(DM's note: In my optimism, I projected that this adventure would be finished in one session. The players, being the wonderful meandering adventurers they are, saw fit to extend this story for another session - so much so, in fact, that the final chapters will take place in the first part of next week's session. I wouldn't have it any other way - though I'm going to take steps to improve my time management for the next set of stories!
As with the previous week, plot elements from Helena Nash's "Devils Under Green Stars" may be spoiled for anyone who wishes to play that adventure in its unadulterated form)
("The Lion's Reign," The Ghost and the Darkness, Jerry Goldsmith)
The Horror in the Greenhouse
Amatagt and Kryxus met each other somewhere outside of Kush. When they learned they shared the same destination, they agreed to work together - for now. Both heard different stories about the lost city of Zukundu, of what may lie behind its great walls, and the dangers that lurk within. The pair brave the jungles of Kush and its denizens, and arrived at the great basin where the city dwelt. They skilfully avoided the monstrous reptiles infesting the lake surrounding the city, and climbed the outer walls.
When they entered the city, they saw a woman. When she noticed them, she froze, before turning and racing into the jungle. The two began a pursuit, and followed her to a doorway leading downwards, overgrown with red vines. They heard a bloodcurdling female scream from below, and ran down into the corridor. They entered a strange greenhouse-like room with green glowing windows, stone planters, and red vines growing over all of them. The woman, standing in the centre, was trembling in terror: she spoke in Kushite, and though Amatagt is not well-versed in the language, he has taken enough slaves to understand "No! Get away! Get away!"
Something grabbed Amatagt by the waist, constricting around him like a snake. Before he can reach for his sword, Kryxus felt more constrictions binding his limbs, and snaked across his chest. Both were jerked backwards into the darkness, their vision swimming in a sea of red...
The adventurers see spiky and thorny vines erupting from the undergrowth, lashing & writhing horribly like tentacles, dragging Tenbo away into the darkness. Dusan charged to grab hold of the guide in his ursine arms: he managed to seize the smaller man, but was unsettled to realise that he was being carried away with Tenbo. As Tiberius rushed forward to aid the Hyperborean and Xhotatse, Arcus quickly tied off a rope to an arrow and took aim with his bow. The Kothian's efforts and extra weight were enough to prevent the vine from pulling Tenbo any further, and Arcus loosed his arrow. It found its mark, striking the vine with a sickening squelch: some very unpleasant liquid, like a red syrup, erupted from the wound. The vine releases Tenbo and withdraws, the rope rushing behind: the arrow embedded in a clump of vines on the wall, the rope snapping taught. Immediately, another vine whipped out around Tenbo's waist: the guide and his two companions use Arcus' impromptu line to hold steady against their assailant.
By now the whole room seems to have come to horrific life, tendrils and tentacles squirming around with nauseating slops. Kenyatta looked around, trying to make sense of this mad scene - everything tells him that even with its mad motions and malign intentions, this was indeed some sort of plant. What insane branch of evolution this creeper sprouted from Kenyatta could not even guess, but at least it was earthly life he faced down. Dusan kept hold of Tenbo while Tiberias stabbed at the vine with his dagger. Zafia darted from the shadows, arcing her scimitar in a flash down at a questing vine: she cleaves the vine in twain, that unpleasant, viscous red liquid drenching her arms and face. It was sickly sweet in odour, and the Zamorian felt a strange sensation on her skin.
With this sudden suppuration of its life-sap, some of the writhing began to wane. Some of the vaguely man-shaped and sized bulging tentacles begin to quiver. Even among the din, some of the adventurers can hear shouts from within those forms - and the hints of familiar accents. A fist bursts from one of the larger protuberances, the wrist encircled by the bracers and armlets favoured by Men of Gunder. A second swelling bursts open, a wicked Stygian khopesh slicing furiously through, the snarling face of a helm fashioned after a cobra's hood emerging. Two figures stand, staggering, dripping with that sickly-sweet red fluid, as the thrashing tendrils begin to struggle to lift their own weight. Kryxus & Amatagt have reunited with the rest of the party.
The deluge of what must have been its life-sap seriously hindered the vines from threatening the adventurers further - but the adventurers were in no mood for clemency. Amatagt brought down his khopesh on one defiant vine, while Kenyatta's blade bisected another. Kryxus wrenched his sword clear from the vine's clutches, and hacked at it with all the fury of a Man of Gunder who just experienced captivity. By this point, the thing was clearly in its death throes: all the noxious sap was now only oozing from its flesh at a trickle.
Dusan was probably the only one to be delighted to see them. "Hey, it's you two! Have you been here this whole time? Arcus, ever the dramatist, made a great show of drawing his bow, staring down the last pathetically wriggling vine, and pinning it to the floor with an arrow.
Immediately the churning of this hideous Red Creeper shudders, and the many vines slump to the ground, including several which crept along the ceiling. Several corpses are suddenly disgorged from their grim cocoons. Zafia pounces on one, rummaging desperately for loot, as is her way: unfortunately, even after a thorough search, she was disappointed to find none. Any valuables that were on these individuals' persons were long dissolved away in the creeper's juice.
Zafia, Kryxus, and Amatagt suddenly realise that they were covered in the same red sap as these corpses: they felt strangely drained, as if it was drawing their very life energy out. Amatagt retrieves his canteen, thankfully intact, and douses himself in water: Kryxus and Safia follow suit.
The company takes a moment to inspect the corpses. They can see, even with their various states of decay, three distinct groups among the dead. Some are physically normal, and likely to be Xhotatse. Others, even the old withered husks, were missing much of the flesh on their face, especially their cheeks and eyes - "Ah, Mekutu!" Jambi muttered, tutted and hissed, and the weirdly gregarious Dusan had unconsciously started to do it too. A third type had unnaturally elongated skulls - logically, these must be the Tangini.
Tenbo and Jambi see the adventurers' questioning faces. "Yes, these ones without their faces, they can only be Mekutu - the long skulls, they must be the Dreamer Tribe, the Tangini."
"This is the tribe we haven't seen for a very long time, is it not?" Arcus said.
"No, we have not seen them for a long time at all."
"Did they look like this before?"
"Yes, this is what they've always looked like. When they are babies, the Tangini put boxes on their heads: they believe it will expand their skulls, and open their minds to worlds beyond our ken."
The Stygian scoffed. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard."
Jambi shrugged. "It is their way. Whether it works or not, the Tangini believe that it works."
Closer inspection reveals that while most of the bodies are dead, one shows signs of life. "I'll dispatch him," Amatagt snarled as he sternly raised his khopesh for the kill, but Jambi & Tenbo stepped before him, spears raised at the unconscious body. Tiberius moved to intercept as Arcus called out. "Ho, ho, ho, Tenbo, Jambi, remember why we're here."
"But they are Tangini!"
"Yes, I understand what you're saying, but we're here for a purpose."
"Ah, but they are long gone by now, look at their shallow breathing, their sallow flesh, their bones straining against their skin!"
"Listen to what I'm saying - why are we here?"
Jambi sighed. "To stop the feathered ape."
"Killing these people, long term - fine; short time, it could stop us from proceeding."
Jambi and Tenbo growl with cognitive dissonance. Dusan, sensing the impasse, ventured a comment: "Maybe it's not our place to step in the way of their politics?"
Arcus, outraged by a Hyperborean who has the temerity to have a point. "I'm not saying there's no logic to it, and you're absolutely right - far be it from me to act all colonial, all right? Every second we spend in this death jungle is a chance something's going to kill us, am I right?"
Dusan's eyes widened. "You're right - he's right!" He proclaimed to the adventurers, who still didn't know what prompted Dusan in the first place.
"Yes, alright. Now, Jambi, how are you?"
Jambi continues to wrestle with the dilemma. Kryxus looks at the barely-living man: he clearly needs immediate medical attention. Tiberius, Arcus, and Kenyatta attempt to administer aid. At this point, even Tenbo turns to Jambi, groaning indecisively. "Oh, Jambi, we cannot help the enemy?" "But, the, I mean, we" "But we - oh!" The two guides also attempt to help. Alas, it is too little too late: from opening his eyes, Tiberius can tell that even if the poor soul was brought back to consciousness, their mind was lost, their brain senseless. A few seconds later, he stopped breathing.
Arcus straightened up and sighed. "Next time, let's not have a conversation about whether we decide to step in, before we decide to step in!"
"It was a very sad situation, I was emotionally challenged," argued Dusan, unconvincingly.
As the Argossean and Hyperborean bickered about action in crises, the others noticed that Tenbo's attention had turned toward the far end of the room, to the other door. He snapped his head back. "I heard something. Someone's breathing out there."
Tenbo and Jambi padded towards the doorway, and took each side of the portal. They peered through to the darkness. After a few seconds, they looked back to the party, and motioned for them to follow. Amatagt sheathed his khopesh, and unslung his Stygian bow. A short staircase, much like the one they descended to enter the chamber, reached upwards.
A woman was sitting on the top of the staircase.
Berries for the Princess
The woman looked dazed, as if caught in a daydream. She carried a small pouchful of berries on her lap, which she absently picked at and ate from. Amatagt & Kryxus recognise her as the woman who ran from them when they first arrived here. "We saw her when we came here," Amatagt whispered. "She ran to this chamber soon as she saw us." Amatagt strode up the stairs: being closer to her than before, the Stygian noted with unease the long shape of her skull, swept back in an ornate braid. He grasped her shoulders, and gave her a shake. "Hello... again."
The woman did not respond. He frowned, glanced down at the berries, and swatted them away down the stairs. She did not appear to notice - in fact, she continued to pick at her palm, her brow creasing in consternation at the absence of her berries. Maintaining his glare, Amatagt pointed backwards towards the rolling berries. "Does anyone know what those are?" Arcus grasped an errant fruit as it rolled to his feet, and examined it closely - a gooseberry, much like those grown in the Meadows of Shem and the plied in the trade markets along the Black Coast, a delicacy in the southern kingdoms. It seemed completely harmless to the Argossean's inspection. "Gooseberries, my Stygian friend," Arcus said. "Surprised you aren't familiar with them considering where you've been." "I've been many places, my friend - many places," the Stygian muttered.
Kryxus paced up the stairs to gently touch the woman on the shoulder, seeking to rouse her in a more gentle manner than his rough compatriot. She does not respond, but something in her eyes suggests she registered - as if she sensed the party's presence as ghosts in her dream. She was no longer alone, and she started to panic.
Dusan threw his bearlike arms in the air. "I guess we have to kill her too?" Tiberius turned sharply to the Hyperborean - "Is that why you think we're here, you sick bastard?" Kryxus protested "I've been digging myself out of a damned plant!" Amatagt concentrated, his bifurcated tongue licking out demoniacally.
The woman started to mumble. "Berries... I have to bring berries home... Berries for the princess..."
Arcus takes one of the berries and puts it in her palm. "Oh yes, the Princess will love these gooseberries - ai!" The stranger suddenly startled to her senses. "Who are you? What are you doing here? Give me my gooseberries!"
"Your gooseberries?" Arcus enquired, holding the pouchful of berries away with his hand as she snatched to grab it.
"Yes! Gooseberries for the princess!"
Dusan shrugged. "Jungle law, finders keepers." Arcus shook his head: "We can find you more gooseberries."
"Oh, but not like these," - and she turned to bark at the Hyperborean - "and we are not in any jungle. This is the land of Princess Anepor."
Arcus narrowed his eyes. "Are you princess Anepor?"
The woman's eyes widened. "Oh, no, but I am bringing them to the Princess. I am the Berry Forager: it is my task."
"Right, and you are eating the gooseberries right now?"
The woman seemed bashful & evasive "Please, please, I have to make sure they have not gone off for the Princess: could you imagine the shame if I poisoned my darling Princess because I gave her bad gooseberries?"
"Sure. that's true. What's your name?"
"Oh, I was never given a name. I am Tangini. We are all Tangini. I am... Berry Gatherer."
Dusan did not have any particular patience for people that did not have names. "All right, let's go with Scraps. She looks scrappy." Arcus glances aside to Dusan momentarily, before continuing. "Alright... Scraps. I'm Arcus, this is Kenyatta, this is Tiberius, this is... the Gunderman, this is Dusan, and Amatagt. Oh, and of course, this is Zafia, from Zamora."
As Arcus gestured towards Zafia, the Zamorian's eyes met those of the stranger. While her face was held in a polite smile, her eyes scrolled downwards towards the Xhotatse jewels hanging from her neck. Zafia followed her cold gaze, not appreciating the stranger's scrutiny. "I see you wear jewels around your throat."
Arcus, also detecting the ice in her voice, interjected "Oh, this is Princess Zafia, I meant to say."
Scraps did not seem to notice. "Oh, your majesty, I did not know - but I would recognise the jewels of Great Zukundu around anyone's neck - and you know only gifts from the rightful ruler could be imparted without causing great insult to our ancestors and our tradition."
"You make it sound like there's only one, and that is your princess."
"Oh, of course, Princess Anepor is the true ruler of Zukundu, yes." Amatagt burst into laughter: Scraps glanced to the Stygian with a withering smile that he has seen many times, but never understood the significance of.
Tiberius was watching the conversation with interest. "Have you been daydreaming? How many are there of your people?"
"Of the Tangani? We do not count anymore. There are so few of us that if we keep inventory, it will just depress us." Zafia, seeing the attention was off her, quietly folded the jewels into her blouse.
Something was nagging at the back of Dusan's mind. "What day of the week is it?" "Oh, it is the 47th Day of the 59th Season of the age." This meant nothing to Dusan, who shrugs at the group.
"Ah, it is Jullah's blood. I see some of you bear the residue." She points towards some spatters of the red sap on Amatagt, Kryxus, and Zafia. We sometimes go to the to the Red Creeper and we very carefully extricate some of it, it can open up our minds to new levels of consciousness. I'm afraid it would not do any good for you, for you do not have the brain capacity."
Kenyatta nods in agreement as the rest of the party gasps in outrage and shame. But at the mention of the effects of Jullah's blood, Arcus wondered if this could be responsible for the blood-feud between the three tribes. But while Tenbo & Jambi still grasp their spears tightly, they do not appear to show any signs of narcotic influence. For Scraps, on the other hand, it is entirely possible: her eyes were deeply dilated, her gait swaying like a banner in the breeze.
"Well, if you please let me have the gooseberries back: because our princess and of course she's so hungry. And her husband the Prince, Prince Azar - oh, he would be so upset. He is a wonderful, wonderful man, but he dotes after the Princess, so he dotes. So if you please-"
The howl of the Feathered Ape split the serenity of the city-jungle. Scraps recoiled in mortal terror. Arcus grabbed her attention. "Don't run. If you run, it will chase you. Stay with us. We'll keep you safe." She nodded vigorously. "Pulled someone's head off just yesterday," Dusan unhelpfully specified. Scraps's trembling accelerated to almost a blur. "Is-is-is it the Feathered Ape?"
The party nods - and they begin their chase for the Feathered Ape.
The Ape and the Arena
The bellowing of the Feathered Ape echoed through the chambers and thickets of Zukundu: Tenbo and Jambi already raced away into the green, with the company in hot pursuit. They burst through the foliage and vegetation, Tenbo and Jambi impressed by their resilience - "I'm glad you are with us, friends" - as poor Dusan, his sweating flesh cooking like honey-glazed ham in the Kushite sun, loped with the elegance of a mule with an ear infection.
At last, after ten minutes, the company catches up to their quarry. Standing on an archway at one end of a clearing in the city-jungle, the Ape was partially revealed in the late afternoon daylight. Where previously they saw only the blurred silhouette of the beast, now they could see the fine silverish fur covering its great muscular limbs, head, and shoulders. Indeed, this fur is everywhere except its chest and stomach, great and round as burnished silver shields. But most curiously, woven through its fur are dozens of feathers of various hues. Some were arranged in a mantle above its mighty chest, others fanned from its arms like ornamental wings, but most were placed at random throughout the silver fur. Kenyatta knew several tribes who wove feathers into their hair, and he also heard of apes using simple tools - but nothing to this level of intricacy and detail. The feathers were not natural features of the creature's biology, but adornments - certainly an adornment is the headdress it was bearing as well, a golden circlet with huge bush of feathers on his head, with some gold trinkets on its wrists, ankles, and neck. It made a deeply unsettling sight.
The Ape watched the party. Each adventurer knew animals in their homeland - they've encountered predators. They knew what a predator's gaze looks like. That was not how this thing's looking at them - the Feathered Ape regarded the party with an expression of pure hatred, a very uncanny intelligence about it. In one hand, it grasped a dripping head - Dako's, which he's still been carrying around all this time. As soon as all the companions caught up, it lurched back into the forest.
Tiberius noted this encounter was different from last time. The Ape had clearly slowed down - whether due to exhaustion, the terrain, or some other factor, the Kothian was confident that the party could catch up. Tiberius said as such: Kenyatta agreed. "Gorillas are habitually sprinters, not runners: If this beast is anything like a gorilla, with a sustained chase, we could run it down."
"We can see him! We can kill him!" Tenbo & Jambi did not wait before they resumed the chase: quick-witted Zafia was second off the mark, followed by Kryxus and Tiberius, then Amatagt. Kenyatta saw Dusan struggling, and held back to assist him.
As Zafia raced through the branches and vines, she heard Tenbo and Jambi arguing in front of her - with Kenyatta further behind she did not understand, but did hear "Makutu" among the dialogue. After some minutes of chasing, Zafia crashed into Tenbo & Jambi's outstretched arms, holding her back - she was almost teetering over the edge of a huge stone chasm. The bottom is so dark she could not see it. Fallen across this chasm, with one end before them, was a great fallen tree trunk - and scrambling along the centre of this trunk was the Feathered Ape.
The Ape paused every few seconds to look over its massive shoulder, watching its pursuers. Tenbo and Jambi motion for Zafia to wait here for the others while they crossed the trunk in single file. Zafia hears movement in the jungle behind her: Kryxus and Tiberius hurtle out of the foliage. She spreads her arms, holding them back to prevent them from plummeting into the chasm below. When the guides were quarter of the way across, Zafia danced nimbly across the trunk.
By the time Kenyatta dragged a boiled Dusan to the chasm, the guides were halfway across, Zafia close behind. Kenyatta watched the Ape with mounting unease - this creature was not acting like an animal in flight. It was leading the company on - it wanted them to follow it.
Kenyatta boomed "I have hunted things such as these before. It is leading us on..."
Dusan, the sweat on his face steaming into the jungle air, was aghast. "Do you think there is more of them?" Kenyatta shuddered with the realisation. "I think it is a trap!" He called to the guides & Zafia as Amatagt loosed an arrow - it soared high, but landed just before the Ape, shuddering into the tree trunk. The Ape turned and glared at the Stygian, before scrambling the last few feet across.
Tenbo & Jambi are almost halfway across. Zafia, having heard Kenyatta's warning, was turning about. As the Ape reached the other side, Kenyatta cried out to the guides, begging them to turn back - but their blood was up. "We are so close, we can slay it, brother! We're going to get you, you monster!"
The Ape looks back. Kenyatta had seen many expressions on an ape's face, but never one that looked so unnervingly human - a look that could only be disgust. It grabbed the end of the fallen trunk, and with a truly hideous strength, lifted it from the ground - turning it, and letting it fall into the chasm - with Tenbo, Jambi, and Zafia still climbing!
Jambi immediately saw what was happening, and ran back across, not even taking care for falling. "Run Tenbo, he's casting us unto the abyss!" But young Tenbo is frozen with terror, and clutched the bark of the trunk with his white-knuckled fingers. Zafia pounced from the trunk quickly, and the adventurers urged Jambi on as the trunk tumbled into the darkness below.
The adventurers caught Jambi as he leapt from the falling "That was close, Tenbo," gasped Jambi. "... Tenbo?" The party heard the crash of the trunk - somewhat sooner than expected given the darkness of the chasm. Jambi turned stiffly as the realisation his friend was not with him pressed into his tortured head.
Silence reigned. The Feathered Ape glared from the other side of the gulf, pounding Dako's ruined head against a rock. The sickening rhythm of skull on stone echoed across the cliffs. Kenyatta was filled with a terrible resolve: he hefted his spear up, his ancestors pounding songs of vengeance in his eardrums, and with what seemed like generations of rage concentrated into the tip of a single spear, he hurled it into the sky. Amatagt, spurred by a grudging respect to Kenyatta's reaction, knocked and loosed his Stygian bow too.
The faster missile missed its mark, falling somewhere in the foliage behind the target. The Ape watched silently as the spear soared into the heavens, the sun blinding it momentarily - then a deep thud rebounded against the rocks. The Ape glanced down: the spear punctured its great muscular breast, rivulets of blood cascading down its slate skin. The spearhead did not penetrate past the ribcage, but the Ape's disgusted expression warped into a snarl of unmistakable fury. It wrenched the spear from its chest, held it out towards Kenyatta, and splintered it effortlessly in its gargantuan fist. The two halves of the spear clattered into the abyss below, and the Ape retreated into the forest.
For a moment, all was quiet again. Jambi fell to his knees. "Oh, Tenbo, why didn't you move?" A voice called from the abyss. "I can see vines on this side! If you all climb down here and go across, we can make our way to the other side. Jambi scrambled to his feet "Tenbo, you dog! You gave me the fright of my life!"
The adventurers make their way down the trunk, which fortuitously had lodged itself on some broken masonry with enough force to secure it. Climbing down, at about halfway into the chasm, the party understands why the bottom seemed so dark: a canopy of vines stretching from each side sheltered the floor of the chasm, casting deep shadows on the already dark ground. Upon reaching the ground, the tangled vines and creepers trap moisture and cold, leaving the area dark and dank. Kenyatta noticed the pale shapes of bones - birds, monkeys, and some larger predator bones that resemble big cats.
Zafia was conscious of breathing sounds - punctuated, staggered, and inhuman. Arcus peered into the darkness - and saw eyes staring back. A set of great white eyes, some forty feet away. The eyes were milky - like the eyes of a blind creature. The breathing sounds rebounded from the rocks and bones. The eyes followed - in the direction of the company. Tenbo waved his hand to get their attention, drawing his mouth to his lips. At the merest movement, the eyes stopped, turned in the direction of the sound, and paced forward. The eyes stepped into a dappled circle of light, and for the briefest moment, Arcus saw the face of a huge, pale-furred cat. Kenyatta recognised it as a lion - a large one, and of a breed unfamiliar to him.
Arcus reached into a pouch, withdrawing an oil flask - and froze when he realised he didn't have a lit torch, so reaches for his flint. The company very quietly crept towards Tenbo, who was already ascending the vines crisscrossing the rock wall. Unfortunately, Dusan did not have the temperament necessary to hush, his wheezes occasionally catching the lion's interest - but each time, it stepped forward into the light, and withdrew as if in pain. With the aid of the sunlight and their own wits, the company climb the vines out of the lion's reach: when Dusan's foot slips and sends a scattering of pebbles down into the abyss, the lion turns its head. As if deeming any prey above to be beyond its reach, it resumed its patrol of the shadows, with that strange throaty growl.
Kenyatta was perturbed, for lions do not make sounds like this. He took a moment to study the creature. He heard tales of certain cities or the ancient Kushites. They used to breed Lions for gladiatorial entertainment - a horrible, savage practice this, of course, his people would have nothing to do with it. Under the grounds of ancient Shamballah, the capital of Kush, it was rumoured that some of these lions still survived over centuries and millennia, and adapted to the darkness: these creatures are known as Moon lions, so called not just for their eyes but also their pelts, drained of colour by generations of darkness. The Kushite could tell it wasn't in any distress, well fed, definitely no shortage of prey - but at the same time, clearly it could not be responsible for the lack of ground wildlife on this island, although it may have contributed.
The adventurers and their guides reached the top of the chasm. Jambi & Tenbo hugged one another fiercely.
"I thought you were gone!"
"Of course I'm not gone!"
"Pull yourself together, not in front of the outsiders!"
"Pull yourselves together, Tenbo & Jambi!" Kenyatta barked, "Not in front of the Tangini! Wait... where is she?" The company realised with a start that Scraps had deserted them - probably a while ago, when the hunt for the Ape began. "Damn it, Tenbo, that was your job!" Kenyatta admonished, to the guide's confusion. The call of the Ape cried out again. "The Feathered Ape!" cried Jambi.
Tenbo narrowed his eyes. "We are deep in Mekutu territory now: why would it go so far into this place? Unless... Jambi, you don't think?"
"Oh no, Tenbo, no we - but I think we will know soon enough." Jambi hissed in response.
Chapter 4: Beneath the Jade Keep of the Mekutu
The Jade Fountain
The company followed the guides. The overgrown buildings in this part of the city were smaller than previous districts: after five minutes, Tenbo & Jambi slow to a jog, before stopping entirely outside a great jade stone temple - curiously not overgrown like other buildings. Evidently someone has been pruning errant plant life around it. There was a fountain before the temple - an inset, and a semi-circular well. There were drips of blood leading towards the fountain.
Inscribed above the fountain were words in Old Stygian. Amatagt read it: "For the Pleasure of Lord Khenaton." Khenaton was an old Stygian name, used by princes, priests, and sorcerers throughout history. He wondered at the presence of his homeland's language in this ancient city of Kush - and who was this "Khenaton" was. Owing to his companions' obstinance, he did not see fit to share this with the group.
Dusan, however, was more concerned about the fountain itself. Peering into it he sees, bobbing up and down in the red water... several human hands. One of them, a fairly familiar looking human head - Dako. For a moment, his heart broke, as he thought one head belonged to that of poor Scraps - but it was a trick of the light, and his heart lightened. At least they didn't let the Ape take her, too.
Jambi & Tenbo followed Dusan to the fountain. "Well, this proves it! The Feathered Ape, it's doing the work of the Mekutu! Look how they put their heads here as trophies! I've had enough of this - I'm going to kill them all!"
"Jambi, wait, we need to think about this!"
"Tenbo, you know they are-"
As Jambi & Tenbo debated, Dusan lifted a head from the fountain to inspect it. Dako's head is about a day old: other heads may be a couple of weeks old. Another one, probably a couple more weeks older than that. Then there were a few rotting heads probably a few months old - the Feathered Ape had been terrorising the city for a while.
The guides turned to Kenyatta. "We cannot - we dare not go through the front. But there is a secret tunnel in that we have not ventured through before because, we could not spare the men. But I think we can manage it with you outsiders, because you have proven yourselves capable. If we go through the source of the tunnels, we may be able to get the drop on them."
"Sewers?" Arcus said.
"Yes, sewers. Don't you have sewers in your civilisation?"
"Our civilisation was burned alive."
Unphased, the guides crouch, and begin to circle the Jade Stone building. They arrive at a side with a door - that looks completely unguarded. But as the company start to make for the door, Jambi holds out a hand. "No, this is the Killing Ground."
"The Killing Ground?"
"The Killing Ground. Soon as we step out into the glade-" Jambi makes a whooshing sound - "arrows. We must go round."
The party moves on, skirting the foliage around the now deeply ominous space. Tenbo & Jambi take the adventurers to a small building that seems unconnected to the temple at first. A few of the stronger men lift the heavy wrought grating barring access, and they enter the sewers.
The Crawling Caves
The guides carefully went down a staircase - the stair leads straight down for some distance, and then it levels off on a stone passage. Hanging in clumps from the ceiling are strange glowing green fruits, creating light similar to that seen on the ceiling above the Ebony Keep. "Ah, these are the Star Fruits," Tenbo explained. "We don't know why they glow. They don't taste nice, but they are useful for illumination."
Arcus reached out and took a bite. It tasted of bile and lemon, and these ones are clearly rotten. Arcus retches. "This is horrible, but I feel protected from scurvy" Dusan mumbles through a mouthful of the glowing fruit. Pieces are lying at regular intervals on the ground: some are hanging from iron hooks on the ceiling.
The tunnels are initially smooth and round, but as the adventurers go deeper, they note the increasing prevalence of a strange sediment deposit encrusted on the walls - salts, grit, chalk, very rough and abrasive to the touch - so that after time it felt less like a sewer, and more like a cave. A horrible stench wafts through the tunnels - meat and dung. Kenyatta recognised something else - an all-too-familiar reptilian odour.
The party froze. Over the general subterranean sounds of a sewer, they heard the rattling sound of reptilian slithering. They also heard a strange trilling sound - sibilant, not unpleasant, a musical instrument of some sort? Tenbo & Jambi melt into crevices formed by the encrusted deposits. Kenyatta listened to the trilling - there's something about the timbre of the sound which was somewhat unnerving and a bit chilling for all its pleasantness. Remembering something he learned from Akkuto the Carver, Bandit Lord of the Tibu, he reached down into the water - an errant rib bone floated by his hands. He started whittling the bone flute, as the rest of the group looked on baffled.
As this happens, the piper turns the corner, illuminated by the eerie green light of the Star Fruit. Clearly another Kushite, but very different from Tenbo & Jambi: this one was covered in ritual scarification, and wearing a strange mask, attached to the bone pipe making those uncanny sounds - an elaborate flute that seems carved from a human sternum, ribs, clavicle, and sinews still attached. She reverently looks down, playing to points in the ground - Tiberius follows her gaze, seeing a sickeningly serpentine shape churning in the water. He slowly craned his neck down - to his abject horror, he realised that he and his companions were surrounded by countless snakes!
Yet these were not like natural snakes. They had thin, spindly arms and legs, long, sharp iridescent scales that were almost mesmerising to look at, cruel little horns adoring their skulls. They appeared not to be asleep, but in a daze: upon hearing the grisly piper's tune, their shimmering yellow eyes rolled back in their heads, their tense coils relaxing. Dusan saw small ones the size of a worm - others looked big enough to swallow him whole. Dusan briefly pondered simply leaping into the air and crushing the snakes under his weight, but the memory of that poor monkey in the Ebony Keep pool snapped him back to his senses. Dusan realised that even disturbing one of these creatures would be enough to break the spell, and the entire sewers would erupt in a hurricane of teeth, claws, and scales.
Arcus looked towards Tenbo & Jambi, who were motionless, their eyes burning with a keen hatred of the Mekutu. The party waited for the piper to pass, before following - the party simultaneously figured that the figure was on some sort of patrol, and that following would lead them to the Jade Keep itself.
Tenbo was like a ghost in the shadows. Jambi, though, sharply inhaled as he felt his foot step on the head of one of the serpents! Luckily, Tenbo was quick enough to catch him before he put his whole weight on the fiend: the party held their hearts in their throats, but the piper continued, and they carried on, Kenyatta studying the notes.
In time, they followed their unwitting guide into the Jade Keep.
Chapter 5: Inside the Jade Keep
The reptilian stench disippated, replaced by a sweet incense, burning in bowls suspended from the sickly jade walls. The incense is so powerful it seems to be making waves in the air, like a heatwave. If the adventurers weren't made of sterner stuff, they knew this drug would undoubtedly affect their perception and coordination - and that anyone living in this keep would have acclimitised.
On turning the corridor, the adventurers meet a grisly sight - dozens of withered bodies, impaled on spikes, punctuating the corridor. They bore the marks of torture and mutilation. Some of them are recognisable as Xhotatse, just by the fact that they lack the peculiarities of the other tribes. Tembo looked at one of them. "I know him. That is Macat. He disappeared. Long ago. I always hoped, but... I will avenge you, Macat."
Some other corpses have elongated skulls - the Tangini - and others could only be Mekutu. Evidently some have displeased whoever this Lord Khenaton is. One of them is still in good enough condition to resemble what he must have looked like in life. Much like the piper, who has disappeared in a hallway somewhere, intricate scarification covered their skin - and then their faces. Tiberius doesn't know how they're how they could have lived like this. Their ears were gone. They had no eyelids - they had been surgically cut away at some point. They had no nostrils, because their noses have been cut away leaving only the skull shaped orifices. And they had no lips, and their cheeks - the thought occurred to Tiberius that this must have been torture, but no, these these are healed over. They've been alive with these wounds. "How could sleep? How could they do anything with with their eyes like that?" Tiberius stammered. And yet, there they are with their faces carved into a perpetual grin.
Tenbo sidled next to the stunned Kothian. "Now you see why we call them the Smiling Ones."
The adventurers have seen war, blood, violence - but this level of depravity was beyond anything even they had encountered before. Coming from Zamora, a city that was brutal to its felons, she had seen her share of horrors, and wouldn't let a little thing like half-flayed corpses get in the way of loot. Yet again, she was disappointed, as any valuables were taken from the corpses prior to their impalement - though she did notice that one of the bodies which clearly hasn't been dead for long, has tiny little bite marks all over his body, like something was biting and chewing at it.
They continued their journey through this hauntingly empty house. Just like the ebony keep, this place is much too large for the population which must be living here. There were hundreds and hundreds of rooms, which, at one time, would have had many scores of servants and retainers. Now, the silence of these rooms is sepulchral. This made the footsteps which Kenyatta heard clapping on the floor all the more foreboding.
Ahead of them, far down the corridor, the company glimpsed two men dragging a third by the arms. They only just saw those ungodly staring eyes and hideous grins, on both carriers and carried - Mekutu, all of them. The third Mekutu was moaning in pain. Kenyatta understood his cries, in a dialect similar to the ancient Kushite spoken by the Xhotatse - "the eyes! the eyes burn into me! Aiii!"
And almost as soon as they appeared, they were gone. The party had the uncomfortable feeling that they were being watched. Kryxus turned, looked down the other end of the corridor, to see the piper staring at them. Holding the gory instrument in one hand, she slowly lifted her hand to her mask - removing it revealed full, healthy lips and cheeks. Evidently she has not undergone the rituals of her older kin. She blinks - the first time anyone has seen a Mekutu blink - and runs.
The adventurers gave chase. The piper dropped her bone flute behind her: Kenyatta snatches it up in his hands. Amatagt stumbled, knocking his head against the wall. Tenbo and Jambi raise their spears. Thinking quickly, Arcus unhooks his net and tosses it with expert technique: it envelops the piper, and she falls to the floor with a distressing squeal, kicking and screaming.
Upon catching up with the protesting Mekutu, they are dimly aware that they have stopped outside a great double door. The screaming captive elicits shouts and whispers from beyond it: before the adventurers can react, the doors are thrust open with a crash.
The Hall of Khenaton
A tall, skeletal, truly bizarre individual emerged. The two halves of their body were divided down the centre. One half was fleshy and voluptuous, with curved tattoos and scarification evocative of Kushite depictions of femininity; the other was starkly skeletal, sinewy, tattooed and scarred in angular masculine patterns. The head was shaved on one side, intricately woven and styled on the other. One eye was gone, replaced with a jet black orb. Unlike the other Mekutu, only one side of the face - eyes, ears, nose, lips - was removed in the Smiling Ones' style. The tableau froze for an eternity of an instant as Lord Khenaton and the intruders faced one another.
"Sssso, it has come to this!" the spectre hissed through their teeth - one side gleaming, the other filed and engraved. "Xhotatse pig-dogs bring outsiders, sent in to destroy us at last! No, you will not take the Jade Keep - come, my children! Protect your Mother-Father!"
Rampaging towards the Hyperborean is the largest woman any of the party has seen in their lives. Dusan has seen bears with less mass than this individual, this mountain of muscle wielding in one hand the thigh bone of what must have been some sort of elephant, studded with sharpened stones. Dusan braced himself. "I will headbutt the big woman, she will submit."
A small, dwarfish youth, ghoulish and skeletal, scampered towards the Gunderman and the Kushite, a blowpipe in one hand and a set of those grisly bone-pipes in the other. He tittered madly at Kryxus, pointing and dancing, while what looked like a black stole on his neck swayed back and forth - until it hissed to life and sprang to the adventurer's face!
Arcus nocked his bow in preparation for combat just as what looked like a shorter mirror-image of the freakish Khenaton approached. She raised her hand, a gruesome dagger that seemed to be made from one of those reptilian horror's teeth wrenched from their very jaws.
A more terrible visage lurched towards Tiberius and Amatagt. At first sight, the two thought they faced an animated corpse - but it was alive, after a fashion. In place of eyes were glowing green stones, much like the ones they saw at the bottom of the of the pond in the Ebony Keep, but burning much brighter - and that light is seeping through the veins in his chest and arms, a deathly glowing root spreading through the body. The corpse lurched towards the two adventurers with outstretched hands.
Zafia was left alone in the shadow of Khenaton. The jewels she hid under her blouse were exposed in the chase, and Khenaton had most certainly noticed. "So, you too have taken the Treasures of Zukundu! I will rip them from your broken neck!"
The battle commenced. The monster woman hoisted her gruesome weapon almost to the roof with a strangled roar, and brought it down onto where she predicted the comparatively smaller Dusan would dodge. Unfortunately for her, Dusan had an established habit of daring objects much larger and heavier than him to back down, so she did not expect him to stand completely still - the club smote the floor with such force that it rebounded, smashing her squarely on the forehead.
The stole of the little man menacing Kenyatta & Kryxus flies from his neck, and Kryxus is astounded to realise it was in fact one of the smaller spiny serpents. Instinctively, the repulsed Gunderman caught it on the end of his pike: the reptile gnawed ferociously, confounded at the enemy's lack of reaction to its bite. The woman attacking Arcus plunges her dagger towards Arcus... who instinctively holds the net-covered piper in the way in a panic.
The green-eyed thing drops its arms, and stares at Tiberius. It felt to the Kothian that all the heat, light, and colour in the room rushed out, leaving only a cold grey emptiness - and those terrible green eyes, burning into his skull. Tiberius's faith in Mitra is resolute, but not invulnerable: he stands shaken. The other adventurers felt this wave of dread wash out from the room. Kenyatta shuddered in horror; Kryxus feels his legs tremble under him. Amatagt froze - he knew this sensation. He was in the presence of a terror like this long ago, in another lifetime - memories long thought buried flooded back into his mind, and he fled the chamber. Dusan - perhaps shielded by the small island of flesh between him and the source of the dark sorcery - felt the hairs on his neck prickle.
Khenaton cackled maniacally. "Now you see what power resides in Lord Khenaton's fingertips!" His stare bored into Zafia: something about that gimlet eye, the incense still powerfully hanging in the air, and the sinuous motion of this outlandish creature bewilders the Zamorian. She feels her dagger-arm falling to her side, even as her mind protested her body's surrender.
Yet something sparked in Zafia's mind as the cold steel of her blade grazed her knee - a defiance, a resilience, an inner resolve that saved her in moments where she most needed it. With a snarling shout, Zafia heaved her arm, struggling to lift it as if some unseen force was holding it down, finally breaking the hold to bring the dagger's bite under Khenaton's collarbone. Khenaton stumbles back, wounded more by the outrage of Zafia's defiance than the actual injury, staring and gibberingly silently at his assailant.
Dusan, feeling invincible from the failed assault from the largest fighter in the room, braced his feet, and looked squarely at Khenaton. "I've come here from the North, I could make you bow before me like your king!" The lord looked him up and down, and burst into crackling laughter. "You? Oh, Red-Faced Man, you think you could impress me?" Kryxus, enraged by Khenaton's arrogance, thrusts his pike into the ghoul-boy, raising him writhing into the air: simultaneously, Kenyatta brought his shortsword in a whistling arc before stabbing him through the heart. "I will make a flute out of your windpipe!" The ghoul splutters, shudders as his last energy leaves his body, and slumps limp on Kryxus's pike as his pet snake slithers into a crevice.
Tiberius, steeling himself and whispering a prayer to Mitra, forces himself to charge the green-eyed husk - he embedded his dagger deep into its flesh. A glob of glowing green blood spurted from the wound, and started seeping from a wound that should be gushing liberally. Amatagt recovers from his fright just as he crosses the threshold, and he wheels to loose his arrow back at the thing which made him run - a black Stygian arrow thudded into the corpse-thing's chest, and it staggers backwards.
Khenaton, enraged at the direction the battle was taking, drew a fine dagger from his waistband and darted his long limb at Zafia, hissing "Dieee!" as he struck. When the Zamorian nimbly parried the blade with her own, he gaped in disbelief - he was too used to his victims placidly accepting their fate. The giant woman hefted her great bone-club again: this time, she knew the man would move, he would not goad her a second time. Dusan disappointed her by doing - or, rather, not doing - exactly the same thing as before. Not only did the bone bounce right back into her face as before, she collapses backwards, her head cracking on a stone stool - the bone club landing on her head on the way down.
Dusan had defeated the mightiest warrior of the Mekutu by standing completely still. Khenaton, seeing two of her warrior-family fall to these invaders, hurled his dagger at Kenyatta - Amatagt, reacting too fast for his Stygian mind to intervene, rushed to his aid. But the Kushite contemptuously deflects, sending the dagger clattering to the floor. The glowing fiend clutched at Tiberius with its claws: the Kothian wrestled from its grip, its ancient body too damaged.
Zafia, emboldened by her triumph over Khenaton's mental attack, slashes at him with her blade. The Lord of the Mekutu, still not quite understanding how mere mortals dare assault a God, looked at the blood now pouring from many wounds. "Nooo! My family-subjects, protect me! I am at death's door! These demons mean to drag me to Hell!" At this, the remaining subjects converge around their parent-god, screaming "Father-Mother, no!"
Dusan sights the younger Khenaton, and swings his sword at her - but she dodges ably from the arc of his blade. Tiberius stabs the fiend squarely in the chest - he knew not how or why, but this blow unknit whatever was holding the thing together, and it collapsed in a grotesque shamble to the floor. As the skull cracks on the jade flagstone, the two eyes pop wetly from the sockets - still glowing, but clearly not providing any more life for the cadaver.
The servants and slaves of the Mekutu crowded around their parent-god, but they could not stop one sword from snaking through the bodies to spit the dreadful fiend through his back out of his chest. Dusan's cold Hyperborean sword plunged through Khenaton's ribs: with an inhuman screech, Lord Khenaton of the Mekutu's tongue lolled from a slack jaw, and rasped his last breath. His one eye stared out at the face of Zafia - she who, alone of all souls, refused the power of his will - snarling with all the pity of a vulture stalking a dying wildebeest. The last remaining of his Favoured Children screamed "No! Father-Mother-God, no!" and promptly stabbed herself in the fury and misery of defeat.
The servants and slaves all followed suit, wailing and screaming and stabbing themselves in the heart, a monstrous last sacrifice to their heathen deity-sire. The adventurers could only watch aghast as all the Mekutu, even the warriors, ended their own lives in their grief over Khenaton.
For a time, the astonished adventurers paced listlessly in the Halls of Khenaton. Even Zafia, who would normally be frisking the dead for trinkets, was lost. The guides, Tenbo and Jambi, did not share the malaise: they whooped and danced. "Victory! The Mekutu are undone! The Outsiders have slain them! Oh, what a feast we shall have at the Ebony Keep for them!"
The celebration, such as it was, did not last long. The sound of footsteps hurrying down the corridor snapped the adventurers from their daze, and they readied their weapons again. An exhausted Xhotatse warrior, eyes agog at the carnage around him, stumbled into the hall.
Jambi tensed. "Kosu! What is it?"
The runner gasped for air. "The Feathered Ape! He has brought war to us - The Ebony Keep burns!"