There’s a storm inside of us. A burning. A river. A drive. An unrelenting desire to push yourself harder and further than anyone could think possible. Pushing ourselves into those cold, dark corners, where the bad things live. Where the bad things fight. We wanted that fight at the highest volume. A loud fight. The loudest, coldest, darkest, most unpleasant of the unpleasant fights.
Last episode, the Castaways found themselves suffering from exposure—that is to say, their cover was blown, around fifty archers had their bows trained on them, and they (mostly Monica Montana) were about to be pounced upon by lions.
The Killing Ground!
Monica had fired a shot after the party’s curt dismissal by the evil shamaness Gulyet. The tiefling had turned her back on the party while ordering the men stationed in and upon the walls surrounding the bailey to kill them if they didn’t leave immediately. However, the Taldan gunslinger wasn’t shooting to kill. Rather, she’d been infusing her weapon with magical resonance. Her aim: to produce a sound that would disrupt Gulyet’s strange companion’s tether to the Material Plane. The resourceful polymath’s gambit succeeded! and the lion-like being simply drifted like smoke into the Ethereal.
That gave the banished mngwa’s master pause. Gulyet turned to look back at the interlopers, hand raised to hold off the archers. “You now have my attention,” she said. “Where is Azange? Why are you really here?”
By way of an answer, Dornas vaulted past her, and with his magical staff, swept up the lion-taming tiefling’s legs and sent her spinning to the ground. “You aren’t the first adventurers whose bones litter these grounds!” snarled the shaken shaman. Gulyet ordered her lionesses to attack.
The ferocious felines roared. One raced toward Monica while the other turned to face the magus who’s upended their trainer. Monica braced and felt the big cat’s hot, meat-scented breath as its great jaws tried to clamp on her throat. With a word and gesture, the arcane archeologist disappeared, forcing her foe to seek out its invisible prey with its nose and ears.
By sicking her pets on the heroes, Gulyet had made a severe tactical mistake. The archers on the walls hesitated to pepper the yard with arrows in fear of hurting their boss or the lionesses. Either, plainly, could result in a very permanent, excruciating termination of their employment. As the confounded M’bulazi sounded the alarm gongs and awaited instructions from their commanders, the Castaways were afforded precious seconds.
It was all they needed. Suddenly, a section of the curtain wall came tumbling down. A horror appeared behind the collapsing brickwork and dust cloud. In hybrid humanoid-honey badger form, Tyst howled, and with sickle-like claws that had just hewn stone, hurdled himself toward the lion who’d harried Monica. From the landing where the lycanthrope had leapt, a hawk morphed into half-elven form, revealing Kor’lec. The druid recited a spell, calling upon the magic of the wilderness.
Meanwhile, Kishtari moved to blast Gulyet with phrenic feedback, but the willful witch-doctor resisted. The tiefling rolled and crawled toward the legs of her lion bodyguard for succor, but the beast blindsided her with a swipe of its claw! Kor’lec smirked. He was the beast’s master now!
The druid ordered the lioness to continue its attack, and it readily complied. The great feline jerked the prone tiefling up in it’s jaws and mauled her with feral efficacy. Kai emerged from the party’s wagon and matched claws and fangs with the other lioness. The little dinosaur held her own, biting and raking crimson swathes across the great cat’s golden flanks.
Dornas broke from the scrum toward the gatehouse archway, only for a large, acid-drooling insect to burst from the muddy ground at his feet! Despite the element of surprise, the bug-monster failed to lock its virulent mandibles on the magus. Having all-but finished Gulyet, Kor’lec ordered his new lion against the creature Monica had called an “ankheg.”
“Who in the Hells keeps giant bugs in their front yard?” Kishtari mused.
“These assholes,” deadpanned Kor’lec, as the big cat pounced on the giant bug like, well, like a little cat pouncing on a little bug. Kishtari approached the nigh-mangled body of the tiefling shaman. She wasn’t merely holding on to life, she was conscious, too. But not for long! Kish balled up her fist and with all her might socked the demon-blooded woman, harming only her own knuckles when they connected with Gulyet’s horny hide. Luckily, Kor’lec was there to knock the villainess out good and proper. The party hastily made plans to use the dying tiefling as a hostage. Dornas, invisible Monica, and Kish dragged her inside the still open barn. There were two very frightened M’bulazi boys working within, whom Dornas chased out the opposite door leading to the fort’s inner courtyard.
As that was happening, Kai dug her clawed toes into the enemy lioness’s shoulders and yanked her head free with her teeth like she was uncorking a canteen filled with blood. Tyst rewarded the guard who’d let the party in the front gates by feeding him his own intestines. Looking for more foes to disembowel, the bloodthirsty were-creature looked upward, as the M’bulazi were finally loosing arrows. Those on the roof of the gatehouse were loading the ballista and aiming it at him. Likki sensed what his teammate was thinking and called upon his demon god before laying a hand on Tyst’s hairy hide. The lycanthrope felt the magic wash into his paws and feet. “Thanks buddy,” Tyst growled before ascending the wall like a spider.
Kor’lec bolted to scoop up Kai while arrows began plunking down into the dust around them like a sputtering rain, then ordered his lioness to take out anyone foolish enough to enter the bailey before his control of the cat faded completely. When everyone was safe inside the barn (save Tyst who was climbing to the roof) Likki jumped up, pulled the garage-style door down by the handle, and swung inside as well.
Almost as soon as Tyst’s eyes were level with the rooftop battlement, the ballistae team up there opened fire with their bows. Though their shots zinged by, Tyst had accumulated arrows enough during the climb to pluck one out of his thick pelt to menacingly break. The M’bulazi were agape, but undeterred. They chucked a few small sacks at the ominously approaching lycanthrope. The bags exploded into sticky glue, but most of these were either batted away or sidestepped by the dexterous beast. One connected, exposing Tyst to the hardening sludge, which he peeled off with muscle and fang. Nothing would stave the werebadger’s advance, as if he were a furry little grim reaper.
Finally, the ballista crew on the opposite tower had loaded and locked on him. Tyst knew there was a limit to what he could survive. He bid adieu to the nearby quartet by making them a hendectet—the hard way—before finding the trapdoor leading down into the barn and joining the others.
From their camp on the opposite side of the bailey from the battle, a pack of gnolls howled and cackled derisively at their M’bulazi hosts on the walls, some of whom were still trying to put a decisive spear or arrow into Gulyet’s lion. Finally, one of the gnolls, a milk-eyed, scarred hulk of a beast almost as big as the lioness itself, waltzed through the rain of arrows and caved in its skull with a casual swing of his iron flail. “Boys,” said the flind to his mangy crew, “time we negotiated a promotion around here.” The gnolls tittered and yipped. Taking a moment to suck lion brains off the bar of his flail, the commander continued, “just one thing we oughtta bring to the bargaining table.” Over to the barn he looked, where the intruders had holed up.
Then the gatehouse officer emerged with a group of very angry-looking tribesmen at his back. The officer had a no-nonsense stride, heavy gold rings stretching his lobes, faint white skull-like paint on his face, and several long needles pierced across his brow. “You brutes would put the Second Mistress in danger with animal tactics,” charged the Bekyar. His admonishment was met with growls from the gnolls that were really less offensive than their incessant laughter. The Mwangi continued, “we know that she lives still.”
“Bah, cowards! You…” spat the flind. Some of the gnolls started getting shovey with the humans now surrounding them. The M’bulazi shoved right back.
“You did NOTHING,” interrupted the officer, “until the dust all but cleared. Now, we find we must do what you dogs do best.”
“Hur?” sniveled the flind, squinting his one good eye inquisitively.
“We wait. For orders from below, and we find out what these foreigners want.”
The indecision of the surrounding forces allowed the Castaways a moment of respite. Their plans formulated around the one key piece of the bloody chess board they’d captured. Presuming that Gulyet was second-in-command or close to second in the slaver’s hierarchy after the as-yet unmet M’kessa, Kishtari delved into her unconscious mind. Even comatose, the tiefling resisted, but Kishtari’s will won out to reveal some useful exposition.
Gulyet considered herself to be M’kessa’s apprentice. However, the pecking order after M’kessa was not entirely clear. As a cult, a militia, and a business, there were several structures in play—like pyramids connected at the tip. At least, Gulyet considered herself second-in-command of the spiritual life of the M’bulazi. Second in the business structure was a woman named Agail Enthess, a former con-artist who’d been transmuted and brainwashed to serve as M’kessa’s decoy. Enthess recently positioned herself as second in the business structure; if not altogether in charge of it by posing to eastern buyers as M’kessa, allowing the real M’kessa to focus on her experiments in magic and science. Despite their different spheres of influence, Gulyet despised Enthess, fearing the double had overstepped herself as a slave and had become M’kessa’s “favorite.”
The party felt they’d had enough information to work with, and made some more plans. Then they turned to Likki and asked the goblinoid to tend to her. Humorously, the little savage mistook the intent of “tend” in Taldane to mean “add fire,” to which Likki warned, “fire good tend much problem, but not so good demon-girl problem.” When the matter was cleared up, the mysterious entities behind the monkey goblin’s magic mended most of the tiefling’s wounds. Gulyet struggled and hissed in her bonds, but Kish secured her with a far more effective mental shackle—implanting a deep attraction to herself.
With the psionic captivation in place, Gulyet proved more than agreeable. The silver-tongued kalashtar managed to further convince the vile shamaness that they were mercenaries hired by an old enemy of Agail Enthess to kill her. The tiefling was, predictably, quite mollified by this and agreed to not only simmer down the guardsmen, but to bring the “assassins” into the keep so they could meet with Enthess (in her guise as M’kessa). Gulyet would simply use the party’s original lie, that they were rich slave buyers who wanted to negotiate with the fortress’s leader for custom slaves. She’d even help them escape after the assassination was carried out!
Gulyet shouted out to the guards that everything was okay. Even with their suspicions stirred, the fortress militiamen had no choice but to accept the Second Mistress’s commands to stand down. After that, she led the party into the keep, where the only things that would unravel their plan were their own hearts.
The nickel tour Gulyet happily provided provoked a rising tide of anger in Kor’lec. In the garden before the keep’s doors, the shamaness stopped to pray before the fountain, where within was a great statue of the demon goddess Lamashtu. After, the tiefling pointed to the garden’s trees, where the first offenses to Kor’lec’s nature-oriented sensibilities lurked—a trio of chimpanzees had been painfully mutated into killing machines. “That reminds me,” said the shamaness, “Azange, my companion, and my lions, what became of them?” It was explained that her spirit creature was temporarily banished, and that at least one of the lions was left to hold off the guards when the party took refuge in the barn. “Unfortunate,” Gulyet said frankly, “but lions are just animals. I will train others to serve.” Kor’lec seethed.
Further on, Gulyet explained that her mistress M’kessa experimented upon people, animals, and beast-men hybrids birthed by the high priestess herself from her unholy unions with animals. From these she created monstrous slaves that commanded top dollar in the markets of the east. Only the strongest chattel survived the process, those captives with no hope of surviving M’kessa’s fleshwarping were sold as common galley slaves and servants in lesser markets such as their enterprise in Summ’tero. Those changed into monsters were built into guardians or pleasure slaves that catered to whatever depraved fetish their buyers were after. When the party passed a hallway containing some zombie guards, Kor’lec nearly snapped. By this time, it wasn’t just the druid on the verge of destroying their demon-blooded hostess and every abomination she enthusiastically pointed out.
Finally arriving at a metal banded locked door in the southern rear of the fortress, Gulyet informed the visitors that they were to pass through a room requiring them to stuff their ears with cotton. “We mollify newer captives here,” the tiefling explained. “We expose them to an unceasing noise that is quite effective.” Kish remembered that the boy escapee in Suum’tero nearly broke down into hysterics when he tried to recall the sound in question.
The Bath House
Beyond the door was, to date, the most abominable thing that any of the Castaways had encountered in their short careers as adventurers. Even the bloodthirsty killer in Tyst was aghast at the sight.
The room was dominated by a drained cistern, probably an old bath chamber, as could be reasoned by the clothing hooks along the north walkway. Inside the cistern, manacled to bolted loops, were several dozen men, woman, and children of many races and ethnicities. They were mostly Mwangi humans and elves, with a smattering of halflings, dwarves, and even a few orcs and hobgoblins. The captives laid, sat and twitched nearly shoulder to shoulder or on top of each other, mutilated by whip marks and barely clothed in their own sweat and excrement. None appeared cognizant, an effect of the drone that echoed across the chamber, audible to the Castaways even through their stuffed ears.
Gulyet beamed, proud of what she was showing off to her guests. Noticing that, Kishtari made a motion to stroke her enchanted hostess’s hair, and unleashed a salvo of psionic energy that splattered the tiefling’s head against the stone wall. As the villainess’s twitching remains crumpled to her feet, one of the garments hanging on the hooks fluttered and flew upward, revealing the source of the disturbing drone.
Not fabric but flesh, the flying creature superficially resembled a manta ray, but it had a spiky tail and a humanoid “face” on its underside. Its eyes, and its unintelligible speech, betrayed the beast’s intelligence. Monica recalled what she’d read of these deadly underworld dwelling creatures, called “cloakers,” and tried to warn her companions before it blared a hellish klaxon…