Cuana Chapter 13 Entry 2
We didn’t have long to wait back at the dockside tavern before Tullweim returned with news that Artelios’ wife had hired us to rescue their daughter. That fanned my fury at Artelios even more – that his wife would have to seek our aid, and by the way the Nordheimer told it, without her husband’s knowledge, just disgusted me. The Aesir rousted us, bringing my thoughts around to more relevant matters. We quickly finished our drinks and followed him outside.
He immediately began heading in the direction of the shanty, urging us to follow. Falling in step with him, the the Aesir told us that we were to seek an old man named Eshiba who dwelt among the hovels in the poor section of the city. Apparently he had knowledge of these cultists that could be of use to us.
We arrived at the section of the city where the Nordheimer was told we could find Eshiba. The entire area was pathetically poor and run-down. Several people were milling about, so the Nemedian approached a couple of them, asking after the one called Eshiba. At first he received naught but wide-eyed stares, those questioned backing away from him. After further pleading our case, he was told that the one we sought had left the area only a week or so ago and gone to a small farming town called Shemanza after his home was raided. After learning Shemanza’s location, we immediately began making the trip afoot.
It took but a few short hours following the coast to arrive at the village. I saw herd animals grazing in open fields, but saw nobody tending them. The village itself was quiet – few people were about, and those that were had a furtive look about them, casting glances this way and that over their shoulders. A tall pole stood in the village center, the body of a slave-cultist hanging dead upon it, a rope about his neck, naked but for his green arm band. Skulls were piled at the base of the pole, whether adornments or remains of previous victims, I knew not.
We were approached by an old man, gaunt yet obviously hale, with keen eyes and the black skin of his face painted white. The Nemedian addressed him, introducing us and asking after Eshiba, explaining that we were sent to seek his aid by the wife of Artelios. As I suspected, he acknowledged that he was indeed Eshiba, and that he desired vengeance upon those in the cult of Jullah that he used to serve. At his suggestion, we assented to participate in a ritual meant to aid us in our quest.
Fires were lit as the old man intoned his mummery in the tongue of the Kushite mystic. Drawing designs upon our faces as he chanted, he handed each of us, in turn, a piece of bone which we were to keep upon our person, telling us that we could wear it however we pleased so long as it remained visible. I glanced to the Hyrkanian, but he nodded at me to allay my misgivings, understanding my mistrust of sorcery. I tucked the bone the old man handed me behind my belt so that both the top and bottom were exposed.
Once finished with the ceremony, we traveled south, Eshiba joining us. We hadn’t gone very far – only an hour or so at most – when we became aware of something trailing us. I say trailing, but stalking is more like it. A deep-throated growl on the edge of hearing in one direction, a hint of musk on the breeze from behind, bushes along the trail moving against the wind. Something was after us, and when we rounded a bend in the path, we came face to face with the hunters. Panthers – three of them. One in the road, one off to the right, frozen in place as it was emerging from the foliage, and another on an overhanging branch several paces further up the path. We all drew our weapons, expecting to have to fight the beasts to gain passage through the forest, but Eshiba raised his hand and spoke, and the beasts listened. Their ears perked up, no longer flattened against their heads. Their tails lashed about, furiously at first, but eventually calming. The panther on the tree limb disappeared, springing deeper into the foliage, as did the one by the trails edge. The panther that stood before us locked eyes for a moment with the old man, but as Eshiba spoke another word, the beast’s tail dropped between it’s legs, it relaxed it’s stance, and slowly padded away into the bush, sparing us one last glance as it disappeared into the forest.
The dark of night had settled in, and the path we walked was following the coastline along a sheer drop to the rocky shore below. When we arrived at a point where the cliff extended outward to a point, Eshiba halted us and began to examine some markings made upon a large boulder. Speaking above the distant roar of the surf crashing against the rocks below, he told us that this was the place we sought, and quickly led us to a previously unseen set of steps that were carved into the face of the cliff. We descended carefully, buffeted by strong gusts of wind, for nearly two hundred feet until we reached a cave entrance that was carved from the rock into the visage of a giant ape, it’s fanged maw gaping wide open.
Entering the hideous cave, we could see a closed door at the back of the chamber. The Kushite motioned us to hold our positions, and pulled a hidden lever set into the wall. The door opened, revealing a passageway carved into the naked rock of the cliff. Motioning us to follow, Eshiba passed through the doorway and into the passage.
We followed the old Kushite until the passageway opened up into a circular chamber. Fashioned from a large cavern, the room had a circular pit of indeterminable depth in the center. Kushites – more of those damned slave-cultists – were operating levers of some large apparatus that was lowering barrels down into the pit. I could hear voices coming from the pit – anxious, frightened voices. As I began to draw my greatsword from its sheath, the Nordheimer stayed my hand and nodded toward the far end of the chamber. Following his gaze, I understood his meaning. At the far end of this chamber, in front of a closed door, stood a gigantic, white ape. I nodded at my friend and smiled. As i drew my blade, he did the same. I looked at Tullweim, and nodded my head to the right, telling him as I have so many times before, ‘you go that way’. His response was the same as always – a brief nod of understanding and a smile. We would attempt to fight everything in our path and meet somewhere in the middle. Tullweim ran to the right, I ran to the left.
I was almost upon the slaves working the levers before they saw me. Two were dead before they could raise their voices in alarm. Two more moved to attack me, but I sliced the first open from throat to groin, then caught the second with a glancing backhand. The poor bastard only had his fists to fight with, but he caught me upside my head with a well-placed punch. I swung my sword in a low, sweeping arc, liberating his intestines from his body. Others were moving in on me, but the sound of the crunch of armor and a cry of pain pulled my attention to Tullweim. Blood spayed in a shower of droplets from the Aesir’s mouth as his head recoiled from a terrible blow from the monsterous ape. Catching the beast with a viscous backhand, my nordic friend tore a bloody gash across the monster’s chest. The Hyrkanian and the Nemedian were finishing off the remaining three slaves, so I ran to the pit and grabbed the rope to prevent the barrels on the lift from plummeting down into the cluster of captives in the pit below. It took all the strength I had to just hold it in place – I knew that I couldn’t lower it by myself, so I called out to Eshiba for help. The elderly Kushite grabbed the rope, but even though his added strength helped, the weight of the load felt as though it was still too much for us. The muscles in my arms felt as if they were on the verge of tearing, and the joints in my elbows and shoulders felt on the verge of dislocation. Agony played on the face of the old man as together we tried to bear the weight of the crates and barrels stacked upon the lift. A cry from the Aesir pulled my attention away for a second – the beast had my old friend grappled in it’s massive embrace, pain plainly visible on his face as his ribs bent under the creature’s massive strength. In my moment of distraction I lost my grip on the rope, and the lift crashed down amid the prisoners clustered at the bottom of the pit.
Drawing my sword as I ran, I swung at the giant white ape as soon as I was within reach – once, then twice – scoring bloody gashes across it’s hide with each strike. As it turned it’s head to me, baring it’s teeth in an angry snarl, Tullweim managed to stuff his dagger into it;s heart while it still had him pinned. The beast crumpled into a heap on the floor of the cavern, the Nordheimer breaking free of it’s grasp as it fell.
As we turned out attention back to the pit, we saw Ambrose levitate the rope that had fallen when I lost hold of it. Grasping the rope and feeding it back into the pulley fixture, the Nemedian called us over to aid in hauling the prisoners up and out of the pit. We were looking for Artelios’ daughter, but after several groups of prisoners had been freed of the pit, we learned that she was not among them. Eshiba had found kin among the prisoners – a grand daughter I presumed by her youth – and he broke his reverie by telling us that the cultists must be in the process of performing their infernal rite, and that the one we sought must be the sacrifice. The obvious way was through the door that stood a the far end of the chamber, but before we could so much as draw our weapons, the old man reached into a sack he carried and produced something that looked like a snarling ape’s head made of iron. Handing it to Ambrose, he said that it must be hurled through the open portal to Jullah’s realm, and that the ceremony must be in progress – that there wasn’t a moment to lose.
We raced across the chamber to the door where the giant white ape had been positioned. Throwing the portal open, we entered into a well-lit passage, roughly ten feet wide. Hurrying down the passage, we emerged into a large, oblong chamber, similar in shape to a pine coffin, with two rows of pillars down the center and skulls lying about. A huge white ape, similar to the other one, met us as we advanced. Roaring defiance and baring it’s fangs, the creature spread wide it’s massive arms. I charged the monster, leaping to the attack I struck it twice with my greatsword. Ignoring the tremendous gashes I carved into it’s hide, it backhanded me with a force tht nearly knocked me from my feet. The Nemedian tried to circle around the creature, but got raked across the chest by the ape’s massive claws. Xacksmith nailed it with his bow, sinking two shafts into it’s side all the way to the fletchings, but still the monster stood it’s ground. I hit it with my greatsword twice, both wounds gushing blood that spilled down onto the floor of the chamber, but the beast only roared defiance and swung it’s massive arms at me. It missed once, but hit me with it’s other claw, sending me staggering. That was actually a blessing, for it knocked me out of range of the creature’s bite, it’s massive yellow fangs closing on empty air, right where my throat had been only a second prior. As I was twisting away from it’s grasp, Tullweim moved in, catching it once across the belly, and as it reared back he caught it again, burying his blade straight through the fiend’s throat. The hideous primate crumpled in a heap, a wet, gurgling sound issuing from it’s throat as it’s last breath escaped it’s body. Nothing now stood between us and the closed door at the far end of the chamber.
Anyone who makes their living by the sword learns what it is like to kill. It is difficult to explain, and I am not a man of many words. Sure, I can sit by the fire or at some seedy old bar and tell these tales of my adventures, but capturing the emotion – the true feeling that overtakes me as my sword sings death to those before me – is beyond my ability to tell. Do I ever think of my enemies as husbands or fathers, as people with families, hopes, and dreams like I have? No, I do not. Not while I am fighting. I think only of one thing – that death awaits me at the point of every sword or dagger, from any and every weapon raised against me. And I refuse to let death claim me – she has come close to claiming me many times already, but by the grace of Crom I am strong, and I prevail. When I must kill I do it, simply because I am strong enough to do so, and it must be done. Here, in the room on the other side of the door, was one of those times when I killed, and kept killing, because it was what must be done.
The room was full of priests and warriors. At the far end of the chamber was an altar, the daughter of Atelios stretched out upon it. Above the altar was a circle of black – it appeared to be a portal of sorts, with three long tentacles, hairy, with an eyeball at its end reaching through the portal. I didn’t need to see anything more. I attacked.
I entered the room, swinging my greatsword with all my might. One, two, three fell before me. I didn’t stop – the bloodlust of my race, my people, took control. Four, five, six – more and more died as I waded into the chamber. I heard shouting, from both the Kushites and from my friends, but I heeded them not. I was killing, and I was killing more and more – eight, nine – they fell before me and I never waited for more to take their place. Instead I kept moving forward, slashing, stabbing, and cutting my way through the room any way I could. Eleven, twelve – these demon-worshiping dogs bled like stuck pigs. Thirteen I had killed, and I swung at another, scoring a terrible gash along his side, but the bastard must have been favored by his demon-god, for he still stood. The others were pouring into the room, the portal looked like it was shrinking, the tentacles still hovered and groped about the room. Ambrose attempted to hurl the iron skull given to him by Eshiba through the portal, but a tentacle quickly moved to block it. The savage that was facing me missed in his attempt to parry, so I cut him down along with two more of the warriors before I joined the Aesir in hacking at the tentacles still reaching out from beyond. Suddenly, at a word from Ambrose, the iron skull flew straight through the portal, causing it to slam shut. The remaining tentacles in the room immediately turned into gelatinous goo, splattering onto the floor, the Aesir, and the helpless girl.
Outside again, we spoke for while with the old Kushite. He said that he would remain and rebuild the cult of Jullah – to try to restore it to it’s original station of honor. We agreed to take all the prisoners back to the Zabhela and reunite them with their families. I had the pleasure of seeing Artelios genuinely shocked at the return of his daughter, and the whole town showed their gratitude by hosting a massive feast for us.
I drank, and I ate. Then I drank some more.