The Secret Entrance
Wattabi told Cuana, Tullweim, and Xacksmith that the entrance to the hidden passage into the Red Citadel was located some distance outside of Bzambei. The description given was that of a shrine to strange leonine gods of the forgotten city atop which the citadel now rested. The Waddai exile then said, ‘Your passage to the shrine may be flooded due to the rain and the nearby river. Once inside, you will need to look for the third statue on the right, a lion-headed woman brandishing two sickles. At the feet of the statue is a hole through which is the catch that holds the shrine’s door shut.’ The guide continued, ‘Once the catch is released the statue can be pushed aside, revealing a narrow staircase going down. This passage will lead you directly into the citadel. But you must always move forward. Never deviate, it is a maze down there,’ Watabbi asserted. ‘You will never be seen again if you choose to explore it.’
The journey to the shrine was not long. About two miles from Bzambei’s walls, close to the banks of the river laid the crumbling ruin of which Wattabi spoke. The river had indeed burst its banks, as Wattabi had feared, and 100 feet from the temple the flood waters became more difficult to wade through as they rose above waist level. The exiled Waddai pointed out the entrance, then told the party he would pray the cost they’d pay for finding what they sought would not be too high, and turned to leave. The adventurers had to swim to progress the rest of the way without being knocked over by the current. Inside the shine’s walls, the current abated, but the structure was completely flooded and the party plodded around chest deep in the water. The temple itself was 50 feet wide, 60 feet long, and had a partially crumbling ceiling held up by a dozen pillars to the left and right. Three large female statues with leonine heads stood watch on either side of the temple, and the statue opposite the entry had an altar before it which rose from the swirling waters. Tullweim moved towards the statue Wattabi told them of, when a fanged maw burst from the shadowed murk and bit deep into the Aesir’s arm. Tullweim shouted an alarm to his companions when Cuana and Xacksmith noticed 3 more dark shapes moving quickly towards them.
The Cimmerian was within reach of one of the crocodiles which had closed in on him, and despite the difficulty of movement in the water, Cuana’s greatsword struck true. The beast bled freely into the waters as the barbarian followed his first attack with a devastating plunge of his blade, which caved in part of the crocodile’s apex and tore through its lower jaw. Cuana then cleaved into the next closest creature and his sword ripped through the crocodile’s hide like it was paper. The wounded reptile snapped its jaws at the Cimmerian, but the northern man dodged the attack. Tullweim was not so fortunate as 2 crocodiles assaulted him, both raked his flesh in their massive craws, but the Aesir fought furiously to keep them from pulling him under. Tullweim’s weapon splashed violently down, but his worn and battered arms missed their mark. With renewed effort the Nordheimer barbarian viciously pierced 1 of the reptiles with a stabbing motion. Xacksmith attempted to close the distance between himself and his companions, but the current from the river flowing in, as well as the rain pouring from the ruined ceiling made the current too difficult for him to swim through.
Cuana struck a killing blow to the 2nd crocodile which had assaulted him, then walked slowly through the high water to stand with Tullweim. 1 of the crocodiles turned its attention to the Cimmerian, but again the barbarian was able to maneuver away from the reptile’s menacing fangs. The creature before Tullweim snapped at the Aesir drawing fresh strips of ruddy fluid. Tullweim fought to keep his footing, pushed the crocodile away, and swung wildly, again hitting only water. Xacksmith decided to follow Cuana and trudged slowly through the pool towards the beast which faced off with the Aesir. Once there, the Hyrkanian drove his arming sword through the reptile’s left eye, and took a step back as the beast thrashed wildly in its death throes. Cuana assaulted the remaining crocodile with a glancing strike to the beast’s flank. Tullweim followed the Cimmerian’s attack and his blade sliced through the crocodile’s spine with thunderous impact. As no other creature were present to menace them, the Aesir asked Cuana to tend his wounds at the altar. Cuana did not like working at such a structure, but did as he was asked.
After the Aesir’s many cuts were stitched and wrapped by the Cimmerian, Tullweim turned his attention to the lion-headed statue which bore 2 sickles in its stone paws. The Nordheimer was able to find the catch Wattabi had spoken of under the water at the statue’s feet. Remembering the Wadai’s words of a staircase beyond, Tullweim went out into the jungle to locate vines to strap himself with and keep the current of the opened passage from sweeping him down, as well as a large branch he could use to open the lock. After he lashed himself to the pillar before the statue, Tullweim pushed the branch into the hole at the base of the ancient figure and turned it. He immediately heard a loud click, and then he pushed on the statue until it slid open, revealing the route beyond as a tumultuous surge of water flooded down into the darkness.
Cuana and Xacksmith moved with the water to the pillar Tullweim was lashed to. They each took hold of the vines the Aesir was tied with, removed it from the post, and wrapped it around their waists. Tullweim was in the lead, Xacksmith with a lit torch in the middle, and Cuana at the rear. Inside, the hidden passage led down a short staircase for 15 feet, then changed to a smooth, gently sloping path of carved red stone. As the adventurers entered the descending path they felt a strange chill in the air, and suddenly got a prickling sensation along the napes of their necks. They pressed forward through the water with Wattabi’s tales of haunted lanes preying on their nerves. The tunnel hooked to the right slightly, and as the party moved down its length it undulated, like the curves of a snake, making visibility ahead and behind somewhat limited. Every 30 feet or so, a side passage appeared on one side or the other. A loud splash in the moving current was heard shortly after passing one of those side routes, but the adventurers chose not to alter their course and pushed on through the murk. As they traveled further down the black path the men-at-arms began to hear strange, unutterable mutterings of some otherworldly entity. Yet this blasphemous cacophony was not heard with their ears but was unnervingly felt within their very minds. Maddening gibberings filled the partys’ thoughts as they felt that something inhuman stalked among them.
Xacksmith swung the torch behind the party, back to the path they had come from, then before a side passage, revealing an oozing filth smeared along part of the wall. But other than the slime, nothing unusual in the flooded passage was seen, and again the adventurers heeded Wattabi’s direction to not deter from their route. The ominous path before them, with no sign of what was muttering the deranged discord, the party trudged on. The cackling mumblings had increased to a deafening pitch when the main passage ended in a three-way junction, with no obvious means of determining which way to go. As the adventurers shouted over the mindless jangle of gibbering filth, a fiery breath erupted from an unseen adversary, engulfing the Hyrkanian in white-hot agony. Cuana overcame the terror of the unknown which threatened to overtake him as his fury rose in a mist of crimson, he drew his greatsword and charged the invisible attacker, striking naught but open air. It was only instinct that allowed the Cimmerian to pantherishly dodge the licking flames which erupted from the black air.
The Hyrkanian’s torch could not reveal where their ethereal assailant spewed flames from, and coupled with the unending defilement which broiled their minds, Xacksmith and Tullweim struck nothing but water and rock. Fighting through the shroud of blasphemous torments, Cuana steadied his blade and brought it down in an arcing slice of fury. The Cimmerian’s great blade again carved through a gelatinous mass which sprayed the passage walls with phosphorous sludge. The creature let loose with a fiery blast which charred Cuana’s right arm. Xacksmith missed with a sweep of his arming sword, but a 2nd attack plunged near where Cuana had wounded the beast struck true. Tullweim was not so fortunate as every quivering swing clanged fruitlessly against the sides of the lane. The Cimmerian’s iron will allowed him to ignore the gibberings assaulting him and he swung twice in a frenzy. Both slashes ripped into the oozing filth and the hidden horror fell to the water with a heavy splash. Not wanting to linger, the party neglected their wounds and followed the path to the left which led to stairs up.
The Red Citadel
The adventurers pushed open another hinged statue as they rose out of the floor into a circular building. Tullweim guessed they were in a temple as his eyes narrowed upon a curious shrine to unnameable gods. Fortunately for the party, the temple was not occupied by man, beast, or god, and nothing stopped them from reaching the door to the courtyard. The outer compound was an open area between the walls and the citadel in the center. Several simple structures surrounded the citadel, likely serving as food storage, stables, servants’ quarters and barracks for the outer defense. Only a small contingent of armed soldiers patrolled the empty lanes as most men sought shelter from the rain. The adventurers timed their passing for when the patrol was opposite them.
They found the citadel to be an open complex, a building in which the interior of the structure led to a grand courtyard. There they found a lush garden of local and imported plants, a fresh water fountain built around the restored statues of the ancient city, and numerous pleasant garden paths through which guests could travel. A number of women were seen to be relaxing in the courtyard, beneath an enclosed gazebo, meditating upon the weather. Four armed men guarded these women. Two double staircases along the inner walls from the courtyard led up to a second floor. On the south wall of the courtyard was an entrance to what appeared to be a garrison. To the west and east of the courtyards were open columned passageways that featured such extravagant niceties as a disused fountain, guest quarters and dining rooms for the servants and guards.
With a nod to his companions, Xacksmith drew his Hyrkanian bow and fired 2 arrows, piercing one of the guards twice. Cuana rushed towards the armed men, hoping to reach them before any alarm could be called out. The Cimmerian was not quick enough as the wounded guard cried out for all to hear as he frothed with a fighting madness and thrust his spear at the barbarian, who turned the stick to the side with his greatsword. A second guard’s face similarly filled with bloodlust and his spear was driven deep into Cuana. The 2 remaining guards’ thrusts were deftly dodged by the barbarian as Tullweim entered the fray with a leaping charge. But neither of the Aesir’s slashes met flesh as they were parried harmlessly away. The Hyrkanian took aim with his bow and let loose 3 arrows. One went wide of the melee, the other 2 snapped into the same guard Xacksmith had wounded before and the Wadai fell to his knees with a strangled cry. Cuana opened up a guard’s gullet with a vicious swipe, cleaved into another with a tremendous blow to the Wadai’s side, left the wounded guard for dead, and moved with murderous intent towards the last standing foe. The frenzied guard impaled his spear into the Cimmerian’s shoulder as he approached, but Cuana would not be stopped as he brought his blade down, splitting the Wadai’s head like a ripe melon. The only living guard tried to crawl away, leaving a trail of scarlet on the gazebo’s floor, and before the shuddering women who looked on in terror, the Cimmerian thrust his sword into the prone Wadai man’s neck.
The adventurers ignored the quivering women and made their way up the stairs near the gazebo. As they reached a set of double doors, the passage was opened from within and 6 Wadai men stood with their spears trained at the partys’ chests. Cuana and Tullweim leveled their swords at the men, but Xacksmith stopped them as he shouted into the room in the Ghanatan tongue. The Hyrkanian insisted his men be given an audience with High Chief Haza lest more unnecessary bloodshed take place. The guests in the room muttered nervously as their cups had been filled many times that day and they doubted the guards in the room could stop the fearsome warriors outside from entering. A Zamoran man stepped forward and questioned why the intruders should not simply be slain where they stood. Xacksmith told the outlander to still his tongue as the words he had were not to be wasted on the likes of him, and he would only answer to the most esteemed High Chief.
The Zamoran was about to shout for the guards to murder the flippant Hyrkanian when Haza stood up and said the men could enter and say their piece should they sheathe their weapons and give their word no attack was forthcoming. Xacksmith agreed, told his sword brothers to put their weapons away, then boldly strode into the chamber. Cuana and Tullweim did not understand the exchange between the Hyrkanian and the men inside the chamber, but trusting Xacksmith they returned their weapons to their sides and entered. The guards relaxed their spears but all 10 Wadai warriors in the room flanked the 3 men who had gained an audience with their High Chief in a manner no other had ever attempted. Haza insisted the adventurers state plainly why they had disturbed his evening meal. Xacksmith spoke of their quest to recover a sacred relic which had been stolen by Kophethu, whom they believed worked for the High Chief. Haza turned to the Zamoran and told the man called Quaridan to answer Xacksmith, which the Zamoran grudgingly did.
Quaridan shared with the party the tale of a caravan headed to Bzambei from the north which did, indeed, have Kophethu attached to it, but recent reports indicated the caravan was raided by rebellious Wadai warriors seeking to overthrow the High Chief, and all members of the caravan were either slain or taken to Garundi, to the west. ‘Two days past,’ Quaridan explained, ‘rebellious Wadai messengers from Garundi came with their threats. They told us that the survivors of their raid would only be released in exchange for Wadai slaves held in Aurik. His most divine High Chief was unconcerned by the loss of this caravan or the idle threats of upstarts, of course, thus he had the rebel messengers subdued and sent to the prison tower.’ Xacksmith turned to the throne and asked his most austere highness, The High Chief, if they could be taken to question the prisoners about the relic they sought. Haza said that could wait until later, and the adventurers looked as if they were famished and their many wounds in need of attention. The High Chief called an end to the court and asked the party to join him for dinner in another chamber. Quaridan scowled but relented to Haza’s words. Xacksmith accepted the invitation and followed the High Chief and his bodyguards out of the room.
As they walked, Haza asked what the relic taken from them was. Xacksmith explained it was a scepter from a fallen king. The High Chief wanted to know more about this scepter, and why it seemed so important for these men of battle to have braved so much to retrieve it. The Hyrkanian explained they had traveled from Zabhela to win the relic and would travel to hell if required to get it. Xacksmith then requested they be allowed to speak to the prisoners before dining. Haza nodded in agreement and they were led to the prison tower, a squat, solid affair with no windows and only once entrance. Up 3 floors the adventurers traveled, seeing many cells with political rivals, would-be assassins, and some men whose reason for incarceration had been forgotten. When they arrived to the third floor, a guard who wore a key which hung from a string round his neck unlocked the door and allowed the party to enter.
3 battered and beaten Wadai men looked up apprehensively as Xacksmith walked into the room with authority and demanded to know who the mens’ leader was. An older man stood up and said it was he who had led the Wadai messengers into the Red Citadel to give the rebels’ charge to Haza. The Hyrkanian asked the man’s name and the Wadai responded that he was called Runhab. Xacksmith ordered Runhab to tell of the raid on High Chief Haza’s caravan and the Wadai refused to speak. The borderer motioned to his 2 large companions and threatened that the prisoners would not see another day if they refused to give up the information required, the Hyrkanian followed the statement up with a whispered promise that he would speak with Haza and get better food and bedding brought to the prisoners, as well as have their wounds looked after. Runhab looked defiant still, but he softened his tone upon reflection of the other men imprisoned with him. Then the Wadai messenger told his tale.
He spoke of his leader, the chieftain Kulbahath, and how they were but a handful of warriors a few weeks ago, standing against Quaridan’s slavers. They raided a caravan from the north and took many foreigners hostage. Among the foreigners they found a beautiful scepter, cast of silver and gold. It called to the chieftain, and when Kulbahath picked it up, he said it spoke to him, and told him what must be done. He began to journey from village to village, tribe to tribe, telling the Wadai that Quaridan’s hold over their High Chief and his slaving raids must end. He called upon all able warriors to gather at Garundi, the Wadai holy place, to create an army to wipe the influence of the white man from Wadai lands. The elders of the community urged peaceful solutions first, and so Kulbahath bade Runhab go to Bzambei and offer the release of prisoners in exchange for the cessation of Scarlet Hand raids. The High Chief, under advice from Quaridan, locked them away as traitors and usurpers.
Satisfied, Xacksmith thanked Runhab for the information and stepped out of the cell. The adventurers walked with High Chief Haza and his bodyguards to the royal dining hall. Women waited with prepared foods and jugs of wine. After pleasantries were exchanged between the party and the High Chief, Haza offered the men-at-arms a large chest of ancient gold coins if they would seek out the Wadai rebels and retrieve the scepter for him. When Xacksmith stated he knew a cabal called the Scarlet Hand was involved and wondered if the Chief knew of it. Haza explained that he had also heard tales of the Scarlet Hand, and was sure they were very dangerous, but said beyond tall tales, he knew nothing of the hidden cult. When the Hyrkanian then asked why the High Chief wanted the scepter, Haza replied that he believed the scepter held power, possibly enough to throw down the rebels and destroy the Scarlet Hand forever. Xacksmith agreed to the High Chief’s offer, but only if Haza would see that the Wadai prisoners were fed and healers sent to soothe their aches. The High Chief was incredulous at first, but with the thought of willing agents acquiring a sacred relic at the table, relented to the Hyrkanian’s request.