To leave the earth was my wish, and no will stayed my rising.
Early, before sun had filled the roads with carts
Conveying folk to weddings and to murders;
Before men left their selves of sleep, to wander
In the dark of the world like whipped beasts.
I took no pack. I had no horse, no staff, no gun.
I got up a little way and something called me,
Saying, ‘Put your hand in mine. We will seek God together.’
And I answered, ‘It is your father who is lost, not mine.’
Then the sky filled with tears of blood, and snakes sang.
— Kenneth Patchen
Following the unknown man’s suicide, Caddis woke everyone quickly, explaining what he had witnessed. Leo sang a short ditty to dispel Caddis’ fatigue from sitting a double-watch, then they all went to investigate. Leo sent his monkey down the cliff to search the body. It returned with an old, pitted bronze dagger, pulled out of the corpse’s chest, and proceeded to sketch out copies of the complex tattoos which had covered the man’s skin.
Rummy identified the tattoos as being similar to those in his copy of the Demonologia Sexualis — which described a very similar form of ritual suicide as one of many means of summoning a demon. A quick scan revealed a faint aura of illusion and enchantment magic clinging to the body, though no other signs of such a summoning were immediately present. Not taking any chances, Rummy dropped a flask of alchemist’s fire onto the body below. The body immediately burst into black-rimmed purple flames, and burned merrily.
Between the suddenly missing tents, the still-present crucified birds, and the burning blood-smear on the rocks below, they were wary, but not deterred. They packed up, rounded up the baggage train of sheeple, and pressed on.
As they walked, Thaduk, in humanoid form, struck up a merry marching tune, or tried to at least. What came out was a terrifying and arhythmic wail in the infernal tongue. At his insistence, the frightened sheeple tried to accompany him, but their terrified bleating only added to the cacophony. Leo’s Manekineko Parade, who had miraculously caught up, as they are want to do, joined in with their jangling instruments, bringing the racket to truly deafening levels.
Rummy, keen-of-hearing as he was, just barely made out a a rumbling from above. He looked up just in time to see the mountainside above them coming loose and tumbling down towards their heads. An avalanche!
Rummy found a sheltered nook in the wall, while the others ducked and covered — resulting in only minor injuries for most, save one sheeple who was swept off the cliff. Rummy, from relative safety, watched the falling debris and noticed that nearly half of the tumbling rocks and boulders were not rocks at all, but human skulls. One landed in the path right in front of him, clattering and bouncing to a stop with its empty eye-sockets staring directly at him.
When the avalanche had passed, Rummy pointed out the skull to the others. Caddis informed him that it had a similar aura of illusion to that on the corpse of the suicide. Rummy looked it over, then gave it a kick over the edge (it felt real enough), where is smashed against the rocks below, bursting an a sufficiently convincing manner.
They continued to march. The path remained relatively level, bending back inland around the side of one of the taller peaks, and for nearly four hours, they encountered nothing save the occasional bird startled from its nest by their passage. Then, of course, they saw another quartet of gargoyles, led by one much larger and possessed of an unusually large number of arms, bearing down on them from across the valley.
In broad daylight, and with a clear approach, our heroes had plenty of time to prepare. Thaduk commanded the sheeple to move away from the cliff and circle up, while the party readied their weapons. As soon as they were within range, Caddis started singing, drawing the gargoyles in with his faerie charms.
The larger gargoyle was the first to close, and was immediately jumped by Thaduk and Rummy, who promptly battered it into a fine, rocky pulp. The second, right behind, was impaled on Thaduk’s horn. The jolt broke it free of Caddis’ enchantment, and it began to claw wildly at Thaduk’s face. That is, until Leo came up behind and cut it in half with his sword.
The last two flew down and hovered peacefully beside Caddis, thoroughly entranced. Rummy promptly eviscerated one with his blade. Thaduk glared at the other and began shouting in infernal demanding that it reveal why they had attacked the party. The gargoyle was so startled by Thaduk’s tirade that it suddenly clutched at its chest, then fell down — apparently dead from a heart-attack. They shoved the gargoyle corpses off the path, pulling a “pointy stone crown”:Gargoyle Crown off the head of the large one. Then broke for lunch.
The last leg of the trail was wide, clear of debris, and sloped gently downwards for about eight miles before reaching a narrow pass, cutting across the mountain. From their vantage, looking through the pass, they could just just make out a sunlight glittering off of water on the far side of the mountain. Doña Teresa informed them that what they were seeing was a lake, and that the ancient temple was in a thick forest between the base of the mountain and that lake — they need only go through the pass and then head strait for the lake to find it.
Despite the nice view from the top, the mountain pass was a ten-mile journey through twisting canyons of rock. The path sloped steeply downward and was treacherous, slick from rain and fog on the mountains, and choked with loose scree and tumbled rocks. It was nearly nightfall before the pass opened up into a dense forest. Thick fog was rolling in off the lake, which, combined with the evening gloaming, reduced visibility to near zero.
Ever-wary they scanned the forest and the fog for magic, and found that the entire thing smelt of conjuration. Rummy, friendly guy that he is, shoved Leo forward into the fog. Other than being cold and damp, nothing untoward happened. Leo attempted to disperse the fog with a gust of wind, but the sudden burst was not sufficient to clear so large an area, and the fog simply rolled back in once the gust ended.
Undaunted, and mostly able to see in the dark, they pressed on, with Leo leading the way stumbling through the foggy woods. The ground was wet and muddy, verging on swampland in places. They wandered for an hour, unable to get any real sense of direction. Finally Rummy, fed up, tossed a couple of flasks of alchemist’s fire, igniting a pair of trees. “That should be a relatively easy to spot landmark…”
They headed away from the burning trees. Fast, as they noticed the fires beginning to spread surprisingly quickly for the damp conditions. They put some distance between themselves and the fire, keeping it always to their backs, but even this helped surprisingly little with navigation, as the fire seemed to not simply spread but move through the forest — as if leaping from tree to tree without leaving the former burning.
Two hours later, with the flames no longer in sight, they stumbled into some old ruins in a relatively dry clearing in the woods. The crumbling, moss-covered walls, open to the sky, appeared truly ancient, and bore no resemblance to the native or gargoyle architecture they’d seen elsewhere. Strait walls, built of simple stone blocks, bearing no signs of designs or patterns.
In the one corner of the ruins stands a crude wooden frame in the shape of an upright X. Bound upside-down to the frame is the corpse of a Maori man, his legs high in the air, with a gaping wound in his chest. Recognizing this as yet another form of demonic sacrifice, Rummy approached the corpse and reached out to place a single gold coin in the hole where its heart had been.
As he reached for it, the corpse spoke, addressing him in the infernal tongue. “Heya! Welcome to my home, travelers. You come a long way only to stay forever. At least you live. That is good for now. My home is now your home. Stay as long as you like, not that you have any chance of leaving.”
The corpse introduced itself as Golnura. While it had very little useful to offer the party did briefly consider offering it a position aboard their ship. When Leo reminded Rummy and Caddis that many of their crew were terrified of the drowned they instead decided to ignore him and left him hanging where he was.
With their impromptu forest-fire apparently burned out, and surrounded by nothing but darkness and fog, they decided to pitch camp in the ruins. At least the ground was dry-ish there.
Thaduk took the first watch, which passed uneventfully, then woke Rummy to take over. On waking, Rummy did a pass of the camp and immediately noticed that the Doña was gone. Her bedroll — if you could really call a luxurious pile of pillows and silks that took four chests to haul a bedroll — abandoned. Rummy kicked Caddis awake and asked him to sniff around.
Caddis, in dromite form, soon caught a whiff of wet fur and sulfur around the Doña’s bedding, and a stronger scent of the same coming from what he guessed was the north — out of the camp past the upside-down corpse. Without taking the others, he and Rummy set out, following his nose (or rather his antennae).
Soon, no more than five-hundred feet past their camp, they came upon a large structure, suddenly looming out of the darkness and the fog. The temple was carved into the side of a low rocky hill, a carving of distorted face with a gaping maw forming the entrance. A faint breeze, bearing the stench of blood and smoke and wet animals wafted out of the doorway.
Caddis and Rummy quickly turned around, intending to head back to camp to rouse the others, but soon got lost. They stumbled through the fog and slogged through the mud, and did not reach the camp until hours later, with dawn already glimmering on the horizon.
Their first point of business was to kick Leo awake and demand that he sing a song to dispel their exhaustion. Thaduk awoke shortly thereafter, roused from strange dreams of raining blood and a world overrun with fiery horses. Finally all the sheeple awoke, simultaneously, with a mass of confused, panicked bleating. Save, they were no longer sheeple, but merely sheep, fluffy and useless.
Fearing that something truly horrible had happened to the Doña, Caddis and company rushed for the temple, a path much easier to retrace in the growing daylight.
To be continued…
Experience and Rewards: