagt had their own reasons for making the journey to far Hyperborea - ones that they did not particularly wish to share with their companions at this point, not least because the two had fallen fast asleep among their furs.

Dusan, satisfied that he faced down the weather itself, returned indoors. He slapped the driver - a sullen, gaunt, deathly pale Hyperborean not unlike himself - and sat roughly with his back to the open door, blocking much of the weather with his own enormous back.

"It is good you came, friends. I think it is time I tell you what is going on. Balak, King of Hyperborea, has tasked me with a most serious mission. Several months ago, the King ordered a royal archaeological expedition to a location in the far north of the kingdom. The court historian, Verenik of Kytez, believed that one of the lost cities of Elder Hyperborea was located in a hidden mountain range. Nothing has been heard from them in the months since. The road ends at Lukomor: once there, we have to walk. We have enough supplies to last a few weeks, but I hope we find the expedition before that becomes an issue."

Tiberius was intrigued by the mention of lost cities. "What do we know of Verenik and this lost city of his?"

Dusan shrugged. "I was never one for history. Verenik was an old eccentric. Any time I saw him at court, he gibbered on about some nonsense - Ancient Hyperborean kingdoms, purple-skinned giants, Witch-Queens - things that make no sense to me. But the king finds him fascinating, somehow. Another reason I'm glad to have you is you won't have to deal with local politics!"

Arcus lifted his fur hat. "We're only too happy to help, my friend. I truth, your summons came at an opportune time for me."

Dusan frowned. "Something troubling you?"

Arcus shifted in his seat, and moved closer to Tiberius and Dusan. "Someone is trying to kill me, and I don't even know who he is. I don't know what's going on. Do you know Xholatar Khel? I don't know who he is."

Dusan's face darkened like a Hyperborean night. "I spit on that name. He's trying to kill you?"

"Yes, and I don't even know why!"

Tiberius' eyes flash with a hatred none of the companions ever saw in him before. "Khel!" 

Kryxus had been listening, and upon hearing the name of his hated nemesis, he interjected. "He's the reason for my exile!"

"Wait, he's trying to kill Arcus, and he's the reason for your exile?" Dusan repeated to Arcus and Kryxus.

Arcus was flummoxed. "What? How?"

Tiberius smashed his hands on the deck. "He's the one who brought ruin to my shrine!"

Dusan shook his tousled hair. "The more I hear about this man..."

Arcus was flabbergasted that all the companions with him "Seriously, we really need to deal with this man."

"He has to answer for his crimes at Mitra's court!" Again, Tiberius slammed his fists.

"Indeed. This man is a threat to my people," the Hyperborean added.

"How is he a threat to your people?" Arcus inquired.

The Hyperborean was suddenly evasive: how much should he burden his friends with dangers from his past? "He- he just is. Besides, your testimony is reason enough to stop him. But there's little we can do about it here: for now, we must undertake the King's orders."

Kryxus nodded: he was well aware of a noble warrior's duties to his king. Tiberius pondered this strange situation - was this one of Mitra's esoteric machinations, pulling together heroes who were wronged by Xholatar Khel in order to ultimately defeat him? Even the hedonistic Arcus respected that loyalty.

The adventurers fell silent for the rest of the journey to the little community of Lukomor. After refilling supplies, checking knots, and some last-minute prayers to their myriad gods, the travellers ventured forth to the Icy Wastes.

Chapter 2: The Warden of the Icy Wastes

("The Ravine," The Edge, Jerry Goldsmith)

Dusan marched out at the head of the adventurers' train, thoroughly in his element - even if he took the least efficient route short of going in a circle - while his allies struggled through the snowy landscape. 

The farther north the companions travel, the more it feels like they're the only souls left on the Earth. The glare of the snow burned their eyes; the wild north wind screamed in their ears, biting their exposed skin. But what was most uncanny to them was the smell - or, rather, the lack of any smell. There was no wildlife, no foliage, no flowers. The smells of nature, from the delicate aromas of flowers to the pungent aroma of bodies and beasts, are completely absent. The southerners all thought back to the smells they took for granted: Arcus ached for the sharp salt of the sea air; Amatagt pined for the dry musk of the desert. Even Dusan, used as he was to the anosmia of frozen lands, could not shake the feeling that he was traveling through the Realm of Death Itself.

The cloudless blue skies blared in the daytime; the northern lights danced mockingly above at night. After some days of crossing a great frozen plane, they discovered what appeared to be foothills leading to the colossal blue mountains further north. They navigated these hills: as they crested the last hill, the familiar tang of blood, salty sweat, and upturned soil rushed into their nostrils. They almost savoured it after days of walking in the odourless ice. They looked down upon a valley strewn with dozens of dead bodies, half-frozen in the snow.

The companions rushed down the slope to the bottom of the valley. Dusan instantly recognises the burnished, gleaming scale corselets and spired fur-rimmed helms of Hyperborean soldiers - the expedition's guard, no doubt. The other warriors, however, were something Dusan dreaded. He thought it was too far north even for them - but laying on the ground were tall, blond-haired savages, of the tribes that were assaulting the borders of Hyperborea for generations.

These savages were brutish and primeval even beyond the most atavistic of the New Hyborians: to Dusan's eyes, they were as close to the Ape as they are to humans. Shaggy locks of yellow hair, from pale to strawberry blond, on their heads, chins, and cheeks framed their flat noses, wide mouths, and strong ridged promontory brows. Each was clad in furs, with great bulging muscles displaying a complete lack of extraneous flesh. Many were men, but there were some women among these savages: even with their divergent proportions, they were scarcely less formidably built than the menfolk.

West of the slaughterfield, a great rock jutted. Below that rock lay one of the savages, leaning against the stone face, cradling the body of a savage woman. Barely visible clouds of breath billowed from the savage's open mouth.

As Dusan opened his mouth, he felt a cold wind - from the corner of his eye, a great black shape hurtled towards him. Out of pure instinct, the companions bounded aside as a great chunk of ice and rock the size of an ox roared past them! The projectile crashed into the ground, and rolled up the valley for a few seconds before crumbling into pieces. Arcus heard great clumping sounds crunching through the frosty snow from the other side. A bellow like a bull with five times the lung capacity shook the hills. The adventurers drew their weapons.

The figure which loomed over the valley seemed like a figure of myth & legend. First a great head appeared, with low lips drooping past an absent chin, no visible nose, great tusks sloping each side of its wide mouth, and a single eye in the centre of its head. Its enormous torso rose over the snowbanks, with massive shoulders and arms, one heaving a great club of frozen wood and rock fused together with black ice. Its stout legs and hooflike feet finally trod over the ridge, with a strangely ungainly movement - like a creature which is not meant to stand on two feet. The giant stood above the adventurers, its great ribs expanding, expelling great gusts of frozen air with each breath. It stood some fifteen feet tall, Then it pounded its ice-club against the ground, raised it aloft, and roared an unmistakable challenge.

Dusan had never seen anything like this in Hyperborea before - but he'd never struck fear into a great ape until Zukundu, so he charged up with his Hyperborean sword aloft. Kryxus, his long Gunderman pike at the ready, broke into a jog, speartip aimed at the monster's chest. The titan loped down the hill, using its free hand to balance as it ran.

Kryxus braced as he thrust his pike towards the giant: it struck its left armpit, not puncturing it, but causing the beast to roar in pain. Just at that moment, Dusan cut his sword towards the creature's foot - but Kryxus left the creature unbalanced, so it lifted its enormous foot just out of Dusan's reach. Zafia charged, ducked between the giant's legs, slicing under the kneecap in the process - angering it, but not drawing blood.

Amatagt, shivering in this accursed cold, did not trust his arrows to find their mark, and so sliced his wicked Khopesh through the giant's inner thigh. Rivulets of blood started to gush. Tiberius saw Kryxus' pike pushing into the giant's armpit: he ran beside Kryxus, and pushed with the Gunderman together to twist the blade into its flesh. With their combined strength, Tiberius and Kryxus force the point of the pike through the armpit into the shoulderblade. The giant roared in agony and fury.

Arcus was struck with a whim: he looped a rope around an arrow, and loosed it over the giant's head, hoping to ensnare it. While it indeed soared over, it did not anchor itself in any meaningful manner - and instead struck the unwitting Amatagt on his brigandine vest. Arcus grimaced as Amatagt's expression darkened.

The giant, enraged, heaved its brutal ice club overhead down at Kryxus: the Gunderman, feeling he could somehow parry this gargantuan weapon, raised his armoured forearm in an attempt to deflect. He was successful in that he was not utterly destroyed: the momentum of the blow hurled him backwards. Fortune was kind on him, as he rolled to his feet, the sting of the impact pulsing in his nerves, his mail shirt still vibrating.

Hearing the Stygian's curses directed towards Arcus, the giant instinctively hauled its ice-club backwards towards Amatagt: he rolled nimbly away, the arrow still lodged in his armour.

All through this, Arcus shouted at the beast in all the languages and patois he picked up on his adventures. The creature did not respond to any of them: if it spoke any language, it was that of the beasts and birds. In frustration, Arcus snatched one of Tiberius's daggers and hurled it at the giant - it struck the monster on the forehead, where it embedded. The blade waggled grotesquely back and forth with the beast's confused movements.

Zafia, frustrated that none of the blood shed was caused by her, dipped and sliced at the creature's leg again. The Zamorian groaned petulantly when her cut did not erupt in a burst of dark fluid - but after a moment, a small trickle drips from a razor-thin wound. Zafia grinned sadistically. 

Tiberius looked witheringly at Arcus. "I hate you." Affronted at the loss of his dagger, he scrambled up Kryxus's wedged pike, grasped the sparse tufts of fur on the beast's shoulders, and clambered around its neck to reach for his weapon. Amatagt, still dealing with Arcus's arrow, cut wildly with his Khopesh, only for it to glance from the beast's hide.

Dusan, seeing the precarious position Tiberius has climbed into, lifted his sword, and bellowed a challenge of his own. The giant momentarily forgot both the pike in its shoulder and the human on its back, and turned to face the comparatively tiny Hyperborean. Dusan looked square in the creature's face, trying not to take in the fact that the creature's tusks were as wide apart as his own shoulders.

Kryxus left his pike wedged in the creature's shoulder and drew his sword. He charged in and cut the back of the giant's legs in a single fluid motion: it roared again, and crashed to its knees. As it fell, it glared at Dusan with its singular eye, and brought its ice-club squarely on the Hyperborean's chest: Dusan was smashed violently into the snow. The titan then reached over its head for Tiberius: it grabbed the Kothian, and hurled him off like a child on a wild bull.

The companions were in disarray. Zafia looked around. Dusan was embedded in the ice; Arcus rushed to aid Tiberius; Amatagt was still wrestling with the arrow; she could not see Kryxus anywhere. As far as she was concerned, victory was up to her. A fiendish glee scrunched Zafia's face in a wild grin. She had purloined plenty of treasure from under her companion's noses, after all - why not take the glory of slaying this monster too?

The Zamorian twirled her scimitar like a Shadizar sword-dancer, twirled and bounded acrobatically, the blade flashing and blinding the creature's lone eye. Then, leaping into the air, she brought the blade down behind the monster's head, cutting through vertebrae, muscle, and hide. The creature's head thudded to the snow and rolled away: its body slumped forward, Kryxus's pike penetrating through its body. The Gunderman grimly walked up from behind the beast, wiping his sword on its hide, and extracted the spear from its corpse. Tiberius, limping from his unwanted flight, lurched to the creature's head, and withdrew his dagger. He glowered at Arcus, who could only wince apologetically as he strained to extricate Dusan from the Hyperborean-shaped mold left in the frost.

The Kothian cleaned his blades, and stood with hands on hips before the monster. The blood poured steadily from its wounds, most actively from its gory neck. Tiberius watched for a space - something was wrong, but he wasn't sure what. Then he realised: despite the extreme cold temperature, the blood was not freezing. It continued to pool around the corpse as a liquid even as the frost around it remained. What's more, there was no steam from the decapitation - it was as if the creature was cold long before it died. Dusan noticed this as well. The blood appeared natural, but strangely tainted, as if mixed with some unknown fluid.

The adventurers started to debate with one another as to the nature of this thing. Arcus recognised it as a Cyclops, a terrible giant of ancient Argossean legend from the days before the Great Cataclysm. Many stories are told of these flesh-eating monsters, their battles against the sea-kings and sailor heroes of the island kingdoms, enough for whole cycles of mythologies.

Dusan, however, came to a rather different - and startling - conclusion. He studied the beast's head with great curiosity: the tusks, the shape of the head, the texture of the fur, all seemed strangely familiar to him. He pried open the huge jaws, and inspected the great ridged molars within. With a start, he understood - he has encountered beings like this before. The tusks, teeth, fur - they belonged to a mammoth. The socket containing the singular eye, Dusan knew, was where the anchor of a mammoth's trunk should be. Looking closer, Dusan recognised that the skull itself had the shape of a mammoth: casting a bewildered eye to the body, he recognised the proportions of the limbs, the length of the torso, and the four thick digits on each hand and foot. By some evil method - science, or sorcery, or otherwise - this giant was fashioned with the flesh of a mammoth!

The party was speechless. "It's very strange," Dusan clarified in his usual understated manner.

A low, rasping laugh echoed in the valley. The adventurers turned in its direction. The blond savage still lived, and was laughing at the warriors who slew a giant.

Chapter 3: The Riddle of the Savage

("Mighty Hunter," The Edge, Jerry Goldsmith)

The groups trudged up the slope towards the survivor. He spoke to them in a language none could understand - but Dusan recognised as the language spoken by the same savages who attack the Hyperborean borders.

"Anyone understand him?" Arcus asked.

"He's probably saying something very rude," Dusan chided. He turned to the savage. "Do you understand Hyperborean?"

The savage looked strangely at Dusan, and gestured for him to come closer. Dusan did, but kept a safe distance. The stranger patted his chest, indicating himself. "Jarn, hefnir Olaf."

Dusan frowned. "He's saying his name's Jarn, son of Olar."

Jarn smiled, and extended his hand towards Dusan with eyebrows raised. Dusan frowned for a moment, then nodded. "Dusan."

"Dusan!" Jarn boomed. He pointed to the fallen giant: "Wodanaz!" then each of the warriors. "Wodanaz banamar! Ha ha ha!" The big man laughed heartily, prompting reciprocal echoes among the confused adventurers. He pointed to the monster again, then to a dark space in the mountains beyond. Arcus observed that the giant's footprints seemed to lead in the direction indicated.

"I think he wants us to bring his body back to his sacred territory," Arcus said solemnly.

"Or it might be where the beast has come from," Dusan questioned.

"Oh. That. That makes more sense. Yes." Arcus rubbed the nape of his neck.

"Perhaps there is some sorcerer who has made this," Dusan mused.

Jarn cradled the dead woman's head, combing her hair with his fingers. "Thyra..." At this, he fades out of consciousness. As the companions turn to confer, he awakes with a start. "Am I dead?"

Dusan is startled to realise he can understand Jarn. The savage looks at the adventurers. "Who are you?"

"Who are you?" Arcus responded, unthinkingly, in Argossean. Arcus was amazed to realise he, too, could understand what the warrior said.

Jarn stared, confused, for several seconds. Then he closed his eyes, drawing his lips pursed. "Ah. This happens sometimes. I am - I was - no, I am Jarn. I have been Hialmar, Horsa, Asgrim, Bragi. I have been many people. My time as Yarn is coming to a close. I came here hoping to slay the Jotun - but someone beat me to it! What is important is that it is dead: but it is not the only thing that needs killing in these lands."

With great pain evident on his face, he reached to the back of his belt. He extricated a waterskin. "I can see you are all confused. How you can understand me, and me you, in your own tongues. I do not understand it myself. But I do not have long in this body: take this." He held out the waterskin. "This will kill it. Do not let your naked flesh touch it. Place it upon your steel, and there will be nothing in this universe that it will not cut."

Arcus reached forward, and took the waterskin. Jarn relaxed. "But be prepared. The place you go is dangerous indeed. I go now. I do not know who I will be next. Mayhap I will rejoin Thyrsa at last. Perhaps I will be that cripple in the desert. He would not understand, but he was the bravest of us all." Jarn withdrew his shattered sword, and placed it on his chest. "Make it bleed."

A final cloud of breath, and Jarn, son of Olar, passed into the mists beyond this world.

Dusan looked on this erstwhile foe with a newfound respect. Nonetheless, he was here to find out what happened to Verenik's expedition, and nothing here has answered that question.

For once, the companions were appreciative of Zafia's thoroughness. While she of course kept the prettiest and most valuable of trinkets from the dead soldiers, she also found scraps of information - journals, watch rotas, inventory lists. The evidence suggested that the expedition was taken by surprise, ambushed by these savages. This explained the soldiers - but what happened to the scholars, the labourers, and Verenik himself?

Arcus hefted a particularly large and finely-clothed Hyperborean, whose gilt armour suggested a position of leadership. He was clutching a book in his arms: a leatherbound journal. It was written in a language he could not understand, though logic dictates it belonged to one of the scholars, if not Verenik himself.

"Tiberius, can you read this?" The Argossean turned to the only other scholarly man he knew. Tiberius shook his head. Arcus went in turn to the other adventurers, hoping beyond hope that they could read. "It's Hyperborean, definitely can't read it," Amatagt said curtly, still nursing his punctured armour. Arcus moaned, and finally approached the only Hyperborean in the party. "Dusan... honestly, I mean I know you can't read, but-"

"What do you mean I cannot read? I worked at the court! It was my job to read!"

"You can read?"

"Yes, of course I can read!"

"Well can you read this?"

"Of course I can read this!" Dusan ripped the book truculently from Arcus's grip, greatly insulted and a little hurt by his friend's supposition. "Just because I am from a cold place you think I cannot read?"

"I just assumed you were not literate!" Arcus spread his arms wide in a futile gesture.

Growling like a self-conscious bear, Dusan flipped the book open. He could read some of what was written inside: to his exasperation, much was encoded in an esoteric cipher. Scholars from Hyperborea to Vendhya jealously guarded their most treasured secrets and theories, which made things maddeningly difficult for the rest of the population. Discouraged, he turned to the cover, and read it out, hoping to impress his friends and salve his ego:

"Expedition into possible Cerngothic Dynasty ruins of the Reign of Loquamethros in the Year of the Green Spider: A Chronicle by Verenik of Kytez, Master Archaeologist and High Scholar of the Court of Balak of Hyperborea." He glanced sideways, hoping the company was suitably impressed by his elocution.

Dusan thumbed through the rest of the book, muttering some of the few words and phrases that were not disguised. "Fall of Commorium... Destruction of Antanok.... Uzuldarine Dynasty... Testament of Evagh, Slayer of Rlim Shaikorath... Parchments of Pnom..." None of the phrases mean anything to him. However, near the back of the book, one page caught his attention: a ragged scribble of notes next to a coding ring. Dusan reads out the translation:

"There is a code here. It reads "The tower is high, yet casts no shadow." And there are directions - they lead..." Dusan turned, and realised that the destination matched Jarn's direction.

Chapter 4: The Tower That Casts No Shadow

("Birds," The Edge, Jerry Goldsmith)

The adventurers traversed north. They arrived at a huge escarpment: it desceptively blended into the shape of the mountains beyond. The only passage appeared to be a small cave within the ice. Emboldened by their victory over the giant, the heroes entered the cave.

The walls glistened, the light scattering through the ice. As they journeyed further, they found the ice gave way to a natural rock cave. Dusan lit a torch. On the walls, they found cave paintings - rudimentary human-like shapes dotted with blond heads, hurling spears at a great one-eyed giant with tusks. They appeared to be driving the giant back, towards what looked like a giant tidal wave - an oddity for a cave so far from the coast. At the base of the wave stood a small square gate, guarded by two fabulous animals. Arcus recognised them as griffins - more beasts of the Pre-Cataclysmic Era, known to guard treasure. Within that wave was a shape: black pigment smeared in serpentine coils, dotted with white jagged points and flecks. The Hyborians did not know what to make of this, but something stirred in Amatagt & Zafia's memories, some ancestral dread that put them ill at ease.

Dusan passed his torch to Kryxus, and consulted the book. Sure enough, several of the creatures illustrated on the wall were represented in the book. Arcus leaned over, and was surprised to see many creatures completely unfamiliar to him. He prided himself on his knowledge of ancient creatures, yet some of them seemed utterly alien to his eyes.

The adventurers emerge on the other side. A vast canyon stretches out, almost further than any can see, on left and right: on the other side, connected by a thin bridge of ice, was the subject of the cave paintings. An enormous tidal wave, hundreds upon hundreds of feet high, frozen in place, as if held there by the will of some terrible god of ice. Icicles longer than the tallest trees dripped from the crest of that monstrous wave: dark shapes could be barely glimpsed within the semi-transcluscent walls of that mountain of ice.

The company stood, transfixed by the unreality of what they beheld. The light of the day, normally cold and blue, fluctuated here: the refraction of light through innumerable ice crystals and incalculable fathoms of frozen water cast a riot of colours across the landscape. But a single dark spot stood out amongst the bright colours - a square, dark, stone gate.

Arcus was the first to break from his transfixion with this otherworldly realm. The ice bridge looked solid enough to carry their weight without effort: it was wide enough for three to cross at once. Nonetheless, the Argossean was cautious... and slid across the ice on his front, like a humanoid seal.

Initialy perturbed, the other adventurers reasoned that the sailor perhaps knew something they didn't, and they followed. The sliding companions made it to a third of the way across without much incident. Zafia was absently peering into the ice chasm when a glint of gold caught her eye: some trick of the light cast a formation of ice in a manner strangely reminiscient of a pile of gold. As she leaned for a closer look, her avarice almost cost her everything - as she slid over the edge, almost falling into the abyss below!

Amatagt, who was following behind her, saw her banking slowly off course, and had the wits and strength to catch her before she plummeted down. Zafia could not stifle a bloodcurdling scream for the brief moment she felt herself suspended in air: it reverberated loudly across the chasm, even as Amatagt helped the Zamorian back onto the bridge. "Thanks," Zafia gasped. "Not the first time I've caught someone from a precipice. Usually runaway slaves, though."

Something else screamed among the stalagmites of ice far below them. The scream repeated, joined by more and more, until a chorus of screeches deafened the companions. Shadows fluttered from the gloom: a flock of what appeared to be birds erupted from the chasm below. And they were heading straight for Zafia.

The adventurers ran the rest of the way. Two thirds of the way across, and their pursuers were gaining. They had wings like bats stretching from fingertip to toe: long snouts like storks ending with a wet doglike nose and bristling whiskers. Small catlike ears fanned from their long heads, and big black eyes like Zamorian prayer beads bulged unblinking from their faces. Rows of needle-like teeth lined their jaws when they opened  to screech. Arcus marvelled in equal measure to his horror - it is as if some madman took the skin of a mammal, and stretched it over the skeleton of a bird.

By the time they got to the end of the bridge, Dusan was batting the creatures away with his fists, shielding his eyes from their claws and teeth. Yet when they crossed the threshold, the fiends wheeled back, and flocked without pursuing - like an invisible barrier held them at bay. Then, as quickly as they appeared, they plunged into the abyss, and silence reigned once more on the ice.

Gasping for air, the adventurers did not dare to turn around until they were certain the creatures were gone. When they did, they looked at the gate anew. Strewn about were strange mirrors that seemed to have falen from mechanisms installed beside the entrance. A great sea-green jewel was set in an alcove above the door. Flanking the great stone structure - much larger than the distance suggested - there were two slabs. Upon those slabs were what appeared to be two statues, encased in a thick layer of ice. Tiberius was familiar with the Kothians' appreciation of lion sculptures - but these were no lions, or any sort of cat. Arcus recognised them as griffins.

Dusan peered through the ice. The creatures resembled their depictions in the book and on the cave wall superficially, but there was something twisted about these creatures in a way uncomfortably similar to the giant and those bat-things. The griffin, as depicted, had the head, wings, and forelimbs of an eagle, with the hindquarters of a lion. This creature was four-legged, sure enough, and it had claws, and a great beak, but there the similarities ended. This creature had the air of a reptile about it: golden scales covered its back and limbs, countless spines erupted from its tail, and the great crest sloping from its skull resembled some sort of bony shield. Dusan jumped back when one of its eaglish eyes turned to look at him. Kryxus tapped the ice near the creature's snout. Its eye darted towards the Gunderman. 

Amatagt was in no mood for delay, so he strode up to the doors and pushed on them. As soon as his hands touched the strange metal, an almight crash shattered the silence. The ice around the statues splintered into fragments: the creatures shook their awful manes, flecks of gold dust sparkling with powdered ice. With a squawk like an eagle ten times deeper, they crouched, readying to pounce. Their eyes fixed on Dusan... and they waited

Nobody dared to move. Amatagt glanced at the mirrors, where the sea-green jewel was reflected. He recalled seeing something like it at one of the Black Pyramids of Luxor, a seat of the infamous Black Ring of Set. An old Stygian merchant told him that if properly illuminated, these jewels would react - conduct light through dark spaces, provide heat, even operate simple machines. Simple machines like doors. 

"Dusan, what was the riddle?"

"The Riddle? Oh, the book!" Dusan opened the book, frantically flicking through the pages. "Yes, yes: "The tower is high, but casts no shadow." What does it mean?"

Amatagt froze in realisation. "Light. It's a beam of light! Use a mirror to direct the sunlight there, onto the jewel above the door!"

Carefully, the adventurers crouch, watching the creatures: they had not taken their eyes off Dusan, nor he them. The others painstakingly angled the polished metal discs until the doors parted. As the great doors swung open, the creatures relaxed, and bounded down into the abyss.

Amatagt stood, hands on hips, smiling with the grotesque satisfaction only a follower of Set could display. He spread his hands triumphantly. "What would you do without the Stygian?"

Chapter 5: The Pool of Abominations

("Deadfall" & "Bear Fight," The Edge, Jerry Goldsmith)

The path through the gate was no less remarkable than the sight of the glacier from outside. They walked not through a stone hall, but a tunnel like a whirlpool running horizontally. The walls of ice were clear, allowing a great deal of light from the sky outside to filter through the eerie blue-green water. It illuminated a tableau of cataclysmic chaos. Bricks and stones, frozen in the glacier, whirled like schools of fish; fracturing towers loomed like whales; strange men and women, clad in garments unlike anything the adventurers ever encountered, were suspended in the ice, trapped for eternity, their faces sealed in an everlasting scream. It looked, for all the world, like the adventurers had paused time itself, and walked through a city in the midst of its destruction. The terrible power of the sea weighed on their minds in the terrible stillness of that nightmarish journey.

The corridor ended in a great spherical chamber - an enormous bubble in the sea. At the base of this sphere stood a platform. Other openings led out of the chamber, deeper into this frozen wave.

Dusan walked towards the platform. A pedestal stood in the centre. There were geometric shapes upon it, with levers and buttons along the outer edge. The shapes resemble the rooms of a building. He turned to the book, and found a sketch similar to the pedestal, but with the shapes in different configurations.

On a guess, Dusan shifted one of the shapes. A rumbling shook the room: the ice on one side started to crackle and splinter, and a new corridor appeared. Dusan shifted the other devices. An alcove behind the pedestal opened: something emerged from the space below.

A metal statue, sitting on a throne, greeted the adventurers. Amatagt had seen automata like this in the Palace of Luxor: usually they were simply elaborate puppets used by the priests to enrapture the populace. But he could not see any puppeteer for this.

The statue's mouth hinged open. A metallic voice began to speak in some ancient language. Dusan recognised a few words - Uzuldaroum, Avalzaunt, Lemuria, Mekkaram, Voormithadreth, Ubbo-Sathla - from the book, but their provenance was completely lost on him.

Of all the souls there, it was perhaps the least likely who responded to the statue's words. Zafia's people boasted a long history, dating back to the ancient Zhemri people of the Pre-Cataclysmic Age. She was dimly aware of Elder Hyperborea, but the automaton's drone stirred a memory in her mind. She recalled a myth associated with those strange ancients... "The Pool of Abominations."

The others turned to Zafia with interest. She shrugged: she wasn't normally talkative. "Everyone has their creation stories. Some say they were placed here by the gods. Others believe they evolved from lesser beings. I'd heard a story about the Ancient Hyperboreans. They believed that all life was spawned from a sing, horrible, evil pool - the Pool of Abomination."

She continued, walking towards the statue in wonderment. "There was a god, Ubbo-Sathla, the Unbegotten Source. It created constant permutations of life forms. They would spawn from this pool, and go on to terrorise the world. May-maybe this has something to do with that."

Dusan frowned, deeply disturbed by the implications of what the Zamorian said. "Maybe that is where the giant came from. Maybe this Pool of Abominations is here."

The Hyperborean felt something stirring in his blood - not pride, but some ancient primeval emotion that generations of civilisation and humanity had suppressed. He looked deep into the automaton's eyes, and carefully uttered a word: "Ubbo-Sathla."

The ice crackled again. This time, a corridor opened up on the ground, a steep spiral curling down into the glacier below. The light of day grew dimmer and dimmer, the vibrant blue-green melting into a nauseous murk. At the end of this tunnel, another chamber - this time irregular, like many bubbles bursting at once - gaped before the adventurers. The walls of one side of this chamber were flat - and depicted a scene from the darkest dreams of a lotus-fiend.

Creatures of every shape and size floated, suspended, in the ice. A strange purple light from some unseen source cast these poor beings in an unholy light. There were recognisable ones - beasts of burden, big game, exotic animals from far climes. Some were animals that were believed long extinct - great reptiles and mammals from the Elder Earth.

At the base of this frozen specimen cabinet was a rupture. Strange liquid - semi-transparent like water, but with a sickly tinge - flowed into a pool that spread over a third of the ground. Within this stagnant pool, hideous beings thrashed and raved: fighting and mating and eating one another, roaring with unearthly shrill calls. Some resembled beasts of legend, but malformed, disfigured, warped - like some perverse mind took a true animal and reshaped it into a monster.

A more terrible thing loomed above the pool. Standing aloft on enormous spider-like limbs, a writhing mass of black tentacles pulsated. Within its slick flanks gleamed white bones - the skeleton of some terrible sea serpent. Its enormous skull hung from the centre. And within this skull, the adventurers saw a human. Dusan recognised him as Verenik!

Verenik was covered in the black tendrils of the Things above the pool: they seemed to probe into his brain, reaching through his ears and nostrils. Above the din of the horrors below, the adventurers could just about hear his voice, stuttering, broken, rasping. Only Dusan understood, and even then, the words had no meaning to him:

"The cavity at the front of the skull appears to house a significant muscular hydrostat, suggesting that the Cyclopes' field of vision was impeccable and capable of precisely coordinated muscle contractions. The tusks are positioned far forward of the molars, and so must function for combat or display rather than eating. The mandible..."

As the garbled witterings echoed unnaturally through the chamber, the adventurers watched as the Thing reached a tentacle through the fracture: it dragged one of the creatures down, through the gap, and into the pool. There, the pool churned anew, and a new beast emerged, flailing in pain and terror and rage.

The adventurers stood, stupefied. Dusan dropped the book in horror. "A Pool of Abominations indeed, Zafia - and we are trapped with its spawn!"


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