Thursday, 9 June 2022

The Road to Acheron, Part Two: "The Children of Zukundu"

Welcome to the second session of The Road to Acheron. Last time, seven adventurers escaped the very pit of the serpent: Python, the capital of the Nightmare Empire of Acheron, was struck down by mighty magic practically unseen even in this sorcerous realm. Amatagt the Stygian, Arcus the Argossean, Dusan the Hyperborean, Kenyatta the Kushite, Kryxus the Gunderman, Tiberius the Kothian, and Zafia the Zamorian were some of the few who escaped the writhing death throes of a screaming city.

After putting many miles between themselves and the site of that unholy destruction, the seven departed. Amatagt, Kenyatta, and Tiberius rode out on their own, each having their own goals and quests in mind. Arcus, Dusan, Kryxus and Zafia, however, formed a band of their own, and roamed the ruins of Acheron as a team. Several months pass: coin is won and lost, adventures were told and experienced, blood and sweat and tears were shed, as the survivors of Python's fall made names for themselves across the western continent. These stories may also be told, in time - but that is for another day.

Something - the will of capricious gods or devils, or fate, or simple happenstance - conspired to draw them together once again.

(Note: this is a heavily altered adaptation of Helena Nash's "Devils Under Green Stars," collected in the Conan RPG supplement Jewelled Thrones of the Earth. It's a beautiful adventure with some great ideas, but I wanted to put my own mark on it as a DM. While there are some changes, anyone who plans on playing the original adventure should keep in mind there will be some elements from the original adventure within, & might want to avoid spoiling themselves.)

Nightmare in Ruins

(The Salamander, Jerry Goldsmith)

A year has passed since the fall of Python. Acheron has fallen: that black colossus that seemed nigh unassailable four seasons ago has been comprehensively sundered. The Hyborian Tribes surged from the northern tribelands to a man, woman, and child, leaving their desolate homes behind. Epemitreus, a charismatic and determined sage of Mitra, convinced the two most powerful leaders, High-King Tamar of the Aquiloni and High-King Numa of the Nemedi, into forming a truce. The united might of all the People of Bori - Aquiloni, Nemedi, Argosi, Brythuni, and countless smaller tribes like the Men of Gunder, the Bosso, and the Khossi -  flooded over Acheron in a wave of humanity, leaving only smoking ruins where once the gleaming purple minarets of cities once stood.

The devastation was so sudden and brutal that not even the Kings of Acheron could react in time. Whatever weapon the feather-clad shaman wielded in his grim right hand, it was enough to undo even the most powerful sorcery Acheron could muster - and formidable though the soldiers of Acheron were, even they could not stand against an entire people. The Kings and their soldiers fought valiantly, praying for Set to intervene and deliver them from these savages, to no avail. Those arrogant Priests of Set who sought to defy Epemitreus were soon undone, their sorceries rendered inert by the power of the blood-red jewel, and helpless against the thousand battle-axes red with blood closing on his head. Xaltotun, the High Priest and true master of Acheron, has disappeared: some say he fled in disgraced exile into Stygia, others that he was snatched up by Set Himself and borne away to the underworld. Within a year, all that remained of Acheron, a civilisation claiming a tradition of almost a thousand centuries, were charred ruins and dark memories.

That black abyss was quickly claimed by the conquerors. Epemitreus's efforts kept kings and chieftains from openly warring, but the division of spoils was tense and fraught nonetheless. The tribes carved scores of petty kingdoms for themselves, some under the dominion of a High-King, others fiercely independent. The Men of Gunder formed such a sovereign land in the northern reaches of Acheron just south of the gloomy hills of Cimmeria, naming it Gunder's Land. King Khossus of the barbaric Kothians marched into Koth to liberate it from the pitiful Acheronian remnants. King Argo, on the other hand, marched his people further southwest until they reached a fertile coastline, citing folklore of the Argosi's bloodline bearing ancient links to the seafaring kingdoms from before the Great Cataclysm. "We once ruled the seas, and we shall once again," he declared. The ancient kingdoms of Corinthia and Ophir, seeing the writing on the wall, invited the New Hyborians into their lands, offering land and wealth in exchange for protection from their brethren.

The rest of the world held its breath: with Acheron gone, it seemed that Stygia would be emboldened to make its move, snaking its influence across the rest of the continent. But revolution is contagious: the long-suffering sons of Shem and Kush saw that sorcery and power was not indomitable, and rose up against their hated conquerors in a bloody and violent revolt. Then Khossus, eager to reclaim all the subjugated lands of Koth with interest, led his wolves on a brutal trail of fire and blood all the way to the eastern Stygian citadel of Kuthchemes, striking down the terrible priest Thugra Khotan himself. Stygia withdrew her forces back across the River Styx - at least its dark waters would halt the roving hosts in their track, the black arrows of Stygia's warrior-nobles holding them at bay. Stygia survived where Acheron fell - but only just, and Stygia would not forget this outrage in the centuries to come.

Yet this is an ancient world with many mysteries yet to discover. Arcus, Dusan, Kenyatta, Tiberius, and Zafia found each other somewhere on the way to Kush, travelling south in search of a lost city. Some sought gold, jewels, treasure, and wealth; others sought power; and others had their own reasons for daring the gruelling jungles south of the Land of Kush...

("Welcome to Tsavo," The Ghost and the Darkness, Jerry Goldsmith)

Chapter 1: Strangers on the River of Time

"There is no glory in slaying snakes - or dying from their bites." - Old Cimmerian proverb

The boat glided smoothly down the waters of the river, one of the many unnamed winding waterways of the deep jungles in the Black Kingdoms. Two local tribesmen pilot the craft, making minor adjustments to its heading whenever the giant Hyperborean lurched over the gunwales to retch violently into the churning wake. "Damn and curse your face, Argossean, for bringing this sickness on me," Dusan spluttered in Arcus's general direction: the horrendous fever he caught on one of their prior adventures not helping his chronic seasickness in the slightest. Arcus had heard Dusan's complaints often enough that he no longer noticed them - besides, the Argossean was too enthralled by the lilt and sway of the water to care. Zafia's keen eyes darted around, fascinated by the vivid greens and colours of the deep jungle, alien even to her well-travelled Zamorian senses; Tiberius wondered at the vibrancy of this land, so different from the dark grey north of his homeland. Of the five travellers, Kenyatta alone was not awestruck by the wonders of the wild river. He plied his trade all across Kush and the other Black Kingdoms, and so was keenly aware of the dangers that watched keenly beyond the gloom of the forest's shade. It is not the snake you see that you must fear, after all - but the snake that you don't see.

As the boat tacked round the river bend, Kenyatta spotted a shape on the far bank. A figure stood out against the dark of the jungle: a man's pale face loomed from the shadows, seemingly floating in the gloom. The face did not move while the boat approached: it stared, motionless, as Kenyatta discerned that the contrast of his dark clothing presented a somewhat supernatural image. Yet when the boat was almost abreast the shoreline, the palour of the stranger seemed even more otherworldly. Gaunt, severe, pallid, sombre, ageless, like the face of some terrible spirit of Death, a dark tangle of black hair framing his features, the stranger was clad head to foot in strange black clothing - like robes, but not matching the cut of any Kenyatta had seen. Thrust in a strange green sash around his waist were two carven clubs of odd design. His left hand rested on the intricate hilt of a straight thin sword: his right gripped a curious wooden staff, tapering to a point at the bottom, topped with a carved cat's head. The stranger's gaze pierced through to Kenyatta's very soul, his grey eyes chilling him with the cold of fathoms of ice.

The other travellers notice the stranger. Tiberius carefully moved his hand to his belt. Arcus ventured several greetings in various languages and patois, only to be met with that frozen stare in grim response. After a final attempt to communicate, the stranger turned to the jungle behind him, and called out in an unplaceable accent: "Zuna!"

After a few moments, another figure strode from the jungle. The contrast with the ghostly figure was remarkable: the newcomer was a lithe, young Kushite woman, clad simply in the loincloth and accoutrements typical of countless river tribes. Her petite stature and lively demeanour was almost comically incongruous with the sober phantom beside her, but her broad smile and bright eyes were in no way diminished in his presence. She responded warmly in perfect Kushite, as eloquent as any tribune from the Court of Shumballah. "You must forgive my friend, he is not used to this jungle!" Dusan's impeccable timing selected this moment to once again feed the river perch with his breakfast. The woman winced sympathetically. "Not unlike your tall companion there, poor boy!"

The strangers kept pace as the boat slowly continued on its path. Kenyatta translated to the company, and acted as ambassador for the group. "We are bound for an ancient city somewhere in this region. Do you know where this river ends? Are there any dangers we should watch for?"

The woman paused and frowned in thought, before her eyes widen in recognition. "Ah, you seek lost Zukundu, yes? You are not the first, and I doubt you'll be the last. But there is nothing left of old Zukundu save stone and bones, and worse dangers than even these waters."

"That may be, but we're looking for it all the same."

The woman smiled wryly, and imparted directions to a part of the vast jungle which is not often frequented by the locals - a place shunned by even the most daring of explorers. The man was silent during all this, watching the travellers intently. After a last warning to the adventurers fell upon deaf ears, the woman waved them away, and turned to the man. "Come, Sullamun, let us find Unlungu." Without a word, the stranger turned, his eyes lingering on the travellers until his pale face disappeared behind the shadow of his hair, and his silhouette merged with the forest beyond.

The Sentinels of Zukundu

Hours pass. The tribesmen, aided - at least in the mind - by Arcus and Kenyatta, avoided some of the treacherous rapids, hidden rocks, entangling plants, and other potential deadly hazards. In time, they came to a series of cascades: despite the locals' complaints, they were convinced to navigate carefully through the falls on the promise that the travellers would carry the boat back up to the main river themselves on the return journey. A lively and very wet ride down the falls ensued, with the boat and some very wet travellers following a stream through thick foliage into the open air.

They emerged into the blazing sunlight of the south. Once their eyes adjusted, they beheld a great lake flanked on all sides by sheer cliffs - a blind rift valley, perhaps formed in the wake of the Great Cataclysm, or simply the natural process of the landscape. The foreboding blue-black walls would be all but impassable to most adventurers: it seemed that the comparatively tiny cascade was the only means of entrance and exit into this great geological trap.

In the centre of the vast lake rose an island, situated roughly in the centre, and from this angle appearing trapezoid-shaped. The island seemed perhaps a half-hour's journey away. From this distance it appeared to be fringed with massive, thick mangrove trees, and topped with leaves and vegetation. Shining angular shapes glinting through the greenery suggested the presence of some form of man-made structures. The company urged the bewildered boatmen to venture forth. Kenyatta, ever wary of other denizens of the jungle, surveyed the surface of the lake. It was difficult to see anything in that water despite its clarity: the lakebed must be many fathoms below. Cloud shadows darkened the lake further, creeping across the surface as if they were predators stalking prey. 

The Kushite was disquieted to note that there did not appear to be any of the life that would normally be teeming in such a body of water - no fish or frogs, not even insects. "This is a dead lake. It does not bode well for us." Arcus, intrigued, took a flask from his knap and scooped a sample of the water. Holding it up to the light, he could just about discern a translucent shape within the water, writhing furiously like a wriggling worm on a hook. Realising with mounting horror what he was looking at, the Argossean did not have time to react when the worm-thing coiled at the bottom of the flask and launched itself like a spring - straight into Arcus's eye!

("The Crocodiles," King Solomon's Mines, Jerry Goldsmith)

Arcus dropped the flask and clutched frantically at the fiend: wrenching his eyeball near clean from his socket, the worm-thing's barbed maw lost its grip and it let go. Arcus hurled it onto the ship's deck. "Get it! Don't let it get away!" Dusan hooted in surprise and brought his heavy shod foot down upon the invader with a most terminal splat. Arcus, one hand clapped over his stinging eye, slapped his forehead with his free hand in resignation. "I meant capture it, not kill it. I was going to study it." The wounded Argossean turned sternly to the Kushite. "A dead lake, is it?!" Kenyatta seemed as surprised as anyone - and started to eye the water even more furtively than before.

None ventured to test the waters again, and all except Dusan shuffled away from the gunwales - he was already at death's door, and he sardonically figured perhaps he could pit the parasites infesting him against one another, ending the siege on his body in the process. Zafia squinted at the glimmering shapes: the unmistakable gleam of polished metal, and if her eyes did not deceive her, the occasional sparkle of gemstones. Her avaricious Zamorian soul was ablaze, practically salivating at the possibility of riches beyond dreams. 

When the boat was a quarter mile from the island, the details became clearer. The grey margin marking the circumference of the island was not the assembled trunks of mangrove trees at all: it was a great wall, built from vertically-placed monoliths, carved in curious patterns. They reminded Kenyatta both of the mighty baobab trees of his desolate homeland, and also the great menhirs populating the holy places of the Black Kingdoms. Yet to see so many massive stones planted in a lake like a huge palisade wall confounded Kenyatta: this was a construction effort that even the kings of Stygia would be hard-pressed to attempt. 

The adventurers gaped in awe at this sight. Arcus, eying the wall with his good eye - a scrap of cloth covered his wounded one - figured that access would be a daunting challenge, but not insurmountable. "Tiberius, I've got it - let's get our climbing gear out. Should only need one pitch. You lead & set up anchor, I'll spot." The two Hyborians unpacked their knapsacks, withdrawing several lengths of rope, slings, braces, awl spikes, and two climbing axes, while the boatmen steered the boat as close to the wall as the gently heaving lake allowed. Arcus clambered up the mast to look for a hold: although the masthead was barely half the height of the wall, he could spy the lip of the great stone palisade through the bushy leaves surmounting it.

Tiberius, fully suited in slings and rope, brandishing a climbing axe in each hand, hopped confidently onto the wall. The strange carvings offered enough of a grip for the blades of his axes, and he scaled the walls carefully but efficiently. Grinning with the confidence of all Kothians, he almost lost his footing when he heard a scampering sound on his right: to his amazement Zafia was scrambling up the wall like a cat, free-handed and without gear. Without even pausing her rapid ascent, she turned and taunted Tiberius with a wicked smile, giggling fiendishly. Not to be outdone, the Kothian redoubled his efforts. A minute later, he reached the top, and beheld the beaming face of the Zamorian, who waited lying on her belly. She extended her hand generously, which he grasped with grudging courtesy. 

The two glanced around. The roof of this palisade resembled the floor of a jungle: a thick forest of trees prevented visibility beyond a few dozen feet, and the ground was rich soil feeding the vegetation. The two spied a particularly sturdy looking trunk, and within moments, they had a solid anchor. 

This was most fortunate. Tiberius tossed the rope down to the boat: Dusan & Kenyatta stared up from the deck, Arcus waved from the masthead. But Tiberius noticed something else as he surveyed his surroundings: some of the cloud shadows seemed darker than the others. Long, tapering, and twisting slightly, like living things. They started to turn against the wind's direction, and converged - heading for the boat!

"Something's in the water! Go!"

Kenyatta turned, and saw the shadows. Turning to warn the boatmen, he was stunned to see both diving into the water, evidently choosing to abandon ship to whatever horror was rapidly approaching the craft. "Cowards!" Kenyatta spat with an oath, grasping his weapon and bracing against the gunwales.

Dusan heaved to his feet with a truly heroic effort. He fought down the last dregs of his breakfast trying to escape his gullet, and wrenched his rebelling joints into action. The big Hyperborean leapt to the gunwale, launched to the wall, and grasped for dear life... for a half second. His screaming finger joints betrayed him, and he dropped into the water like a bearded boulder.

Arcus snapped to face the lake. He knew that he didn't have time to descend the mast and climb the wall from the deck, even with the rope's assistance. Pressing his lips together in determination, he whipped the coiled rope from over his shoulder. "Zafia!" he called, and hurled the rope towards the Zamorian's outstretched hands. She caught the loop, and attached it to the anchor point. Arcus braced, breathed deeply, and launched himself towards the wall. Such heroics are the bread-and-butter of the son of a maritime people. Unfortunately, some of his knotwork was less than cooperative, and he was outraged to find himself smacking into the cold stone. It was only Lady Luck's sheer brazen sense of humour which saved him from the water, as the capricious goddess saw fit to tangle his leg in a rope loop.

Dusan, meanwhile, had emerged from the water with the confounding relentlessness of a man too sick to die, grasping each handhold with a ferocity that would crumble a lesser rockface. Four worm-things like Arcus's recent acquaintance squirmed on his back, trying to gnaw through his mail hauberk with futile savagery.

Kenyatta alone stood on the boat, blade in hand, eyes blazing in anticipation. Whatever was gliding under the surface of the lake, it would greet cold steel when it met -"Kenyatta! Leave your damned stubbornness on the boat and get up here!"

The Kushite quickly turned, and realised he was, indeed, alone on the boat. Glancing upwards, he saw Dusan labouring up the wall while Tiberius and Zafia hauled a dazed Arcus by the ankle. Almost disappointedly, Kenyatta snarled back to the ever-closing shapes "You live - for now!"

Just as Kenyatta jumped, the boat exploded in a shower of timber fragments and water spray. A deep, guttural growl rattled the adventurers' ribs: the observers on the ridge saw glimpses of great scaly jaws lined with brutal conical teeth crunching through the wood with horrifying ease. Kenyatta did not dare to look back, but the dangling Arcus saw a face of nightmare and lunacy burst from the water after the Kushite. It looked like one of the terrible dragons of legend: a long snout the length of the very boat they just destroyed, huge golden eyes, and rows upon rows of serrated scales like armour plating adorning its gigantic back. Kenyatta was just out of reach of the snapping jaws: within moments, he clambered up the wall, passing by the exhausted but determined Dusan, and helped pull Arcus up.

The four on the top of the wall looked down at their pursuers. "Crocodiles," Kenyatta ventured, "but larger than any I've seen, even on the River Styx." The monstrous reptiles thrashed furiously in the water, some launching up in fruitless attempts to snatch the adventurers. After a minute or so, they abandoned their siege, instead circling and pursuing the splashing boatmen now halfway to the shore.

All was once again quiet. The travellers looked into the island forest beyond. Zafia could just about perceive the outline of rooftops and strange spires - all seemingly cast from some bright metal. Kenyatta listened for animal life: all he could discern were bird calls high in the canopy, no sign of ground life. Tiberius gave a silent prayer to Mitra. Arcus was still recovering from repeated bounces against the stone.

A wet, trembling hand slapped the stonework, followed by a straining arm, and a very miserable Dusan. The other four turned, suddenly remembering their companion, and rushed to help him up. The expression on the Hyperborean's face - equal parts pain of surrender and rage of patience lost forever - had not changed since emerging from the water. Gasping for breath, he turned to regard the boat. The ruins of the boat, now in pieces barely sufficient for firewood, bobbed dolorously on the water's surface: the rudder, mast, and sail sank into the gloom below, the final resting place of the little ship. "A shame. It was a good boat. I will avenge it."

Arcus raised his arm to slap the Hyperborean warmly on the shoulder, only to recoil upon seeing his unauthorised passengers.

"Dusan, you, uh... you have something on your back."

Dusan did not immediately respond. "How many."


There was no verbal response. The Hyperborean simply closed his eyes, and toppled flatly backwards like a drawbridge, squashing the squealing parasites under him.

"They Have Slain Sweet Dako!"

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

The company took a spell to recuperate. Arcus was relieved to find only light bruises under his scalp, through his eye was still stinging, his vision still blurred. Dusan lay on his back for the duration, a deep drone grumbling from his chest through his nose. Zafia scouted ahead to look for a route through the thick forest: she returned shortly, reporting a sort of thoroughfare not far ahead. "Onward, then" sighed Dusan, rolling with great stiffness to his hands and knees, and then his feet.

Kenyatta hacked through the greenery with expert cuts. He still could not spy any animals - no game, no scavengers, not so much as a mouse. Plenty of birds, though: he heard the familiar calls of turacos, coucals, parakeets, trogons, barbets, all high above in the canopy - no calls of terrestrial birds or waterfowl. "Why do animals shun the ground," the Kushite pondered - and he did not like the hypotheses which crept into his mind.

Zafia had no interest in wildlife: her eyes were fixated on the glimmers through the trees. She could see structures through gaps in the canopy: stone buildings capped with shining metal domes and minarets, and roofs plated in that same metal. Studded along the walls in intricate patterns and carvings were shining jewels and glasswork of a highly developed aesthetic. Zafia moved a little faster through the thickets than the rest.

The adventurers broke through the perimeter forest to Zafia's thoroughfare. Reaching out before them was the remnants of what must have been a main street of sorts: paved and decorated with mosaics, yet barely eroded by time. Only the strength of the plantlife cracked through that stonework. Looking more closely, the adventurers realised that the forest had in fact covered the buildings so thoroughly as to obscure them - they were not walking through a forest, but the city itself, reclaimed by the forces of nature almost completely!

Trees burst through windows and doors; branches cradled fallen towers and stelae; vines and creepers strangled walls and balconies. Tiberius studied a nearby dwelling. Even if the travellers could cut their way through the conquering green to the building interiors, anything of worth would be either long rotted away or inaccessible, claimed as nature's spoils. The thoroughfare, overgrown as it was, presented the path of least resistance, and so the company continued down that road.

Soon, they came to a long staircase. It led down into a wide stadium of some sort, flanked on all sides by similar terraces of stairs. The tree canopy opened up, bathing the plaza in sunlight. The remains of some sort of feature - a fountain, sculpture, memorial, or shrine - were utterly overwhelmed by great bromeliads, ferns, and orchids. The explorers descended the stairs, with Dusan's fatalism-powered courage carrying him forward, even as he tangled with the creepers. "Damnable vegetation!" He muttered, pulling his foot sharply from a particularly belligerent weed. Just as he did, a sharp buzz sped past his face: instinctively turning, he saw a black shape clatter against the wall and fall to the ground - a dart! The company froze, not daring to move - but before they could exhale, a tremendous crash sounded behind them, repeated in an accelerated percussion of doom. Dusan forced his reluctant body to turn and face the noise, as he perceived a shadow growing over his. A great piece of masonry was tumbling down the stairs towards him!

Arcus, Tiberius, Zafia and Kenyatta had the wherewithal to leap from the projectile's path. Dusan did not move immediately: whether it was resignation of yet another miserable thing to happen to him, or an obstinate refusal to move himself out of the way for a mere rock, the unforgiving stone was almost upon him before he realised that this was a battle of wills that he could not win. Dusan waited until his bullish forehead actually made contact with his adversary before rolling from its path. It is as well he did, for the stone collided with great prejudice against what remained of the plaza's centrepiece, sending bits of stone and leaves flying in a cloud.

Dusan, bleeding heavily from his wounded forehead, teetered on his feet. "This has not been a good day." At that presise moment, Tiberius was aware of movement in the canopy above. A sound of crunching branches and snapping twigs: looking up, he saw a shape flopping through the canopy. Zafia & Kenyatta heard and saw too: "Get back!" the Kushite called, at first fearing some predator was attacking - but the movement was too haphazard and uncontrolled. No, not attacking - it was falling.

The Hyperborean was still too dazed to notice the noise above - but he certainly saw the blur and heard the sickening thud mere inches from his feet. Blood spattered Dusan's face. The adventurers looked aghast - the headless corpse of a woman fell from the trees!

Kenyatta knew that jaguars would store their kills in the trees to prevent lions or hyenas from stealing them: his eyes darted among the canopy for the slayer. And across the plaza, on the opposite side to the companions, he indeed perceived a shape - but this was no jaguar, nor was it any sort of cat. The silhouette dropped from the canopy to land on its hind legs: great long arms spread out, the hint of a huge chest and head, and the barely perceptible gleam of black eyes. The outline of the shape was strangely blurred and undefined, like a cloud, or a smeared cave painting: flecked among the darkness were flashes of striking colours - azure, scarlet, emerald, saffron - and in the thing's left hand dripped a human head. 

For a space none dared move. Then the shadow cast back its head, calling an unearthly roar - the cry of a great ape, yet terribly - impossibly - human-like. In an instant, it was gone - it melted into the gloom of the forest. The roar came again, farther this time - much too far for the time passed.

The companions were unsure what to do. Tiberius knew that there was no way they could catch up to the fiend, whatever it was. Arcus stood dumbfounded: he knew of legends of terrible savage ape-men that harassed the northlands, but this was unlike even those grim tales. "Kenyatta, what was that?" he whispered. "An ape. It must be. A gorilla, maybe. But that cry - that wasn't an animal's call. Whatever it is, it is no natural beast - at least none I've ever seen, or heard." Dusan, wiping the blood from his brow, looked at the decapitated cadaver. "Could it have done this?" he ventured.

Kenyatta walked over to the body. By her skin tone she was clearly a Kushite, but beyond that Kenyatta could not determine. Her attire was strange to Kenyatta: the weave of the loincloth, the style of the beads, and the pattern of various accoutrements were curiously archaic. Rather than the distinctive tribal fashion of the many Kushite tribes or Black Kingdom peoples, this woman's outfit resembled more the depictions of ancient Kushites seen on the historic carvings and friezes of Shumballah. But most remarkable was the amount of gold & jewellery this woman bore - earrings, nose piercings, armlets, bangles, bracelets, necklaces, medallions, anklets, rings on every digit. This woman carried more gold on her than even the King of Punt on parade. Zafia overcame any revulsion she may have upon witnessing a gruesome dead body when the glitter of gold caught her eye, and she eagerly ransacked the corpse for every bit of gold she could remove without resorting to more violent efforts.

Arcus heard a noise from the west stairs. To most of the outsiders, they heard a shout in a language they did not know - Kenyatta, however, could just about understand an obscure Kushite dialect. "Aii! Outsiders! They have slain sweet Dako!"

The adventurers wheeled to face the source of the sound. Several men, armed with black-tipped spears and red shields, burst from the foliage with murder in their eyes. They approached in tight formation, shields held high, spears aloft. Some eight in all descended the stairs to meet the company. As they approached, they saw Zafia crouched over the body, her hands still untangling a jewelled chain from the deceased's waist. Their expressions hardened, and they shouted venomously at her. Kenyatta struggled to understand the curses, but it was clear from context that they did not wish the Zamorian well.

Tiberius knew he had to act. Without a thought to translation, he howled in his best approximation of the sound that they heard just minutes earlier, then making motions towards the treetops, and pointing in the direction the shadow retreated. Some of the warriors' expressions changed, their fury dropping into questioning frowns: a few looked towards one another uncertainly. One, however, continued to bark orders, and they continued to march towards the group - when another voice pealed from the east, again in that archaic Kushite, but in a timbre Kenyatta found easier to decipher. "Put your spears down, you fools! They are just strangers. They had nothing to do with this."

A woman strode down the eastern staircase, and stepped into the daylight. She was tall and impeccably built: the corded muscles of her long limbs gleamed and rippled like a panther's with each step. She bore a spear and shield like the warriors, but in addition to the proliferation of golden jewellery she bore a striking coronet with feathers, suggesting some sort of status above the others. "This is the doing of the Feathered Ape!"

At this, the assembled warriors suddenly started to wail plaintively and glance furtively at the canopy. One young-looking spearman started to crouch on his haunches and rock back and forth, comforted by an older compatriot. "Up, Tenbo, it knows you're afraid." The woman looked at each of the adventurers in turn. She pointedly glared at Zafia, still clutching Dako's jewels, and extended a hand expectantly. Zafia turned to the others for support, but seeing none, grimaced in disappointment before reluctantly handing over her spoils. The woman returned to her appraisal of the strangers, ending on Kenyatta. "You understand me, yes?"

Kenyatta ventured a response slowly. "I can, but your language is strange to me. Who are you? Is this Zukundu?"

The woman straightened, her expression inscrutable. "I am Zyanya. We are Xhotatse. This is Zukundu. I expect you have many more questions. We shall take you to the Queen. Come with us. It is not safe here." 

As if to punctuate her point, Tiberius heard something fly behind him, then a clattering on the stones, followed by several more. Arcus saw wickedly serrated black-tipped arrows inches from where Tiberius was standing!

Chapter 2: The Path of Skulls

("You've Been Hit," The Ghost and the Darkness, Jerry Goldsmith)

Zyanya wheeled. "Mekutu! Shields!" The warriors raised their shields towards the hail of arrows in an expertly knit mantle: Tenbu and the older warrior motioned to the adventurers to get behind them. They rushed under the shields, and with a word, the warriors rushed in formation up the southern staircase. Zyanya turned back to the company: "Move out!"

Arcus peered through a gap in the shields to get a look at the ambushers. Just beyond the trees he could perceive arches in overgrown stone walls: within those arches, the Argossean saw wildly staring eyes and flashing smiles - smiles much wider than they should be. Arcus shuddered as the company ran, arrows thudding against the shields. Dusan, who was already the least dextrous of the group, was fortunate to be practically carried by the collective mass of the adventurers and warriors, almost instinctively following their steps rather than by any conscious effort. 

The hunters were relentless, and seemed to have bottomless quivers: the hunted only found a reprieve when they arrived at a tunnel, and plunged into the darkness. They followed the light at the end to what initially appeared to be a large open space, apparently overgrown - but Kenyatta could tell that the twigs, branches, and vines had been placed here. Traps, Kenyatta thought. Across from the tunnel was a great black stone fort with an enormous bronze door, wrought with the image of an elephant's head in strong relief. But as the company looked around, they realised that they were now indoors - this keep was inside a larger room, uncannily lit by what appeared to be green stars on the roof. Zyanya panted, "They will not follow us here. We are safe for the moment."

"Mekutu, correct?" At the mention of that name, the warriors made hand gestures & strange hissing & tutting noises in all directions, as if driving away any Mekutu ghosts that may be watching. "Who are they? Is there anyone else in Zukundu?"

Zyanya inhaled deeply. "Yes. We, the Xhotatse, are the Glittering Ones, so named for, well," and she motioned towards the jewels on her naked chest. Dusan, not quite understanding what she was referring to, caught himself staring, and turned away blushing. Zyanya either did not notice, or was unfamiliar with Hyborian notions of modesty. "The Smiling Ones you have already met. They are decadent, degenerates, evil creatures who perform terrible rites. They do unnatural things to their bodies, of which their monstrous smiles are but the least. Pray you do not meet their lord and his court: if you get close enough to see why they are called the Smiling Ones, I only hope you can stomach the revelation."

"There is a third tribe, but we have not seen or heard for them for years now. The Tangini, the Dreamers. They are strange and uncanny, always sleeping or dozing under the trees, never rousing even when shot with an arrow. None know how they even sustain themselves - food, drink - save that they are certainly alive, as we can tell by their breathing. They also talk in their sleep - the mad ravings of deep dreaming and unfathomable nightmares."

Dusan seemed strangely offended by the indolence of this tribe he had never met. "Well, if all they do is dream and laze about, why did the Mekutu not destroy them and take their land and treasures? Or you, for that matter?"

"Because the Tangini are not alone in their territory. Something there guards them from tresspassers, allowing them to indulge. All we know is that few of our scouts make it out alive - and those that do seem possessed of a terrible madness, frothing at the lips, eyes wide and bloodshot, before they die mere hours later. I suspect the Smiling Ones' scouts suffer a similar fate."

Zyanya held an arm up to the warriors, who started to move down the corridor, and turned again to the adventurers. "We still have to cross the Path of Skulls. Tread carefully, and do not stray from our path."

The adventurers watched as the soldiers began to stalk in single file, winding in a strange twisting path. Tiberius saw a pile of bones & skulls, bleached by the sun, arranged in a grim display - presumably those of trespassers on Xhotatse land. The adventurers followed the soldiers' tracks. Kenyatta listened: he could hear movement beneath the foliage. Something was prowling under there...

Shortly, the adventurers and their escort were at the door. Zanya turned to them. "The Ebony Keep, residence of Queen Chitaka of the Xhotatse. This is the Door of the Elephant, our last defence against the hated Mekutu. I will inform Her Majesty of your arrival." She turned curtly, and rapped her spear on the bronze door in an intricate drum, the strikes making a ghostly metallic echo. Presently the door swung open, the trunk and tusks of the elephant parting as it moved.

Within was darkness. The adventurers walked on through the Door of the Elephant...

Within was a small gatehouse, leading out into a bailey - again, lit eerily by those strange green stars. A few dozen individuals were milling about, with a few noticing the newcomers and forming a small crowd around them. Zyanya proclaimed "Behold, my Xhotatse family, outsiders - warriors from afar, come to aid us against the Great Enemy Mekutu!" At that, the tuts and gestures, followed by warm smiles and some small chatter. Zafia surveyed the crowd which gathered: it seemed Zyanya was accurate in describing them as family, as there was an undeniable familial resemblance amongst all the individuals, young and old. But the keep was clearly far too large for the small numbers which gathered here - what remained would only be a fraction of the workforce necessary for the maintainance and upkeep of a fort of this size, let alone a sustainable population. There appeared to be no children among the Xhotatse - at least, not present here. Tiberius noted this too: each smile on the Xhotatse faces was nonetheless marked with a terrible sadness and regret. The Xhotatse were dying - and they knew it.

The Pond and the Monkey

Zyanya turned to the adventurers. "Wait here a moment, I shall return shortly." The company took the opportunity to examine the Ebony Keep and its denizens. Kenyatta noted that while the keep itself was in remarkably good condition given its presumed age, there were many ad-hoc alterations and additions, presumably built up by generations of Xhotatse well after Zukundu's golden age. These ramshackle features were poorly maintained, with several ladders, platforms, and balustrades simply lying where they fell. Zafia watched as some young men chased a small grey monkey around the grounds. The young men were laughing and tripping, with an abandon and uncoordination that seemed more like children than their age suggested. Kenyatta heard them call back "Mother, look, we are catching the Feathered Ape!" Zafia followed their look, and saw an older woman smiling with that same sadness. The Zamorian knew the physical and mental tolls that endemic inbreeding can incur on a population. Arcus attempted to lighten the sense of relentless doom by noting the attractiveness of several Xhotatse and some comments about repopulating the city, but it could do little to overcome the overwhelming hopelessness of their situation.

Dusan watched the young men chasing the ape to the centre of the bailey. A large ornamental pond lay there, with a small island in the centre featuring what looked like a tiny house with a large door on one side. Descending from the starry roof above are thick vines and fronds, almost like tentacles emerging from a cursed night sky. Some sprouted pleasant white flowers, others a vibrant yellow bloom. The ape, enjoying the chase almost as much as the young men, scampered over the flagstones and clambered up one of the vines, leaping and swinging with delight. The company, amused by these curious antics, ambled over to the pond. Zafia peered into the waters below, noting a strange green glow - with a deeper look, she could tell that strange glowing stones were illuminating the pond. Once again, the rapacity that would shame even her fellow Zamorians bubbled to the surface, and she whispered a plan of distraction to Tiberius and Dusan, hoping to snatch the undoubtedly valuable stones.

Events proved to have a discouraging effect on Zafia's notion. The grey monkey was still swinging and leaping vine-to-vine with great enthusiasm - but upon grasping one vine, it suddenly slipped, and plummeted into the water below. A hush fell upon the watching Xhotatse. Within moments, the water started to froth and churn like rapids: flashes of silver scales, wide hateful eyes, and flashing yellow teeth broke through the spume. The monkey's playful cries transformed to gurgled screams of terror: within seconds, the water turned a deep red, the monkey's grey fur disappearing under clouds of crimson, revealing streaked white bones grasping desperately for the vines. The young men shrieked in distress, rushing to the woman, cowering into her like frightened children.

For a moment the adventurers simply gazed, aghast at this fresh horror - before Zafia, still fancying her chances, started to reach into the pool. Dusan instictively held out an arm across her chest to hold her back, slowly shaking his head. Zafia harrumphed. 

Zyanya returned from the tall arched chamber leading to the Throne Room. "The Queen shall see you."

The Throne of Zukundu

("Over There," The Ghost and the Darkness, Jerry Goldsmith)

The Xhotatse led the adventurers into the Throne Room. Unlike the "outside," great braziers and torches provided light, which was intensified by burnished golden mirrors: the carved ivory ornaments gleamed in the warm light, and the strange subterranean flowers bloomed with unusual hues. Throw rugs were scattered on the floor, the pelts of known beasts of the jungle - including that of the great Golden Leopard, as well as a strange pale cat that none of the company could recognise.

Sitting dantily on the throne was a young woman, bedecked in golden trinkets, fine jewels, dazzling feathers, and ivory finery. She smiles broadly towards the outsiders and nods courteously. Beside her, a tall elderly man, similarly clad in precious stones and metal but to a smaller degree, gently waved a large feather fan. He leant to one side, obscuring his face from view as he conferred with the Queen. The Queen nodded, and the man turned to the guests.

"Queen Chitaka of the Xhotatse bids you a thousand welcomes to the Ebony Keep, honoured visitors. Our loyal general Zyanya has passed word of your esteem and prowess in facing our dreadful foes." Arcus glances questioningly to Zyanya, who pointedly continues to stare forward. The man continues. "I am Inokwu, who speaks for the Queen with her blessing. I expect you have questions?"

The company, speaking through Kenyatta, relate the story of their journey to Zukundu and their encounter with the Feathered Ape. Kenyatta, however, had a particular question in mind. "I have seen strange, green lights in this place. There is a gem of great power in the north: I have seen it lay waste to an entire city." 

Inokwu narrowed his eyes. "You speak of the Eyes of Derketa," he replied frostily. "You will have seen them in the Pond outside, yes?" 

Zafia, who had been distracted by the many gold baubles, fixed her attention on Inokwu in a most unsubtle manner. "Oh, the ones you see have long been drained of their potency over lost millennia: they bring light, nothing more."

Kenyatta was unconvinced. "Is there no possibility that some remain with their old power?" Inokwu sighed. "If there are, then mark my words, brother: the only ones in Zukundu who would dare deal with such sorcery are among the Mekutu." The tuts and hisses echoed in the chamber. Arcus was intrigued to note the Queen joined in, but with none of the hatred of her fellow Xhotatse - she seemed to treat it as a game. Inokwu glanced sharply at the Queen, who straightened herself up. Inokwu continued. "And if you saw what dabbling in that unnatural magic did to those fiends, then I suspect you would understand why we shun them."

Prompted by Tiberius, Kenyatta turned to another line of questioning. "There are so few Xhotatse left. Why do you not leave?"

Inokwu lowered his head sadly. "None have ventured beyond the walls in generations. You saw the Sentinels, placed here by our forefathers to defend against invaders. They are determined to ensure no-one enters Zukundu - and just as devoted to ensure no-one leaves. Many have tried, but we have lost our ancestor's arts in construction and shipbuilding. If there was some secret tunnel to the shore, it has long been reclaimed by things which lurk in the deep. No, I'm afraid there is no escape from our prison-palace. You are of Zukundu now. Our fates are entwined now."

At that, Inokwu motioned to a young warrior. "Fetch some trinkets from the treasury." The warrior departed. "Being as our destinies now converge, our Queen bids you this: hunt the Feathered Ape. Find it and slay it. Bring back its hideous body, that we may place its hide upon the Ebony Throne and pile its bones atop the walls of the Ebony Keep for all to see!"

The warrior returned, bearing several sets of golden necklaces tinkling with jewels and ivory around his neck. Inokwu took them reverently from the bowing warrior, and handed them to Kenyatta. "Please take these. Much more will be yours upon the completion of this task, besides the eternal gratitude of the Xhotatse.

Somewhat surprised, Kenyatta turns to the company, holding enough gold in his hands to buy a castle in Keshan, and translated Inokwu's decree. Arcus, speaking in Shemite directly to Inokwu with Kenyatta translating, objected: "My friend, we ask for no reward in return. We would gladly rid Zukundu of this terror without recompense."

Inokwu held up a hand. "Your generosity shames me. But as I said, our fates are entwined. You are now of Xhotatse, and so, you are entitled to everything that any Xhotatse is." He gestured towards the servants and warriors of the Throne Room, all carrying pounds of gold on their bodies. "There is more gold in our treasury than we know what to do with. You are welcome to all you can carry, even if I fear there is no way to spend it."

Dusan stared gruimly. "We entered Zukundu despite the big lizards. We will find a way out." 

Inokwu was unmoved. "Until then, you are Xhotatse. Tenbo will take you to the residences, where you may rest." He turned to the queen, and spoke behind the fan again. "The Queen requires rest herself. My undying thanks, once again. May the ancestors grant us the strength to prevail."

Tenbo marched forward, expecting the company to follow. They did - but just before exiting the chamber, Arcus stopped. Something had been bothering him during the discussion, but he could not quite put his finger on it until he looked back. Inokwu knelt next to the throne, stroking the Queen's head. The Queen smiled up into his face as he whispered to her. Arcus realised that Inokwu did not always pause to speak to the Queen before answering responding to the company's questions. Arcus didn't like mysteries, so he tapped Kenyatta's shoulder, boldly strode back into the throne room. Inokwu glanced up, his expression freezing; Chitaka turned, still smiling. As Arcus paused, he was aware of a blur on his right side - and within moments, the imposing form of Zyanya was between him and the throne, black-tipped spear held aloft. Arcus tried to move the spear in any direction other than his sternum, but it would be easier to move the Blue Mountains than to shift that spearhead. Arcus instead positioned himself around Zyanya and her spear, which followed his direction until he was on the other side.

"Allow him approach, gentle Zyanya. I trust your aim will stop any unpleasantness before it manifests." Inokwu then turned to Arcus. "The Queen will be happy to answer any questions on the morrow."

Arcus was curt, speaking again with Kenyatta translating. "I would like to speak to her. Without someone speaking for her." Arcus and Inokwu held each other's stare.

"This is against the way of our people. I understand that you are outsiders, so I will forgive this slight against our tradition. But the Queen tires, and-"

"What are you not telling us, Inokwu? Why can the Queen not speak for herself?" For the briefest of seconds, Inokwu's stone face trembled, his eyes watering. "It is not your concern. Please leave us, now, the Queen must rest."

Arcus looked around Inokwu to see Chitaka directly. "Your majesty, are you alright? Are you safe?" Kenyatta translated - but the Queen did not respond, simply continuing to smile. Inokwu watched, strangely expressionless. Arcus waved Kenyatta away. He put his hand to his chest. "Arcus." The Queen still smiled, not appearing to understand. A thought occurred to the Argossean. He reached into his pack - Zyanya tensed instinctively before relaxing - and withdrew a small straw dolly, like the Hyborians crafted for their children. Chitaka's smile grew, her eyes widened, and she looked expectantly at Arcus: when Arcus handed the doll to her, she grasped it, and gently stroked its hair, crossing her legs on the throne. She looked, for all her finery and regality, like a little girl on her birthday.

Arcus turned to see Inokwu, tears suddenly bursting from behind his eyes. He stretched out his arms, as if asking "now do you understand why she cannot speak?" Arcus understood the gesture. Turning to Kenyatta, Arcus said "We will find the ape. We will ensure no harm comes to her." 

Inokwu nodded. wiping tears from his wisened cheeks. "Please, I beg of you - let none among the Xhotatse know. She is the last child to be born among the Xhotatse. Her mother - my sister - she passed. Few of our women have carried, and none survived to term. We are dying. Our people, our history, our memories. We are breaking apart - and only the hope that our Queen can rule is keeping us from anarchy. If they knew she did not have the competent mind we need to survive... All we have left is this palace, a prison that we cannot leave to the despicable Mekutu, the wretched dreaming Tangini, or the nightmare of the Feathered Ape."

The elder looked to Zyanya, and nodded. Zyanya lowered her spear. Arcus bowed to the queen, still cradling her gift, rocking gently to and fro, incongruous in her elegant accoutrements and the grandiose throne. Arcus and Kenyatta followed Zyanya in silence to the residences. These were accessed by the anterior wall of the citadel, into a great chasm where houses were cut into the rock itself. Hundreds of these homes reached almost to the green-starred ceiling, but barely a dozen were lit with simple torches, huddled together in a corner - showing just how far the population of Zukundu had fallen. Zyanya led the companions to a house on the ground, and they remarked upon the spaciousness - dozens of flat stone beds lay empty. Dusan slumped on the nearest slab, followed shortly by Tiberius and Zafia. Zyanya spoke briefly with Kenyatta before he took to bed, her final words "Do not leave the city at night - it is not safe." Arcus was last to lie, and last to sleep, troubled by the melancholy misery of a city approaching death.

Arcus's last waking thought was his final glance at the throne room, where he remembered a dignified royal advisor quietly sobbing into his fan, stroking the head of a queen, singing an old Kushite nursery rhyme to her dolly.

Chapter 3: The Hunt for the Feathered Ape

("Prepare for Battle," The Ghost and the Darkness, Jerry Goldsmith)

A hollow, forlorn trumpet blast awakened the adventurers. Dusan stretched, feeling remarkably recharged after the night's rest. Zafia started awake, withdrawing her sprawled limbs under her like an alarmed hound. Kenyatta snorted to consciousness, momentarily startled to see so many pale faces - something he still wasn't used to despite all his travels and trading. Tiberius's eyes fluttered open, and he raised his head - he slept in a sitting position typical of Mitraic meditation practises. And Arcus, who didn't get much sleep at all, nonetheless felt rested enough to trek through the jungle. Zyanya arrived shortly after, accompanied by two familiar faces. "I trust you slept well, brothers, sister. We have few scouts to spare, but Tenbo and Jambi offered themselves to accompany you. They are young and fit, and know the city as well as anyone. Good hunting."

As suddenly as she arrived, Zanya wheeled and jogged back to the keep. Tenbo and Jambi shuffled their feet expectantly. Dusan grinned: amongst his strange people it might be called warm, but outside the frozen north it had the savage ferocity of a starving wolf. "You saved our skins, boys, time we repaid that debt, eh?" The Hyperborean slapped Tenbo resoundingly on the chest, Kenyatta hurriedly assuring that this was not a challenge. "He is from far away, his ways are strange." Tenbo was not reassured, the gigantic pale, blond, bearded figure as alien and frightening to him as any spirit of the Outer Dark. Nonetheless, the adventurers readied themselves, and the guides took them from the keep, across the Path of Skulls, out to the corridor, and back above the Roof of Zukundu to the Circle of the Sky - the last sighting of the Feathered Ape, and location of poor Dako's corpse.

For a moment, the companions were unsure where to begin, all looking about, hoping for some clue to present itself. Tenbo and Jambi looked to one another. "This is not the first time the Feathered Ape has struck. We could take you to the previous attack, if that would help?" Tenbo winced, hoping he was being helpful. 

Tiberius nodded purposefully. "That's an excellent plan, Tenbo. Take us there!"

The hunters paced through the overgrown jungle, always keeping an eye out for predators - animal or otherwise. Eager to break the silence, Jambi spoke up. "Before this happened, we thought the Ape was simply a just-so story, a fable made up to frighten the Children of Zukundu. It was no more real to us than the tale of how the Elephant got his trunk, or how Tortoise got his shell. But then, none of us have seen an Elephant. Or a tortoise. Not for many generations."

Kenyatta was intrigued. "I noticed there were no animals living on the ground here. Only birds, and that grey monkey at the pond."

Jambi nodded grimly. "Aye, only small beasts that can escape into the trees live on Zukundu now - or beasts with spears and wits." He held his spear aloft.

"But surely the Feathered Ape can't have killed all the animals - what would it feed on otherwise?"

"Oh, that is not the Ape's doing. That is the work of the Crawlers Beneath. You remember the Sentinels, yes? They are not the only scaly things here. There is a reason all Xhotatse retreat to the Ebony Keep at night. Some are trapped outside by Mekutu" - tut, hiss - "others lost in the jungle. Few return in the morning. Those that do tell stories of crawling, twisting, things worming through the jungle floor. We can avoid them by day - but the Feathered Ape hunts when the sun is up. Perhaps he commands these things himself - why not? If the Feathered Ape is true, then what of the stories of its powers?"

Kenyatta recalled with an icy chill a story he learned from a wandering Shemite: there were some stories of terrible snake-like creatures which acted as guards for cities, like the terrible Sacred Sons of Set that lurked in dark Khemi. Their masters controlled them with pipes of curious design. Kenyatta told this to the company: on a whim, he and Zafia took some hollow sticks on the ground, and started to whittle rudimentary pipes as they walked. Pleased with their handiwork, they ventured a tune. Silence reigned in the jungle - if anything heard their music, it was not stirred to respond.

Nonetheless, there was use in Kenyatta & Zafia's diversion: while looking for more sticks, they spotted tracks. The Kushite recognised the articulated thumb and long toe marks of an ape - but much larger than any gorilla he had seen, and uncannily elongated, disturbingly reminiscent of a human. As the group searched for more spoor, they found a flagstone marked with three lines - the strength needed to make such a trace would have been immense, and the clean gashes suggest rough but sharp claws. Kenyatta was dumbfounded. He knew the might of apes in his home kingdom, but this was a monstrous power beyond even a bull silverback. The Kushite started to wonder if there was truth in Jambi's remarks.

"There, more tracks! I think I know where it went!" Tenbo excitedly rushed forward. "Tenbo, get back here, keep your head!" Jambi pursued his errant friend. The company followed. Dusan, who was still amazed at the colours and beauty of this landscape, was vaguely aware that the foliage - blooms, flowers, orchids, vines, leaves - were starting to shift. Where once the jungle was overwhelmingly green, now everything started to turn red. Reaching out to touch a particularly vivid red blossom, he was relieved to note that the red was not the unmistakable spatter of blood - but still, he could not shake a sense of foreboding about that crimson bloom. 

A short time later, the adventurers caught up with Tenbo and Jambi, who stood unmoving outside a doorway. Steps leading down could just be seen in the gloom, with the evidence of light further below. Erupting from the darkness were vines and tendrils, like the ones hanging from the forest canopy - but where they were green, these were that unsettling blood-red hue. Tenbo pointed down the entrance with his spear. "That way, I'm sure of it." Dusan was not happy about this, but again gripped by the mad recklessness of his people, he grumped past the guides into the unknown.

The adventurers descended the stairs carefully, trying to avoid the red creepers almost unconsciously, perhaps fearing they would spring to life and entangle them like serpents. Jambi's eyes darted around. "Our guides have not been here for many years. These red vines are like the strange plants in the Tangini's territory. We should take care."

The hunters emerged into a room. It resembled nothing so much as a weird greenhouse: Two walls and the bow-shaped ceiling were covered in irregular crystal windows of a design totally unfamiliar to even Kenyatta, who knew of the marvels the Stygians could work in glass. Behind the frosty glass were green lights - perhaps more Eyes of Derketa - bathing the room in that sickly emerald. Yet even that green could not dilute the cruel crimson of the vines, which snaked all over the floor, the planters housing strange and unknown herbs and orchids. On the other side of the room Dusan could just about discern another door.

Tiberius, however, was fixated on the vines. One vine in particular seemed disgustingly fat and pliant, as thick as a tree-trunk. He followed it behind one of the stone planters, watching with mounting anxiety as it thickened with his gaze. On the other side of the planter, the vine was sickeningly plump - and large enough to hold a human. Tiberius almost robotically unsheathed his dagger, and pierced the vine. A dark, syrupy, red liquid oozed from the puncture - and the vine moved.

A cry rang out. Tenbo screamed as something pulled him sharply into the darkness.


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