Conan: Blades of Shadizar

Session II: Unwilling Glory
From the writings of Menelaus of Koth

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In the time when Strabonus ruled Koth, and sought to extend his hand across the principalities along the eastern border of that realm, the savage desert tribes of Shem rose up in defiance of that king. It had amused the cruel king to prey upon the divergent tribes to the south of Koth, and those who wished his favor followed his example. In the midst of this injustice arose my Lord Andronicus.

From Khoraja he rode, on camel-back, accompanied by his lady, Maya. My lord was unmoved by the monuments to the deeds of other men which he passed as he took to the sands on his way to Nippr. His lady, Maya, had told him that the tents of her people were likely to be gathered around that Shemite city for the great festival of Derketo which was held there every year. Heeding her counsel, my lord made haste across the sands, reaching that city in haste. Finding the tents of her father, Maya was reunited with her blood.

The ways of the desert barbarians of Shem are strange. Know that they look down upon the civilized men of the cities, thinking them men of no honor and undeserving of respect. My lord, knowing this, was quick to take offense the the sheikh offered him reward for the rescue of his daughter. While not yet an expert in their ways, my lord gambled that this was an insult among them. He allowed his temper to flare, storming out of the tent with murder in his eyes. The sheikh followed my lord, shouting apologies, declaring my lord to be an honourable and valiant man, and beseeching my lord to forgive and accept the hospitality of his tent. My lord allowed himself to be prevailed upon. Such was his cunning, even then!

Once my lord has allowed his rage to me mollified, he allowed the sheikh to draw out the purpose of his visit. My lord spoke passionately of the wrongs Strabonus had inflicted upon the Sons of Shem and the opportunity for justice and vengeance which lay before them. His words pleased the sheikh, who readily agreed to join in such an undertaking and influence others to join, but for a price.

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The price the sheikh sought for his participation and support was marriage. “Take my daughter, Maya, to wife.” said the sheikh. “This shall bind us, and as my son, you shall have my full support and carry more weight among the tribes.” Though my lord was young, and had not begun to consider such entanglements, his word to Princess Yasmela of Koth had bound him to the success of this undertaking. Moreover, his sentiments were not in opposition to such a union. With all solemnity, my lord agreed and took Maya to wife in the tents of her father’s people in the shadow of the walls of Nippr. The union was blessed by Derketo and witnessed by the gathered sheikhs. Lady Maya’s father, it must be said, was wise in the ways of politics among the tribes. With the wedding as an excuse to gather the other sheikhs, he took the opportunity to lay the foundation for my lord’s undertaking. This done, my lord convinced the sheikhs individually and with some ease.

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Within days, there was a movement of the warriors of the desert tribes such as has not been seen in living memory, before or since! They moved swiftly, avoiding the cities of the meadow Shemites, and made for the pass hard by the city of Khyfa. My lord listened when the sheikhs spoke, and when he spoke he offered advice with humility. In so doing, he rose in their esteem each day. By the time they had reached Khyfa, the sheikhs had chosen my Lord Andronicus to speak with the voice of them all to that mountain city’s king. My lord more than put Khyfa’s king at ease, he convinced the king to add a number of his asshuri to the gathered forces. The city maintained a Kothian population, and their blood ran in the veins of the king’s daughter and heir. There was a faction within the city which wished to see the absorption of the realm into the kingdom of Koth. Chief within this faction was the high priest of Mitra! The high priest was in secret communication with the commander of the spahi garrison on the Kothian side of the pass, and had entered into a plot to place the princess upon the throne as the prelude to absorption into Koth.

Lord Andronicus was wily and, suspecting treachery, had men and hawks placed further up the pass to intercept any message sent north from the city. This precaution would bear fruit, when a rider was intercepted and killed bearing a message from the high priest to the spahi commander detailing the numbers and intentions of the nomad host. This message would later form part of the evidence which would seal the fates of the high priest and his daughter.

The night before proceeding through the pass, my lord found the princess of Khyfa in his tent. Her step-mother, a Zamorian, was keen to force the princess upon my lord. My lord, who had never been anything but forthcoming about his origins as a thief in Khorshemish, contended that a bootless adventurer was no proper match for a princess and heiress. The princess, for her part, confessed that she was a mere pawn and begged to be allowed to accompany my lord into Koth. This was, she said, for her own safety as well as that of the city of Khyfa and the king, her father. Though my lord did not know that her apprehensions were well-founded, he consented upon her promise to prepare a letter to inform her father.

When the host rode forth, my lord rode with the advance scouts. Soon enough, they located an advance force of two hundred Kothic spahis. These men, led by the commander of the garrison on the Kothic side of the pass were searching for the rider who had been intercepted on my lord’s orders. The high priest of Mitra in Khyfa had sent a message when the nomads were first sighted by his most trusted messenger, his daughter. He had promised details of the nomad host and their plans by a messenger, and that messenger was overdue.

My lord had no wish to allow his bold venture to fail before its birth, and hatched a cunning plan to undo the priest’s treachery. At night, while spahis were encamped, and distracted by their pursuit of dubious pleasures, my lord gathered together a small party from the gathered host. Twenty of the sons of Shem were chosen for their courage and facility to move without sound. Brave they were perforce, as none but the most bold would set forth as one and twenty against five score with any hope of survival! Yet set forth they did! And under the cloak of darkness they entered the encampment of their foes. My lord, ever mindful of the safety of those who placed their lives in his charge, placed an after-guard of six men in a place where the terrain was perfect for ambush. Should aught go awry, my lord intended that the men following him should retreat by this path. Six men with Shemite bows could, in such a place, make the way impassible to pursuing foes. My lord, however, had no intention of taking such an option for himself. In the event of disaster, he intended to sell his life dearly to gain time for the retreat of the others. May Mitra be thanked that this did not prove necessary!

The bold party moved forward without a sound, and the sentries were dealt with quickly. The party fanned out throughout the camp and my lord slipped silently into the great pavillion tent at the center. Within, my lord found the commander of the spahis with a surprising companion…none other than the daughter of the high priest! Sent by her father to inform them of the gathered host, she was returning home escorted by the overconfident spahis. My lord confronted the commander, and at the first clash of steel his small party moved to the attack. The spahis were taken entirely by surprise and were unprepared for the fury of the attack. Upon felling the enemy commander, my lord sounded the horn which had brought for this purpose, signalling the body of the Shemite host to pour in to finish the job. The spahis never had a chance.

One member of the party in particular, a Shemite known as Azrael, showed particular valour in this engagement and was noted for it by my lord. My lord, in recognition of that valour, chose Azrael to ride with him the next day with a party to be arrayed as the Spahis only just slain. So arrayed, the party would gain entry into the border fortress on the Kothian side of the pass and hold the gates until the main body of the horsemen arrived. Azrael proved worthy of my lord’s trust, again distinguishing himself for valour and being richly rewarded in plunder. By day’s end, the town and fortress had fallen.

It was discovered by my lord that the king of Koth had appointed Kothian governor to rule Khyfa once it had fallen through the high priest’s treachery. A document to that effect, signed in the king’s own hand, was found among the possessions of the newly appointed governor and was promptly sent to the king of Khyfa along with the governor’s head and the captive daughter of the high priest. The governor’s daughter, a maiden of beauty and purity, was found hidden in the treasury and taken by my lord into his own care for her better protection. Proofs offered in the form of the document, the governor’s head, and the high priest’s daughter, were sent back in the charge of the princess of that city, escorted by a party of asshuri. In so doing, my lord reasoned that her father’s throne might be preserved and the princess’ own position would be strengthened in the process.

Thus did my lord reenter the kingdom of Koth. Knowing that the best way to control the independent desert nomads was to not control them, he gathered the sheiks together in conference. I was decided that each sheik would lead his warriors in a different direction, and in that way the sons of the desert would sweep across the kingdom and avenge themselves upon Strabonus. To my lord fell the asshuri of Khyfa and warriors of each tribe.
The young warriors of each tribe vied for the privilege of being given the honor of following my lord into battle. Among those so honored was Azrael, who had proven his valour and worth time and time again.

True in his intent, my lord moved across the land crushing any opposition Strabonus had left in the west. Towns and manors were sacked and chaos spread. In the course of his progress, my lord discovered that there was a fortress in which Strabonus held captive the daughter of one of his nobles. This noble, one of the few men of honor and decency left living in the kingdom ready to stand against the injustices of Strabonus, was rendered powerless while Strabonus held his only child. My lord, to his credit, vowed to liberate the damsel and altered the progress of his host to that end.

Reaching the fortress, the host was arrayed and camp set beyond bowshot. It was at this time that I first met my lord. The lord given charge over this fortress and the prisoner by Strabonus was a fool. He was even more dangerous because he was an arrogant fool. Sadly, I was his herald. I had, in my youth, dreamed of serving a noble lord and chronicling his valiant deeds. I had resigned myself to a fate not in keeping with the dreams of my youth. Upon the arrival of the Shemite host, this castellan ordered me forth carrying threats and insults. I had long ago resolved to hold to the highest standard for heralds, regardless of the qualities of he who I served. Resigned to my fate, I mounted my horse and rode through the gates. The desert Shemites were not known to brook insults lightly.

I was unready for the reception I was to receive. Brought into my lord’s presence, I found myself facing a Kothian rather than a Shemite. Receiving the threats and insults of the castellan, my lord kept his temper in check. Instead of taking my head, my lord offered me refreshment. I received a goblet from my lord’s own hand and marveled at him. Truly this was all that lord should be! his answer was kindly, but brooked no dispute. The castellan had no hope of victory. Were he to surrender his fortress and his charge, he and the garrison would be spared and given safe passage. Were he to resist, the fortress would surely fall, and many lives were sure to be lost to no advantage.

Returning to the fortress, I was not surprised when the man I served refused to even consider the sad position he found himself in. I credit him with finding some remnant of the knightly virtues within himself, even though he discovered it in time for folly. Leading the garrison, he rode forth through the gate. The battle, if it may be called such, was short. Within minutes, the garrison lay dead in the dust and my lord and his host entered the fortress. The few people remaining in the fortress gave no opposition, and the prisoner was liberated.

Finding myself once more before my lord, I knew that fate had placed me here in this moment for a reason. Falling to my knees, I begged leave to serve him. My lord was humble, one of his many graces, and bid me rise.

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Session I: Fortune and Glory
From a letter to Pelagius, Priest of Mitra

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My old friend,

For quite some time now, you have urged me to tell you the tale of how it all began. I have resisted your many entreaties, but your passion for the tale remains unabated. At long last, I shall grant your wish, if only for a few moments of peace!

As you know, I began my life in the kingdom of Koth. I was born in the many-spired city of Khorshemish, called “Queen of the South.” This city of my birth is well known as a city of wonders. The visitor enters through gold-chased gates, and things improve from there until you reach the pinnacle of opulence, the palace itself. The broad, white streets of Khorshemish are surrounded by minareted temples, shops, mansions and markets. Above the splendour of the glittering spires looms the Scarlet Citadel, an ominous structure if ever there was one!

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Yet, in the midst of all this opulence, life was hard for the majority of the tens of thousands who dwell within the walls of Khorshemish. I grew up in neither mansion nor palace, but the gods had blessed me with equal doses of cunning and stubborness. Thankfully, I was not born a slave. The life of such wretches is unbearable, especially for those who serve within the palace of King Strabonus!

That wretch, Strabonus, was a vile man and an even more vile king. I know not if you have heard aught of his reign, as you were not subject to him, but believe me when I tell you that he might as well have been king of Zamora rather than Koth, so vile and debauched was he. The only reason he retained the throne was that his enemies hated each other nearly as much as they hated him! This was, of course, due in no small part to his own efforts. He kept the feuding, grasping nobles at each other’s throats. Strabonus was not afraid to use his armies to crush those nobles who stuck their necks out too far, nor was he afraid to use them in grasping at the territory of neighboring kingdoms.

In my youth in Khoshemish, I was a practitioner of the larcenous arts of no mean skill. My skill might only have been surpassed by my ambition. Of that, I shall leave you to judge for yourself. I felt wasted on cutting purses and the occasional burglary. I sought opportunity for fortune and glory! As I have said, I was ambitious then. When word spread that the king was leaving the palace for an extended period, I knew that my opportunity had arrived!

I stood among the crowd as the royal household marched through the the streets and out the gates of the city. The people of the city had been turned out to cheer the king. This was accomplished by bribes, threats, and brutality. Strabonus was generous in that way. Slipping from the crowd, I headed to the palace. Entering the palace proved far easier than I had expected. While the glittering royal party, troops, and attendants were well on their way out of the city, the less glamourous part of the cortege, the baggage train, was still loading and straggling out of the palace gate. With so many people coming and going, including teamsters and baggage handlers, one more unfamiliar face easily went unnoticed. Entering through the gates amid the hustle and the bustle, I followed some of the baggage handlers through a door and into some underground storerooms.

This passage soon led to the areas used by the palace’s servants. Storerooms gave way to the kitchens, where the remaining servants (as well as teamsters and baggage handlers) stopped in to slake their thirsts and take a brief repast to stave off hunger as time allowed. As I entered, I heard a raised voice. A cruel looking servant, a former soldier now in a position of power below-stairs by the look of him, was berating a young scullery maid for some misdeed. The misdeed, I had no doubt, was imagined. I had seen his type before: petty tyrants drunk on their small serving of power taking every opportunity to revel in their ability to abuse those with no power at all. Still berating the hapless girl, he led her away for what he called punishment.

His clothes were finer than those of the servants, yet in poor taste, as if he was aping the fashions of his betters. The curved sword he wore at his side gave proof of the man’s days as a soldier, a memory he obviously clung to desperately. Even clearer in my memory are the whip the man carried and his cold, cruel eyes. This was a man the servants feared…a man who caused pain and suffering. I cannot honestly tell you what I was thinking when I made the choice to do so, but I followed him as he led the maid off. Down dark corridors I followed them, the girl’s sobs echoing as we went. Leading her into a remote storeroom, it was clear what he intended. I watched his lip curl into a cruel smile as ignored the girl’s frantic pleas for mercy and removed her dress, turned her about, shoved her forward in a manner which forced her to cling to the stacked grain sacks for balance, and readied his whip.

Acting with the impulsiveness of youth, I sprang into action. The fool had not even known that I was there watching, and so made no effort to avoid the cudgel which struck the back of his head. He went down and did not move. At this point, my holy friend, I should take time to remind you that I was, in my youth, governed by passions. I say this with no shame, only to warn you. Mitra, unlike the gods of the land of my birth, seems very judgmental in such matters and I have no wish to shock your sensibilities now that you have been in the temple for so long! Apologies…you know that I cannot resist poking fun at those dear to my heart. In truth, though, I often wonder if you will forget what life is like outside holy precincts! The warning now delivered, I must admit that I found the quivering flesh before me quite irresistible! It was some time before she needed to recover her dress and I continued towards my goal.

As we lay there, panting in the afterglow, I noticed that the miserable excuse for a man who had dragged the girl into this storeroom wore a sizable set of keys upon his belt. Thinking that they would be useful, I took them along with the man’s purse, sword, and whip. Little did I know that I would get very little use out of any of those items!

I moved in silence, keeping to the shadows. I knew nothing of the layout of the palace, though I would have known before entering…had I been older and wiser. I was young and confident on my ability to improvise. Eventually I entered the palace proper. Packing was still ongoing, and there were many people moving about. As I slipped among the working servitors, unremarked, it occurred to me that a tower would be the most likely spot to begin my search for riches. It did not occur to me that I might be beyond my experience or knowledge, and I plunged headlong into the venture. The marble walls of the tower I entered were covered in jewels. I knew that surely great wealth must await! What a young fool I was then!

The way up was steep and slippery, and I could discern no chambers, simply a way up. Upon reaching the top, I found a portal sealed by no ordinary lock. It was decorated with a jumble of letters, but their order was nonsensical. I knew then that I had to be looking upon a puzzle lock. I moved the letters around in my mind’s eye, over and over again until it became clear that this was some sort of prayer to Ishtar…and a warning! I was certain then that I had been right, and that fabulous wealth must wait within! Without a hint of trepidation, I moved the letters into the correct order and the portal opened!

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As my eyes adjusted to the gloom of the chamber beyond, I saw the one thing I most certainly did not expect: a woman. A woman, I might add, of unearthly beauty. Her hair was the colour of flame, and her skin that of alabaster…and not a bit of it was hidden. My gut told me that this was totally wrong…this was no human woman before me. I turned to flee…but I didn’t. Her smouldering eyes bore into my soul and I found myself moving forward into the chamber even as my mind screamed for me to flee.

I know what question hangs on your lips. How did I escape? The horrible truth of it, my friend, is that I did not. Well…not at first. The power of the demoness was far beyond a poor boy’s ability to resist. I know not how long she held me there in thrall…using me. I cannot begin to describe the pleasures and the terrors she subjected me to. Whenever my mind cleared enough for it, I made what attempt to escape I could. She saw through every trick, and my mind was not strong enough to break the power she held over me for quite some time. It might have been days…it might have been weeks…to this day I cannot swear to the length of time she held me in thrall. In my heart I knew that I must deny her the fullness of what she sought in order that I might survive. Survival and escape were my sole thoughts when my mind cleared enough to permit thought of any kind beyond base passion and desire.

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Endless hours were spent, our bodies entwined in the throes of passion. I know not how I survived. I had begun to fear that there would be no escape and that I would die here in this chamber or become something other than human. As we lay on the floor, exhausted, through half closed eyes I noticed a large symbol painted upon the floor surrounding us. I knew a little of the ways of the arcane, any good thief did. Without that knowledge, a thief would walk straight into doom without any warning. While this knowledge did not prevent my predicament, it did point the way out!

I feigned sleep. I cannot be sure, but I think I had tried this ploy at least once before. She saw through it then, but she did not this time! Taking the opportunity while it was ripe, I rolled beyond the edge of the symbol and was on my feet in a flash! It was then that I noticed that to which I had hitherto been blind: the bodies. All around the periphery of the room, scattered like so many broken toys cast aside, lay the dessicated corpses of men. I have no doubt that these were my brothers in Bel who had been as foolish and covetous as I. Lightheaded, I had no time to pause for the demoness called to me. Her call filled my head and stirred my blood. I know not what deity granted me the strength to stumble from the chamber, but stumble I did. Behind me, the portal sealed itself, the letters of the lock once more scrambled. in my mind, I could still hear her calling me… screaming… demanding… begging for my return. I shall tell you a truth, old friend. My captivity would forever leave a mark upon me. Unto this very day, I still have the occasional night where she haunts my dreams.

This was not the only mark the she demon had left upon me. The other I was to face immediately. You yourself have remarked, since we first met upon the roads, upon the inexplicable effect I have upon the fairer sex. You called it a blessing, I recall. Do you recollect my response? I told you that it was a curse. We both laughed at the time, but know now the truth of my words.

In my struggle to survive, I had somehow managed the impossible and denied the she demon my essence. It should not have been possible, beset as I was by such ecstasies. Perhaps one of the gods took pity on me and lent me aid. Far more likely, I think, is the chance that one of them used me as the instrument of some malicious joke. Perhaps the she demon and myself were both mere fodder for a godly comedy. You are knowledgeable in the ways of the gods than I, so I shall leave such musings to you. Regardless of how it came to pass, it remains true that I had exercised this denial for I know not how long. Added to this, there is that which I have called a curse. I know not if your books have related this to you, but I can tell you from first hand experience that there is something in the she demon which acts as an aphrodisiac upon mortal man. It may be some sort of aura, or perhaps something their demonic bodies excrete. I know not for certain the mechanism. I cannot even tell you all that occurred in the time I spent in her thrall. There are only flashes… glimpses… fragments… and the nightmares.

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Having escaped the she demon’s clutches, I found myself beyond the sealed portal naked, without a single possession, and with no thought but for relief. I suppose I was not yet really free. I wandered, still out of my mind, down the treacherous passage towards the exit of the tower. There were chambers along this passage which had been invisible to me when I had fist gone up…no doubt veiled by the she demon’s powers. The chambers were, for the most part, deserted due, as I would later learn, to the evil reputation of the tower. It was because of this general avoidance of the tower that two of the palace slave girls had had chosen to hide themselves in avoidance of work. The sound of their giggling drew me to the room, and I was nearly upon them before they noticed I was there. It was then that I first saw evidence of what you would later call a blessing. By all rights they should have screamed. The surprise appearance of a naked stranger in such a state would certainly merit a scream. Yet, no scream was forthcoming. Instead, they were drawn to me and the passion that followed. I had nearly exhausted them both, still with no relief, when the voice of another woman called to them. The sound came nearer, the voice chastising. I moved back into the shadows as the woman entered. She was still berating the girls when I emerged from the shadows. My curse worked its powers once more, yet I left the chamber unsated. The same occurred with two more slaves I encountered after I had wandered from the tower and a priestess of Ishtar who happened upon us. I was sure that Ishtar had sent her as a mercy to free me of this madness, but it was no such matter.

Still all but bewitched and desperate for peace, I wandered through the palace. Reaching another tower, I spied a slave bearing a tray of food approaching a sealed door. She paused, and opened a slot in the bottom of the door. A tray bearing empty bowls was pushed out of the opening, and the new tray was slid into it. I was intrigued, but I was driven by more pressing purpose. Across the hallway from what I now knew was a cell, there was another chamber, door slightly ajar. Voices drifted forth, the cruel arrogant tones of one of Strabonus’ noble lickspittles and the girl he sought to abuse. My blood boiled, rage overwhelming my need for relief. Slipping through the door with purpose, I struck with my bare fists… I struck and struck again. The swine fell and did not move. What now, gentle priest? I remember when you were not so gentle, but quick of temper…as well as blade and fist! But stay your words… I know the question which rises to your lips! No… the perfumed swine was not dead. I never thought that you would become so squeamish! Or is it that you hold me in such high regard? Well no matter… I shall return to my tale.

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The noble swine fell to the floor, unconscious, and then I saw her… a daughter of the desert Shemites. Dark of hair, with dark eyes flashing with an inner fire still unbroken by enslavement in the palace. She wore naught but the golden slave collar around her neck. Maya’s supple form called to me, but no less than the spirit in her bright eyes. Perhaps my newly acquired curse had something to do with the invitation in her eyes, but there was something more. Stop, you old gossip! You read her name and I can already hear your demand for more. I promised you one tale, do not think you will obtain another into the bargain! She fell into my arms, and her lips were ambrosia. Lifting her, I carried her to to the sumptuous bed, laying her gently upon it. Our bodies entwined in passion. I lost track of time within her arms, pleasure being followed with mounting pleasure until, in the denouement, the gods granted me release. As we lay panting, bodies glistening with perspiration well earned in our exertions, Maya gently cradled my head to her bosom, stroking my hair with affectionate delicacy such that I had never before known. Once again, we tread upon ground best tread in another tale.

When we had recovered ourselves somewhat, we spent some time in conversation. Maya, I learned was born the daughter of a sheikh of the desert Shemites. As a way to gain favour with Strabonus, the noble floor decoration took men to raid the sheikh’s tents while the warrior’s were gone fighting the Zuagir. She had accepted her fate, because he had taken her as spoils of battle. I detected, though, that she held little admiration for a man who raided tents while he knew that the warriors were absent. She held even less admiration for the man once his true nature was know to her. He, no doubt, saw the defiance and slight regard in her eyes, even as she obeyed his every command. You can well imagine how that enraged him.

Rousing ourselves, I dressed in the nobleman’s clothes and and equipped myself with armament. The man, it seemed, collected arms and there was much to choose from. Soon, I was dressed in noble finery, a gold studded leather jerkin for protection, and a jeweled sword and poniard belted upon my waist. I took a fine Shemite bow from the wall and a full quiver of arrows. You will not be surprised to know that I took the man’s purse, full of gold, as my own as well. I paused a moment, uncertain, and told Maya that she was welcome to leave this place with me, but that the choice was hers. In serious tone she explained to me that there was no choice to be made… she belonged to me, taken in combat as her father had gained her mother before her. While her voice was solemn, her dark eyes glittered with amusement. For one of the few times in my life, old friend, I knew not what to say!

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While Maya busied set to packing anything that might prove useful for our journey with the quiet efficiency of her nomadic upbringing, I hefted the senseless noble and carried him out of the chamber and across the passage. Using the jeweled and gilded key I had found in the noble doorstop’s possession, I unlocked the door to the cell. Carrying the unconscious noble within, I deposited him inside the cell without ceremony and looked about me. My eyes beheld the two occupants, one dark of hair, the other fair. Both with perfect porcelain skin. The fair haired Vateesa explained that she and her mistress, the Princess Yasmela of Khoraja had been imprisoned by Strabonus, who was to marry the princess. I would, I was told, be richly rewarded were I to aid them in escaping this place and returning to Khoraja.

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At this moment, the noble doorstop groaned. Without a thought, I beat him back into silence. He must have graced them with his winning personality before, because they both smiled at the bludgeoning! The three of us hurried from the cell and I locked the noble and naked jailer within. I pocketed the key, and turned to find Maya, carrying what supplies she had found in the chamber. She was wearing one of the nobleman’s silk tunics with a belt about her waist with a curved dagger worn upon it. Brief introductions were made as we hurried down the stairs, finding ourselves in a stable area. Finding three horses, the women saddled them while I checked if our way out was clear. In truth, I knew nothing of horses at the time, so this worked out well for me.

As I moved ahead of our party, spotting a Zuagir guarding our path out, I decided to try out the Shemite bow. I did not have high hopes, having never handled suck a weapon before, but I was to be pleasantly surprised! I was a natural, it seemed! I fired a single arrow and dropped the man. Rushing forward, I reached the man as another came into view. I heard hooves behind me as three horses carrying Maya, Vateesa, and Princess Yasmela rushed forward at a gallop. I only had time to take the man’s purse before they were upon me. Maya shouted to me, reaching out her arm, which I took and swung myself up behind her.

We rode out of the yard and past the palace gates before the alarm even rose. A few attempted to pursue us as we flew through the streets of Khorshemish towards the city gates, but the arrows I fired dissuaded them…many of them terminally. I know not how I managed to fire from horseback, bouncing along behind Maya, but each of my arrows hit their targets.

We had traveled no little way upon the trade road leading to Khoraja when it became evident that we were no longer pursued. We were able to pause and allow the horses to rest after their efforts. Maya produced food and wine from her packs, and we all shares some refreshment on the side of the road. It was good to catch my breath and wash away the dust of the road with a bit of wine. I am sure you may laugh when you hear this, having shared travels with me as you have, but that had been my first time on horseback. Had I not spent the ride pressed tight against Maya, my complaints would have been load and never ending. It was terribly uncomfortable and I had no desire to sit while we rested!

After we had shared our repast, we rested there upon the roadside. The women spoke among themselves as I took my bow and kept watch upon the road. The sound of hoof beats upon the rode caught my attention, and I spied a lone rider, his scale armour glittering in the sunlight as he sped along the road. A lone rider travelling in great haste was not seeking us, but certainly carrying word of the princess’ escape to Strabonus, now marching towards Khoraja. Taking careful aim, I fired an arrow at the rider, hitting him as he sped past. Muttering an oath, something to do with Nergal’s bollocks if I remember correctly, I spun around. Nocking arrow, I prayed that Ishtar grant that I have time to fire before the rider was too distant. To my surprise, the Zuagir turned about. Drawing his curved blade, he spurred his horse towards me. I let fly as he charged forward, and he flew from the saddle, landed, and did not move. The horse, bereft of rider, slowed to a stop as it approached me. I looked over at the women and saw Maya’s eyes sparkle in amusement. With a laugh, I commented that we each had a horse now. Then, I proceeded to strip the fallen body of its goods. Taking his bow and quiver, I handed them to Maya who I thought could put them to best use.

We continued on our way in good spirits. Making the best speed we could, we hastened down the road. Though not experienced in the ways of the road, having never set foot outside Khorshemish before that day, I was of a mind to find a likely spot to stop and sleep while we yet had daylight so that we might ride through the night. The night, I hoped, would cloak our passage and enable us to slip by the host of King Strabonus. The idea was agreeable to the rest of the party, and after some hours we stopped at a site prepared by the crown for the use of passing caravans. there was fresh water in plenty and firewood dried and stacked. We watered, hobbled, and unsaddled the horses, prepared a fire for the heating of our repast, and broke our fast. Having used some of the water to wash away the dust of travel and refresh ourselves, we laid ourselves down in a shady spot to rest while daylight yet lingered. With a saddle to support my head and Mayas head resting upon my chest I slept, for the first time, upon the ground outdoors.

I was stirred from my sleep by sound of horses approaching our site at a walk. Opening an eye, I saw a party of horsemen, sellswords by the look of them, approaching on the quiet. Carefully, so as not to disturb her slumber, I slid out from under Maya. Silently, taking up my bow and quiver, I rose to a kneeling position. The horsemen had halted, and one rode forward alone. Approaching our tethered mounts, intent to steal was clear. It was clear that the sellswords had not spied our party. If they had, they would have been upon us pell-mell with lust in their eyes and I would have been quickly put to the sword and the women to other uses. The very fact that they had not spied us had no doubt led to so me caution. The lone sellsword dismounted and made ready to cut out mounts free of their tether. The arrow flew from my bow, flying straight and true, and buried itself in the man’s throat. He fell like a rock, still clutching the reigns of his own steed. Voices in a rough dialect of Aquilonian I had never heard before cried out in surprise, and more than fifty horsemen fled down the road. I approached the fallen man with arrow nocked as the last bloody gurgle left his throat. Taking his horse’s reigns, I calmed the beast and tethered him with the others after seeing him watered. I then set to relieving the dead mercenary of the worldly goods he had no need for anymore.

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When the women awoke, they were surprised by what had occurred while they slumbered. The presence of these horsemen suggested that the host of King Strabonus was much closer than we had all previously thought. We broke camp and set off down the road for several hours before turning off the road and carefully continuing on. Our only hope of avoiding the encamped army during the night was to get off the road. As darkness fell, we dismounted and continued on foot, leading the horses by moonlight.

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We were well into the night when we encountered the fist signs of the army. It began with the faint sound of distant revelry. We stopped in our tracks. Leaving the women with the horses, I proceeded ahead alone and on foot to get a better idea of the extent of the encampment. Creeping forward, I saw the light of the fires. Slipping past the sentries, I walked into the camp and took a look around with a mind towards mischief. I took a flagon from a passing slave and enjoyed the king’s own wine as I moved among the gathered nobles. I was still dressed in the noble jailer’s finery and so looked as though I belonged. Cutting a few purses simply to stay in practice, I set myself to more useful endeavours. I reasoned that there must be maps or documents related to the planning of this endeavour somewhere within the camp. These, I thought, would be of use to those who would resist conquest and earn me a generous reward.

With this in mind, I moved to the center of the camp and sought out only the grandest pavilions. Peeking into one, I spied a wealthy knight despoiling what I thought to be a young squire. The knight had thoughtfully left his purse unattended, so I relieved him of it and continued on. An even grander pavilion lay in my path, but it was guarded. Thinking fast, I told them that the king commanded that they too enjoy the bounty of wine and flesh and that it awaited them in the tent I had just left. As they rushed towards what they thought was their reward, I hurriedly gathered up maps and documents I saw strewn about the large table in the center of this tent and slipped out the back just as I heard angry shouts and cries of pain from the direction of the tent to which I had sent the guards!

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Racing from tent to tent, I ducked into one only to find myself faced with a dazzling array of female flesh! Judging by the number of women, their level of beauty, and the opulence of the furnishings, I had stumbled into Strabonus’ own pleasure tent! Rather than hiding, I entered with a swagger and impatiently demanded that the disobedient one stand forth. They stared at me in confusion, so I told them that the king would have the disobedient wretched lessoned for the amusement of his troops and if they could not produce her I would simply pick one! Convinced that I cared little, one way or the other, they thrust forward a dark eyed Zingaran. Dragging her, protesting, from the tent, I made my way through the maze of tents before shoving her into an unoccupied but luxurious tent.

Before you protest the wicked ways of my youth, know that I admitted to her, then and there, that the pretense had been a fabrication in its entirety. She was delightful bit of fun and found myself and the deception to her liking! I think this was due to her nature, although I admit that my curse may have played no small part. She insisted that she was a naughty and disobedient thing and demanded that i give her the punishment she so richly deserved! You know how much I hate to disappoint a lady!

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Once she was satisfied that she had been given her just desserts, I carefully slipped out of the camp and rejoined my companions. Leading our horses on foot, we mounted once we had cleared the camp. Just as we began to the think that the peril had passed, a party of spahis appeared through the trees. They spotted us as we spotted them and, deciding to brazen it out, I kicked my horse forward towards them at a trot. I shouted to them, commanding their attention with an arrogance I did not really feel. One of their number, their captain by the look of him, rode forth to meet me. With a lazy arrogance, I inquired whether in their journey they had encountered a suitable glade for the despoiling of maidens under the moonlight. Somewhat taken aback, he sheepishly informed me that they had not. I cursed him roundly. I cursed his vitals, I cursed his horse, and I cursed the moon that mocked me. Growling that setting was everything and that the deed was properly done by moonlight, I rode off with the women leaving him sputtering apologies in my wake!

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We rode on through the night and into the following days. We stopped but rarely, and only to rest and water the horses and take what rest we could. We pushed ourselves and our mounts hard and, when we saw the city of Khoraja in the distance, there was a general sense of relief. When we passed through the city gates the adoration of the populace for their princess was evident, and why wouldn’t it be. Had she not been the one, as regent, to defeat the army of the sorcerer Natohk? I was surprised to see that her brother, King Khossus did not share their adulation. Say what she might, he could not seem to comprehend that Strabonus had imprisoned his sister and had never harbored any intention of marrying her. He was deaf to her words and blind to the proofs I had obtained. There were some whose voices were raised in support of Yasmela’s warning, but they only earned the king’s displeasure. My sharp eyes, however noted that there were others who took the princess’ part in silence, knowing that words to the king would be but wasted breath.

As for myself, I was beneath the king’s notice. This was for the best, as I was young and had not yet the patience to suffer fools lightly. Yasmela bade me accompany her to her chambers while Maya was shown to those that were to be mine for my stay. It was there I was to receive the reward which had been promised. Oh no! Don’t be so holy, my friend! I knew you when you had no such qualms! For the record, my reward for her rescue was a purse of one thousand gold coins. Her flesh, however, was freely offered…and accepted! Perhaps it was what you called my blessing, but I rather suspect that Maya had said something of our coupling. This I have related to no one before now. I do it now for friendship. I know you well enough to know that, gossip though you are, you will never breathe a word of it. And the tale can do no harm now. She was a delight, but I tell you that there was not the magic that I knew with Maya. As we lay in the afterglow, a small boy of some eight winters entered the chamber, and it was in such a state that I fist met Prince Armiro! A serious boy, he was, obviously quick of mind and perhaps knowledgeable beyond his years. He had come to wish his mother a good night and to ask for a story. Mirth in her eyes, Yasmela suggested that I tell the little prince a tale. With all the dignity that the sheet covering my loins granted me, I composed a tale to satisfy the young prince. The tale I composed told of a little prince who defeated a brawling bully of a king of Aquilonia using his wits! To this day, it is a tale Armiro remembers with affection, though I sometimes fear that my tales may have contributed to later events.

The prince satisfied, the virtuous Vateesa led him off to his bed. Blonde Vateesa was lovely, and there was something compelling about her obvious virtue. Stop! Another tale for another time! Back to my tale! The little prince led away, Yasmela and I coupled again. In the aftermath, her dark hair cascading across my chest, I related a plan to aid her in resisting Strabonus. I was, at the time, no soldier, and had no knowledge of warfare other than my native wit. It seemed to me, however, that threat to the rear of Strabonus’ army might draw his forces away from Khoraja. It occurred to me that, with attacks upon the desert Shemites like the one which took Maya from her homeland, the desert tribes must crave revenge against Strabonus. If they could be convinced to ride, the heartland of Koth lay open! It was my hope that Maya and I could convince them to rise. Yasmela found merit in the plan, and I bound myself to it. To this day, I am not certain why I chose this course at that time. I was no warrior and I was already beyond any experience which my life had prepared me for thus far. Koth was the land of my birth and, though I had no reason to love Strabonus, it should not have entered into my mind to induce nomads to rampage across the kingdom. The idea was mine alone, as are the credit and blame.

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The weight of the plan I had proposed fell upon me as I made my way to the quarters set aside for me. Lost in thought, I entered, my eyes falling upon the Shemite girl awaiting me. Soon I was at peace, mind and body. On the morrow, we would ride forth on the path I had set for myself and the destiny that awaited me. For that night, none of it mattered.

There, old friend, is your wish fulfilled. Now you know the tale of how it all began, how I found myself passing from the land of my birth and the first steps I took into becoming the man you now know. Perhaps now you will have less reason to pester me about tales of bygone years!

I wish you health and peace in the servant of your god until next we meet

Andronicus

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Chapter II, Session II, Part IV
Danyo's Tale

From the Memoirs of Darius the God Slayer

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As I have already mentioned, he wisely left Ninotchka’s when spiders started bursting out of people’s bodies. Having left the brothel, he found his path beset by the nasty beasts. A thief to the core, he did his best to evade the spiders. He climbed walls and moved by rooftops at times. At one point, while he was climbing, a spider appeared upon the roof his was climbing to. Danyo was in a precarious position. Looking down, he saw another spider below him. He was in no position to evade either of them and would either have to climb up on the roof to confront the spider there or jump down to deal with the spider below him. Danyo realized that climbing up onto the roof would leave him exposed to the spider’s attack in the time it took him to get himself fully onto the roof. While jumping down might similarly expose him to danger, it was possible that he could actually land on the spider below and thereby deal it some damage! Danyo quickly decided that the possibility of dealing damage to an enemy always outweighed a course of action which was sure to leave him helpless against an attack. Taking one last look down, Dano put his fate in the hands of all the gods save Zath and let go of the roof. He landed squarely on top of the spider in the garden below. Ichor coated his boots and the spider moved no more. Danyo did not have time to revel in his kill, the sound of scuttling warned of the approach of another spider. Spying a doorway, Danyo darted there swiftly. He shut the door just as another spider lunged for him! Using every ounce of strength he had to hold the door shut against the spider’s fury, he barred it and surveyed his refuge.

Danyo had found himself in a kitchen. It was eerily quiet, as if the entire house were deserted. He stopped as he noticed a pair of legs sticking out from behind a counter. There on the floor lay the body of a cook. The dead cook’s abdomen looked as if it had exploded outwards. Danyo realized that he was not safe in this building…there were probably more of the spiders inside as well! Quickly he ran through the house, ducking through doorways as he went in search of a door to the street. Coming out the door, Danyo made his way down the street and we were reunited. Of course I had hoped that he was safe, but Shadizar was far too large for a search for one man. Gladdened at this reunion, I shared my load with my old companion and led him through the streets to the Sign of the Hawk.

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Darius the Heretic
Or, a report detailing the knowledge of the infamous blasphemer

Martinus,

I blessed Zath when you wrote to me wanting information on Darius, Heretic of Zath. This presumptuous man thought himself unworthy of sating the hunger of the Pure Father! I trust that the Webs of Zath shall one day ensnare him and finally render him a mere husk of his former self.

Forgive me, my friend, I digress too much. I can confirm that Darius and his bastard colleague escaped after they looted the Temple of Almighty Zath in Shadizar. In the act of fleeing Zath’s Justice, they liberally dispersed golden coins sacred to the Spider God. Unfortunately for those who foolishly picked up the money, Zath saw into their wicked souls and dispensed His divine punishment by transforming them into His image.

The arachnid rampage served as a warning to the decadent populace of Zath’s righteous anger and the King rightly sided with out interpretation as His Majesty too sent soldiers to apprehend the foul perpetrators of this vile sacrilege. Despite all the secular and spiritual might brought down upon the pair; Darius and Danyo, like cockroaches scurried south unharmed!

We of Zath, of course, sent pursuers all the way to Zamboula and to the other places they sought refuge. I pray that you persuade the King of Nemedia extradite the perfidious rogue into our custody. He will, though the decades have overly seasoned him, shall be fitting food for Zath’s Avatar!

Ever your friend,
Zorbo of Zath

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Chapter II, Session II, Part III
The Sign of the Hawk

From the Memoirs of Darius the God Slayer

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As I wound through the streets of the Craftsman District and made my way to Ninotchka’s in the Desert, I began to suspect that something was not quite right. I won’t swear to what clued me in. It may have been the people running into the street screaming in terror, it may have been the giant spiders scurrying about, it may have been the people being devoured by said spiders, or it may have a combination of all three. I fear that we may never know. It is a question for the ages!

In any event, there were spiders. Man-sized spiders were scuttling about the streets and attacking the terrified folk of my city. I was surprised, I must admit that. I also realized that my careful plans would have to be altered immediately. I noticed a spider on a rooftop just before it attempted to jump down upon me. This, my friends, is what an arbalest is for. I fired my arbalest and the bolt sunk deep into fiendish spider, catching the beast in midair. Trailing ichor, the thing fell at my feet, dead. I did not have time to spare to reload my arbalest, a lengthy procedure in the best of times, so I drew my newly acquired arming sword and proceeded on my way. It took a force of will to keep moving towards Ninotchka’s. I had always disliked spiders, and I had only just discovered the reason why. Now that dislike and been fanned into hatred. Several times while traversing the streets, I found the need to battle those eight-legged monstrosities. To be fair, I could have run away or looked for an alternate path. Indeed, there were several who I could have passed without having to confront the beasts at all. I realize that I was not thinking like a survivor. I could excuse my actions as the simple choice between being predator or prey. The truth was that I enjoyed it. These creatures were manifestations of evil and needed to be put down. Remarkably, I reached Ninotchka’s unscathed. Several of the beasts I had struck from behind, unawares, as they inflicted their evil upon helpless folk of Shadizar. The others had never managed to land a hairy leg or fang. I was a whirlwind of death, deftly dodging their attacks while landing my own with ruthless efficiency.

Reaching the Ninotchka’s, I entered only to find a scene of horror. A large spider had immobilized Ninotchka in its web, and had now set to feeding. There was nothing I could do for her, so I moved swiftly to the stairs. Ascending with care, I managed to reach Vilena’s room. Entering, I found a fearful Vilena. Relieved by my presence, she fell into my arms. I held her in my arms and she slowly calmed. When she was ready, I set to work swiftly. I gave her a small bag to carry, while I loaded myself up to an absurd degree with loot. The fewer trips that were necessary, the happier I would be. As we were leaving the room, I noticed the ebon war club which I had taken from Liyongo. While heavy, and a bit unwieldy, I decided that its value would make the inconvenience well worth it. I had no idea how right I would prove to be! No sooner did we reach the bottom of the stairs, but we were confronted by the spider I had last seen devouring Ninotchka. Dropping my bag of loot, I readied by ebon war club and confronted the vile creature. The speed of my attack caught the creature off guard. The war club, made of a single piece of solid ebony, felt lighter in my hands that I had thought it ought to. With a mighty downstroke, there was a crunch as ichor flew and the light of life went out of eight menacing eyes. My blood was up with an exhilaration I had never before felt. Glancing about, I saw another of the beasts scuttling, somewhat uncertainly, towards us. I leapt at the spider, swinging the war club and shattering what I suppose was its head into an unrecognizable goo. Looking about, I saw several spiders withdrawing rapidly. Our way cleared, I once again lifted the heavy bag of loot and Vilena and I continued on our way.

I felt strangely disappointed at the withdrawal of the spiders. I had many times before, when the circumstances called for it, both in an unseen sneak attack and in plain combat when it could not be avoided. I looked upon it dispassionately. I was a professional and was interested only in the skill and efficiency of it. This was the first time in my life when that failed. I found myself fighting with passion, with rage, and with a joy for the combat which was previously unknown to me. While the chaos continued around us, we reached the Caravan District without confrontation, much to my disappointment. I had planned to use one particular caravanserai, but at this point I was willing to use either of the other two as both were on the way. Passing the first, I saw guests running from the place. Oddly enough, I decided that this boded no good and continued walking. As we neared the second, it was clear that spiders were moving in and out and all over the establishment. Since the burden I carried was rather heavy and Vilena’s terror was increasing by the minute, we headed for the final caravanserai. Much to our relief, the place seemed relatively arachnid-free. There were bodies of spiders, riddled with arrows, in the street outside of the Sign of the Hawk. As we approached, it became evident that this was due to the presence of a number of asshuri, no doubt fellow guests, who were defending the place against the creatures. After several knocks upon the gates, the landlord admitted us. I did not begrudge him his caution, but I was a paying customer and would have admittance.

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I settled the loot and Vilena in the room I had paid for earlier in the day. After inspecting the room and making certain it was secure, I instructed Vilena to bar the door after I had left and to admit none but me. With the asshuri manning the walls of the caravanserai, I was fairly confident of the safety of the place. The Sons of Shem were reputed warriors and archers. I had no doubt that they were more than sufficient to handle a few oversized spiders. With confidence in the safety of Vilena and my treasure, I left the caravanserai, hearing the doors barred behind me, and made my way back to Ninotchka’s in order to recover more loot.

Without any arachnid confrontations, I made it to Ninotchka’s. I moved carefully towards the stairs, passing several web-covered and desiccated corpses. Gripping my war club, I eased my way up the stairs. The hallway was silent and deserted. Carefully, I made my way to Vilena’s chamber. Closing the door behind myself, I swiftly checked the chamber and made certain that no uninvited eight-legged guests were present. After satisfying myself that the room was safe, I loaded myself with more loot, ready to begin the arduous journey back to the Sign of the Hawk. Leaving Ninotchka’s for the return journey, I saw Danyo moving furtively in my direction. I hailed him and he related to me a tale of his harrowing journey which I shall summarize for the ease of the reader.

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Chapter II, Session II, Part II
Acts of Survival

From the Memoirs of Darius the God Slayer

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I had wanted answers from the priest, but had not expected the answers I had received. I stepped casually away from his rapidly cooling body and continued on towards the inn. It was a small matter to get room with the view I required. Little did I know how far events would move beyond my plans. I decided to head back to Ninotchka’s to retrieve the stash of plunder which I was holding there. In my careful planning, I had envisioned moving the stash bit by bit so that it would not be noticed.

While I was gone, not all was well at Ninotchka’s. I will recount what I learned from the accounts of the few people at Ninotchka’s who are still numbered among the living. At this time, there was a disruption in the main room of the establishment. Danyo had been upstairs with Tamara, conscious but still recovering from his ordeal, when one of the customers, a soldier, collapsed, writhing in pain. The soldier’s thrashing ended abruptly and he went still. There was a shocked silence in the room. Vilena knelt down to check if the soldier still lived. He was entirely still, with neither breath nor pulse, and his body was cooling rapidly. Vilena stood slowly, finally answering everyone’s unspoken question with a shake of her head. The soldier was dead.

Moments later the body began to shake slightly. At first the people who were still in the room thought that they had imagined it. Then it began again. It seemed like something was inside of him…moving. Vilena screamed in terror. At this time, Danyo was upstairs with Tamara. Hearing the scream, they looked at each other. As you may already know, Danyo has extremely well developed survival instincts. Danyo was perfectly happy to stay where he was. To his mind, there was nothing at all unusual about a scream in a brothel in the worst part of Shadizar. Of course, if there actually was something unusual about it, that was even more reason for him not to get involved! Tamara’s glare told him otherwise. Dragging himself out of bed, Danyo took several minutes to dress, armor, and arm himself before leaving the room and heading downstairs. Tamara might have silently forced him to find out what was happening, but there was no way he was walking into doom entirely unprepared.

Walking down the hallway towards the stairs, he heard even more screams. He slowed his pace and edged down the stairs cautiously. What he saw when he reached the bottom of the stairs was enough to turn a Darfari white! The soldier’s belly, including the armor he wore, had split open and out of him was crawling a rapidly growing spider. The screaming patrons and girls were falling over furniture and each other in an attempt to flee. Danyo took stock of the situation and did what any other professional Zamoran thief would do in such a crisis: he fled. Sparing no second thought, Danyo ran. Leaping onto tables and over fallen chairs and people, he made a beeline to the door. Danyo was no fool, he was a survivor. In that moment he saw no reason to put his life in any more risk than his profession already placed him in.

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Chapter II, Session II, Part I
The Best Laid Plans

From the Memoirs of Darius the God Slayer

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I awoke inspired. Instead of a hangover, the night of revelry had started me planning an escape. Every moment in this city brought us closer to death. Enemies were everywhere and, while the known enemies existed in plenty, it was the unknown enemies who ought to be feared the most. Danyo had regained consciousness but was still in a sorry state. He was well tended by Ninotchka’s girls. He ought to feel right at home, as he was born in a place just like this. With any luck, he would be ready to travel soon. It seemed to me that with sufficient planning and preparation, I should be able to prevail over any adversary. If only I had known what adversaries I truly faced. The real danger, I was to find, law back in my past, unknown to me then even as it was unknown to me in that moment.

Packing plenty of coin to begin the preparations, I set out from Ninotchka’s. I left the Desert, and ranged far and wide throughout the rest of the city. Making my way to the Katara Bazaar, I could not escape the feeling that I was being followed. I every so often I thought I had caught a glimpse of my pursuer, only for them to disappear again as I moved through the city. I knew that I was not imagining this. I was being followed by a skilled operator. Entering the bazaar, I browsed through the many stalls. For some reason, the temple of Zath was present. Zath is a spider god and the god of purity. I will never understand how those two are supposed to work together. If I seem unsympathetic, it is only because I have reason to hate the temple of Zath, and I shall thwart their efforts until my last day. Naked temple virgins girls, draped only in black beads, danced while the priest led the rest in a strange song proclaiming Zath’s purity. I like naked temple virgins as much as the next man, but my blood ran cold.

The dancing, as you may suspect, had drawn quite a crowd. As it ended, the priest began preaching about the purity of Zath, and how only Zath could cleanse this nation of decadence and return it to greatness. He began to lose the attention of the crowd the moment the dance stopped and he began preaching. Just as the crowd began to drift away, The priest and virgins began tossing out gold coins to the crowd. This drew back the crowd and also many of the bazaar merchants. Everybody likes free gold! Well this day it seemed that everybody other than myself liked free gold. I took the opportunity to get the items I came in search of from abandoned stalls for free. There was something suspicious about any temple giving away that many coins, so I picked up what I needed and was on my way.

As I headed away from the bazaar, I again had that feeling that I was being followed. This time I caught sight of my pursuer! Trailing me was a woman dressed in the styles popular among the merchant classes of Shadizar, but she was no merchant’s daughter. She moved like a predator, and when she realized that I had spotter her, she drew an arming sword and came at me. Stepping back, I quickly drew my blades and parried her attacks. Who was she? Why was she attacking me? I wanted the answer to these questions. With that in mind, I fought to protect myself and to subdue my assailant. Time and time again, I dodged and parried her attacks while attempting to disarm her. Once I did manage to loose her arming sword from her grip, but faster than anyone i had yet seen, the blade was back in her hand and she was on the attack. With a furious whirlwind of attacks, she managed to hit me. There was an odd feeling to the wound. Poison! I wanted information…but not more than I wanted to live. Tiring of the game, I went on the offensive with a few quick strikes, I watched her cold eyes as the life bled out of her. As she fell, I only hoped I would prove resistant to the poison. It was some sort of spider venom, if I was not mistaken. I staggered a bit, but shook off the effects of this underhanded tactic. Inspecting the woman’s body, I took stock of her equipment. Among her effects was a poison coated dagger as well as a small purse containing a single gold coin with the image of a spider upon it. I would later be glad that I had worn gloved while searching, but at the time I was more intrigued by another discovery. My assailant’s body was covered in a web of tattoos. By this I mean that her body was covered with tattoos which took the shape of a spider’s web.

I did not know what to make of the appearance of the assassin. I suspected that she was somehow connected with the cult of Zath, though I was at a loss to understand what they would want with me. Shelving this concern for the moment, I continued with the preparations for our escape with even more urgency that I had begun them. Moving swiftly through the winding streets I made my way to the Caravan District in the south of the city with a reasonable belief that I had not been followed. I stopped at 3 different caravansaries and reserved rooms, paying for a tenday in advance at each. I deposited the baggage I was carrying at one of these places, a Shemite owned called the Hawk’s Rest. This was the only one of the three I intended to use personally. I suppose that, since a significant time has already passed, I may safely disclose my plan to you. It was my intention to go to the Turanian slave markets in the city with the purpose of finding and purchasing three pairs of slaves who approximated Danyo and myself in terms of height and build. They would be installed in three different inns, along with mounts and baggage. These groups would leave the city at the same time Danyo and I did. This would, I hoped, baffle any pursuers. As soon as the slaves were beyond the sight of the city, they were to consider themselves free. It would be an expense, but one we could well afford.

With this plan in mind, I headed to the Wealthy Quarter of the city. While the rest of the accommodations were in the Caravan District, the final inn would be among the wealthy. This was necessary, because it was meant to serve a double purpose. Knowing that the gang would eventually turn on me as others made power plays, I decided to eliminate the problem before it arose. The gang needed to be eradicated. I had a plan to take care of this. A key part of their operation was kidnapping. Very often they would do kidnappings to order, that is they would kidnap beautiful and noble maidens specifically or to a customers specifications for enormous prices. I would tell the gang that we had such a buyer who wanted a specific noble maiden. I would plan the kidnapping and place the gang members in position. They would be told to make their move when a lantern was placed in the window of the room I intended to get at an inn in this part of the city. I would, of course, inform the noble family of the intended plan and disclose the exact position of each and every one of the kidnappers. One of the slaves would send the signal from the window and it would all end with the destruction of the gang and the departure of four pairs of similarly sized men from the city! Convoluted? Perhaps. This was Shadizar, and plans within plans was the order of the day. Treachery was like mother’s milk to us. By the gods, I loved that town! I knew that I would be sad to leave.

As I walked through the Wealthy Quarter and approached the inn I had chosen, I noticed a patrol of the watch harassing what looked to be another of those priests of Zath. They beat him to the ground, and once he was there they proceeded to kick him. I could have applauded. I am no fan of the watch or their abuses, but such was my dislike for this spider god and his clergy. In falling, the priest had dropped a sack of gold coins similar in appearance to the one i had retrieved from the body of the assassin. When the watch patrol bored of beating the priest, they collected the sack of coins. Doubtless, they would call it evidence; evidence that would never make it to the patrol house.

Approaching the fallen priest, I lifted him to his feet, leaning him against a wall for support. “What is the meaning of the coins?” I asked him. He only ranted about Zath’s purity, nearly frothing at the mouth as he shouted that Zath would purify the world and excise the wickedness of Shadizar. “Why does your temple send assassins? What do you want with me?” I demanded. The sick Zathite actually cackled! “You belong to Zath, Darius!” he proclaimed. “You are his and will not escape again as you did when you were a child. You have no family to protect you…to die for you now. You will be put to the purpose Zath intended!”

My mind reeled. I saw in my mind’s eye the images which have haunted my sleep for almost all of my life. The traitor murdering our devoted servant. The masked killers swarming the house, slaying every servant or slave they encountered. My father taking up his sword to but time for my mother and I to flee, felling two of them before falling before their blades. Most of all, i remembered my mother telling me to be very quiet and still as she hid me in a chest, and how she was slaughtered as I held my breath and watched through the gap between the lid and the chest. I held onto that image as I slowly my short sword into him, sliding it across his belly and then upward, disemboweling him. “Zath has marked you!” he screamed. “You are his!” I leaned closer, whispering into his ear as his guts fell out of his body and onto the pavement. “Tell your god that I am not through with him…there will be a reckoning.” I smiled as I heard the breath leave his body, and I let his body drop to the ground. All of my life I had wondered who had been responsible for the slaughter of my family. Now I knew who had destroyed my life and cast me into these treacherous streets. I had a name for my pain: Zath.

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Chapter I, Session I, Part VII
King of the Desert

From the Memoirs of Darius the God Slayer

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The furious fighting was over. I checked the fallen form of Danyo. By the grace of the gods, he yet lived. The silence of the room was broken. Looking up from my friend, I turned to Ninotchka. “He lives! By the gods, lend me some help with him!” She nodded and gestured to several of her girls to assist him. They bandaged him as well as they could and we carried him up the stairs, installing him in Tamara’s room. Returning downstairs, I picked up an abandoned flagon of wine and drained it. Now that the fighting was over, I felt weary. With a weary sigh, I saw to the dead. They had many goods they no longer needed, and to the victors must go the spoils. Finishing that, I cleared the room of dead, dragging the bodies into the street. One saving grace of the Desert was that the dead were hardly noticed among the beggars and the filth.

Weariness had taken hold of me. I awoke sometime later upstairs in Vilena’s bed. I cannot rightly say that I remembered how I had gotten there, such was my weariness. I rose from the bed, careful not to disturb the sleeping form of Vilena. Pulling on a clean tunic, I went silently into the hallway. Before I had reached the stairs, I was met by Ninotchka. With worried eyes, she told me that Harasym’s gang had returned. She feared that they would find us, and another fight would ensue. I assured her that we would leave as soon as Danyo was able to travel. In my heart, though, I knew that we did not have that much time.

Returning to Vilena’s room, I donned my leather jerkin and armed myself. I would have to make the time we needed to survive. Danyo needed a few more days before he could be moved. I intended to buy that time. Friendship was becoming a liability. Properly equipped, I again left the room and moved downstairs. I proceeded slowly. I must admit, I had formed no plan at this time. Taking the time to listen carefully, I heard the chatter of the gang end with the arrival of another group. It sounded as if a group of soldiers had arrived. One voice sounded very familiar. I had heard that voice the night before, in the hidden temple of Kara Prama. It seemed that Captain Diodor had somehow survived the collapse! From the sound of things, the captain wanted to speak to the surviving gang members and they withdrew to one of the private rooms downstairs. The danger which Danyo and I faced had just doubled. I could still here the soldiers downstairs. None of them had seen me before, so I decided to take a fool’s risk and end the danger once and for all. I had no idea how I would handle the captain, his soldiers, and the gang. I headed down the stairs anyway. I began to suspect that I was beginning to do heroic acts with far too much regularity. Heroism is a very bad habit for a thief.

I walked downstairs, passing the soldiers as I went. They did nott notice me, so focused were they on drink and women. Moving quietly towards the private rooms in the back, I entered the room that held my foes, silently closing the door behind me. Diodor was speaking, making his own play for control of what remained of the gang. This would not do. My stiletto hit home, striking as swift and silent as a serpent. Diodor was cut off mid-sentence, blood frothing from his lips as I withdrew the blade and let his body fall to the floor. Hands flew to the hilts of blades. For a moment, I worried that I may have made the wrong move. There was nothing for it but to brazen it out. Bloodied blade in hand, I glared around the room. “I run the Street of the Whore’s Blood now. Does anyone have a problem with that?” I growled at the assembly. Silently, blades were slid back into their sheathes and hands removed from weapons. “No problems boss. We’ll take care of his men.” I nodded in response. Quietly, in ones and twos, the gang filed out of the room. Moments later a girl screamed, dying men made brief cries, and the detachment of the Royal Guard was dealt with. My gambit had worked. I only wondered how much time it had bought us.

No man has yet accused me of being a fool. I was certainly not fool enough to think that I could survive being a crime lord. What I needed was time for Danyo to heal and for us to make our escape. I had just bought us a day…perhaps two. The gang feared me now because they had feared Harasym and I had killed him. That fear would dissipate. With Harasym and Fadey gone, more than one of them would seek to realize their own ambitions, and I stood in their way. Even more dangerous, when competing gangs learned that Harasym was dead, they would make their move to destroy the gang. If Diodor knew, then surely it would not be long for word to spread further. I mulled this over while I looked in on Danyo and then sat alone downstairs with a beaker of wine. I had to buy us some more time, and this would call for another risky throw of the dice.

I called the gang together and grilled them about their (I suppose it is “our” now) enemies. The strongest of them seemed to be a gang of Darfari. These savage Darfari were led by a fearsome giant of a man called Liyongo. Under Liyongo’s rule, these Darfari had more than doubled their territory by savagely destroying their competition. It was rumoured that the Darfari had eaten the gangs they had defeated. “It is time,” I told the gang, “that we make our mark. When we crush the Darfari, no one will dare challenge us!” They were swayed by the forcefulness of it. I did not want to let this go to waste, so I announced that we would move on the Darfari that very night.

Liyongo ran his gang out of a gambling establishment in the Desert. The rumour was that the rich and decadent of the city came to this establishment to dine…Darfari style. And since we all know that the Darfari, who sharpen their teeth into fine points, are cannibals…we need not discuss the finer points of Darfari cuisine any further. We made our way through the darkened alleys and streets of the Desert, finally standing outside the Darfari gambling den. My men, and I had no illusions about their true loyalty, silently killed the door guards as we entered. The darkened room was large, with the gambling taking place beneath the watchful eyes of Liyongo from a dais. Liyongo rested his bulk on cushions, surrounding himself with naked slaves who fanned, fed, flattered and caressed this grotesque figure. A large ebon war club, carved with frighteningly grotesque figures, rested by Liyongo’s side. He looked up from his pleasures as we rushed into the room. “How dare you,” he began to roar in fury as he attempted to raise his enormous bulk from the dais. His statement was cut short as I calmly raised my arbalest and fired a bolt into him. With that signal, the slaughter commenced. My men fell upon every Darfari in the place. Gamblers ran for cover as steel was bared and blood began flying. I dropped my arbalest, drew my blades and ran towards the dais. Liyongo, though sorely wounded, was still very much alive. I intended to change that. With a great leap, I launched myself from a table onto the dais. The slaves scattered as my blades bit into Liyongo’s bulk. He bellowed in pain as he grabbed his fearsome war club. He swung it over his head in a downward motion. I sidestepped it easily as it shattered the floor of the dais and slashed wickedly at him with my blades. With another great roar, he swung the club in a great arc, and would surely have shattered me had it made contact. I dropped to one knee, letting the club pass over my head as I stabbed upward with both blades. Gutted, Liyongo fell backwards…dead.

Looking up, I saw that the slaughter of the other Darfari had finished. The men were flushed with victory. Searching the establishment, I found Liyongo’s store of ill-gotten gains. Apparently, he had found Shadizar very profitable. I would be a rich man if I could find a way to extract Danyo and myself out of this trap alive. Combined with the stash Harasym had been keeping, I now had access to wealth beyond anything I had dreamed since that fateful day when my family was slaughtered. The trick would be to get out with it alive. Is that not how it always seems to be?

I was disturbed from my reveries by one of the gang. “Boss…it looks like they had one of those fancy dinners scheduled for tonight. Lots of fancy folk ready to pay through the nose for it too.” I thought a moment, then held back a laugh. “Tell them Liyongo is on the menu tonight…and double the price.” With a smile and a nod he set off to do as I had bidden him. I had bought us a few more days.

As with anything in life, there was inevitably a problem. Later in the evening, following the destruction of the Darfari, that problem would rear its ugly head. Perhaps a better choice of words would have been “perfumed head.” As we celebrated at Ninotchka’s, an uninvited guest arrived. I could smell him before he even entered! “A perfumed errand boy,” I thought. I had heard that Harasym had been a deserter and was wanted for stealing from a noble in some city north of Shadizar. He had only remained free, it had been whispered, by paying the crown the staggering sum of one hundred thousand silver coins a year as a bribe. The perfumed errand boy entered Ninotchka’s holding a silk kerchief to his face as if everything except him smelled bad! Approaching our table, he dusted a chair off before settling himself, uninvited, with a self-satisfied and superior air. “I am from the King,” he began. I wonder if he thought we would fall to our knees and grovel for the privilege of hearing these words. If that was the case, he was to be sorely disappointed. “The King has heard of you and wishes to congratulate you for your accomplishments. He is sure that are aware of the arrangement that existed with your…predecessor…and that you will be grateful for the opportunity to continue the arrangement under the same terms.” Gods but he was pleased with himself!

“My understanding was that Harasym had a price on his head for theft from a noble as well as deserting from the army. I do not have these problems. I shall render thirty per cent unto your master.” My words seem to take some of the air out of the man. He choked and sputtered. Finally, with some resignation, he said, “That will be acceptable.” Smiling, I offered him a cup. “You are welcome to join us in celebration, there are women and wine in abundance. Oh…I’m sorry…you aren’t a eunuch, are you?” I could not resist the last part. He sputtered that his duties to the king would not permit him to join, and took himself off in haste. Thirty thousand silver coins! Gods! The amount was staggering! Of course, I had no intention of ever paying the sum. It was my intention that Danyo and I would be far from Shadizar with all of the coin we could lay hands on before the king ever thought about the payment. In time, we would be forgotten and would be able to return home to this, the most civilized city in the world!

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Chapter I, Session I, Part VI
To Live or Die by the Sword

From the Memoirs of Darius the God Slayer

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We were stopped short by a captain of the Royal Guard with blade in hand. Clearly, he was not here to arrest cultists, but was instead himself a devotee. Knowing that Danyo was still recovering from his kidnapping as well as Kara Prama’s domination, I sprang forward. This captain, who I was later to learn was called Diodor, was quick with a blade. He was far better than any soldier I had seen. My skills proved better. The combat was a whirl of blades. In the end he fell (not dead, as I was to find later, but unconscious) and I stood, unmarked by his blade. I found that I had, however, been marked by Kara Prama’s claws. I stopped briefly to strip him of his silvered breastplate and his fine shortsword, and off we went into the tunnels.

The shaking became worse as we ran through the seemingly endless passages. This underground complex would soon collapse, bringing Lady Nehira’s home down upon us. Of this, I was certain. Coming to the library chamber we paused. It would be a shame if all of this information were now lost. Pulling two sacks from my kitbag, I passed one to Danyo, and we quickly filled them with as many scrolls as we could in the short time we had before fleeing through the tunnels once more. The three of us had made it through the tunnels and out of the gates when, with a loud rumbling and a cloud of dust, the temple and tunnels collapsed and the earth swallowed Lady Nehira’s home.

We did not slow to comment on the change to the city’s skyline, instead running through the city’s streets to make our way back to the Desert. We paused before entering Ninotchka’s. I realized that I was still dressed as Kilya and decided to remedy that. Once I again looked myself, we entered Ninotchka’s with myself in the lead. Harasym, his lieutenant Fadey, and an assortment of the gang stood by the bar. Even as they turned to face us, the room fell silent. “You have a lot of nerve showing your face here,” Harasym growled. “By Ong’s leonine head…” I muttered. In an instant, blades were out. I had by blood up. I had just finished killing a being that was being worshipped as a goddess…I wasn’t going to be bullied by simple street thug. The combat was brutal. Danyo and I felled several of Harasym’s gang as we made our way to Harasym and Fadey. Blades and blood flew as the two of us dealt well deserved death. Soon, I was facing Harasym while Danyo took on Fadey.

Harasym was good, nowhere near as good as Captain Diodor, but good nonetheless. We circled each other trading blows for some time. His men held back, not interfering with their boss’ fight. Danyo was handling his own against the long haired and moustached Fadey. Fadey fought theatrically. Danyo may have lacked technique, but more than made up for this with ferocity Fadey’s dark eyes began to show fear as Danyo’s onslaught continued unabated. Fadey stood no chance at all against Danyo’s fury. Danyo screamed with fury as he gutted the hapless Fadey. Danyo was given no break. As Fadey fell, Dany found himself surrounded by members of the gang. The fighting continued to rage.

Harasym and I traded blows. I do not think that it had yet occurred to him that this could only end in his death, such was his arrogance. Batting away his blade, my short sword cut deeply into his flesh. I smiled savagely. The dance was about to end. In desperation he lunged at me. I dodged, deftly sidestepping his attack as I sliced into his throat with a backhand stroke of my sword. There was shock and surprise in his eyes as he fell, his head severed from his body. Turning, I saw Danyo fall, surrounded by enemies with Fadey and several others lying dead at his feet. Moving to his aid and praying to the gods that he yet lived, I engaged the scum who had felled him. I saw fear in their eyes as the understanding that Harasym was dead registered. Most of them had been wounded by Danyo before he fell. I made short work of them while the rest of the gang’s survivors began to flee. One fired an arbalest at me before he fled. This was a terrible mistake on his part. Turning to flee, he never reached the door. My blade ended his worldly worries.

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Chapter I, Session I, Part V
The Fall of Kara Prama

From the Memoirs of Darius the God Slayer

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As we quietly entered the shadowy chamber, I began to question the wisdom of our decision. I found myself wishing that there had been more time to properly study the scrolls we had found. Something about the wording of the ancient Zhemri text nagged at me. I had begun to suspect that there had been more to the wording than I had uncovered at first glance. Alas, there had been no such time available to us and now it was far too late. Padding softly behind the assembled devotees, we saw Lady Nehira preparing the virgin upon the altar. Danyo and I shared a glance and then continued forward, the cultists parting before us. Lady Nehira looked up from her preparations. Noticing us, she approached, the crown crating a path between us.

“Kilya…” she said, not seeing through my disguise. I am sure the darkness of the room had much to do with it. “I have you a gift, lady.” I responded, hoping that my voice would not destroy my disguise. I am uncertain whether I am actually that good, or whether she pays that little attention to her underlings, but she smiled in response and eyed Danyo. “And the other?” she asked, not sparing “Kilya” a glance. “On the way, lady. I thought it best to bring you this right away.” I responded. “Good,” she purred, approaching us and examining Danyo with a predatory eye. It was at this moment I realized that Danyo and I were the only individuals in this chamber who were actually clothed. I prayed silently to all the gods I could think of that this would not put my disguise into jeopardy.

Lady Nehira took Danyo by the hand and led him to the altar while I followed silently, my presence forgotten. Standing by the altar, Nehira’s hands went to Danyo’s tunic to remove it in preparation for the ritual. Wasting no time, I struck. My stiletto struck true, and Nehira fell to the floor. No one in the chamber had time to react before a disembodied voice echoed through the chamber. “Your sacrifice is accepted.” The voice was at once female and inhumanly sinister. What I knew must be Kara Prama appeared before us on the altar. The giant, winged, female form shrunk down to human size and she said, “This one’s usefulness had passed.” She smiled, the inhumanly green eyes below the small horns protruding from her forehead glittered with malevolent amusement. She turned her gaze to Danyo, and I saw his eyes go blank as he fell under her power.

I knew at this moment that we were in trouble. I had to think fast. My reading of the scroll had been far too cursory, and I admit to you that I had neither expected to face a being of this power nor held any certainty that such an engagement would result in anything other than pain and death for Danyo and myself. As Kara Prama began to undress the unresisting Danyo, her very touch inflaming desire in her sacrifice, I accepted the fact that I was entirely alone in this moment. The scroll, I remembered had revealed that Kara Prama was peculiarly susceptible to the blood of a virgin. With this in mind I moved towards the altar. I hoped that “Kilya” preparing the virgin would not be something entirely out of the ordinary. The razor sharp tip of my stiletto caused no pain or discomfort to the virgin on the altar as it ran across her flesh. It would leave no noticeable scar, but it did prove enough to anoint my stiletto. I drifted into the background and found my opening to strike.

Kara Prama, it seemed, shared Nehira’s arrogance. She had taken no more notice of me as she focused her attention upon poor Danyo. I plunged my stiletto into her before the opening had passed and gripped the shortsword I had hidden on my person. Kara Prama screamed in agony as the blade and the virgin’s blood it was anointed in did their work. She turned, her rage and surprise evident. I pressed the attack, now with two blades, ducking low as Kara Prama swung her claws.

Kara Prama’s death scream shook the chamber, sending her cultists into panic. Danyo, now free of Kara Prama’s domination, shook his head as if to clear his mind of her evil. Danyo caught the shortsword I tossed to him and pulled the girl off of the altar as I swiftly relieved Nehira of her adornments. She was dead and no longer had use for the. The chamber continued to shake. If I understood rightly, Kara Prama had been bound to this temple by our Zhemri ancestors. The ritual had been intended to release her. Now, with her death, the temple was collapsing. We moved to make our escape from this crumbling temple as cultists ran screaming. Heading towards the only exit we knew of, we found our access blocked by a captain of the Royal Guard!

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