The Kingdom of Ophir was the most ancient of kingdoms existing in the Hyborian Age, dating back to the time of sorcerous Acheron itself. It was a place of mystery and power, dark forests, haunted mountains, black crypts steeped in gloom, where horrors and treasures laid rotting beneath the soil.
Yet it was also a place of life, ruled by kings and feuding nobles, peopled by sturdy peasants and cunning city-folk, ravaged by bandits, defended by mercenaries and armies alike. It was a country isolated by its own stubbornness, suspicious of the world beyond, and lacking real allies. It was friendly to Aquilonia and Corinthia, distrustful of Nemedia and Koth, disdainful of Argos.
Ophir’s troubles were growing. Childless King Valdric was dying, his physicians had found no cure. He had faith in their powers to restore him and refused to name an heir, fearful that any heir might be eager to hasten the king’s departure. His nobles were sure that no cure would be found and that the country would soon be left without king or heir. They maneuvered for the throne, amassed private armies, plotted. No noble had yet dared to kill another, but the mercenaries had ridden past burnt villages and fields, past plundered warehouses, past murdered captains laying in stained fields while vultures circled overhead. The king’s army hid while bandits raided freely, and the Ophireans became refugees within their own land, fleeing to the safety of the cities.
It was through this land the Crimson Wolves journeyed for there were reports of good work for any who could swing a sword or cut a purse. The only catch was to avoid having their own purse or throat cut, for that is what the parties’ fellow freebooters were paid to do.
The mercenary company recently crossed the Nemedian border and traveled toward the Ophirean capital of Ianthe where, according to rumor, rich employment awaited them. The roads were thick with refugees, their carts piled high with the few humble goods which escaped flame and bandit.
Meeting in the Sarellian Forest
The 50 hardy Nemedian Adventurers traveling with the party were trained in war’s ways, and were a company the party could confidently lead into battle. But the parties’ silver was fast disappearing and the troop’s contract was nearly over. It was quite clear to Tullweim den Morder, leader of the Crimson Wolves, these were men who fought for coin, not honor or glory. According to their guide, the party was in the Sarellian Forest, a half-day’s ride northeast of Ianthe. As Tullweim, Cuana, Dhak, and Xacksmith mused over their nearly empty purse, the company rounded a bend in the forest-darkened road. Ahead they saw the remnants of a caravan, most of the travelers laid dead beneath the dark trees. Twenty horsed bandits were amusing themselves by taunting the four survivors who were still trying to fight. Two of the survivors looked to be from Argos, judging from their apparel. One was a blond-haired woman who, as the company watched, skewered a bandit on the end of a sword, then leapt astride his vacant horse. The fourth appeared to be a madman from Khitai, a berserk warrior frothing at the mouth. The bandits kept their distance from him.
As the company rode into sight, both the bandits and their victims paused briefly to stare at the men-at-arms with their crimson cloaks and banner. The bandits’ leader, a red-haired woman astride a swift eastern bay shouted, “Stay out of this Northman!” The shorter of the besieged Argosseans cried. “All my goods are yours if you save us!”
The company was spurred into action as the blond-haired woman shouted at them, “Be ye men or metal-trussed baboons?” Then, with a great shout, she charged into the bandits before her, followed by the berserk Khitain, Ten of the bandits released a volley of stones from their slings at the company while the rest skirmished with the blond woman and the Khitain without success. In fact, the Khitain bore enough wounds to down any two normal men. The blond woman’s valor was also unsurpassed. The tallest Argossean was knocked unconscious by a blow to the head.
The bandits fell back into the forest after the Crimson Wolves engaged them and the bandits saw they were hopelessly out-numbered, taking what little treasure they had gathered. Their woman leader shouted back as she vanished into the trees. “By Derketo’s brass thighs, you’ll live to regret meddling with the Red Hawk, northman! And so’ will you, yellow-haired bitch!”
The berserk Khitain turned and attacked Dhak despite his numerous wounds, thinking Dhak an enemy. The Khitain struck and missed Dhak with a furious blow that caused the Khitain’s sword to break. The berserk barbarian then grabbed among the spilled packs for the first thing which came to hand, a long, black metal urn with a neck slender enough to be grasped as a two-handed club. He then renewed his assault using the urn, the Khitain lifted the urn high over his head just as Dhak stabbed him in the gut causing him to drop the urn at Dhak’s feet.
The shorter, conscious Argossean thanked the mercenaries, apologizing for the madness of their Khitain friend. He introduced himself as Katos; his unconscious comrade was Darios. He offered the mercenaries all that remained of the goods in their caravan consisting of rare foods, wines, cloth, and ale. He even gave the adventurers the silver urn, a rare relic they bought from a Corinthian dealer in antiques.
Katos revived his comrade Darios, who expressed his gratitude as well, but he was disturbed when Katos told him he had given the mercenaries everything as a reward. They argued somewhat in their native tongue, with Darios eventually conceding and casted a sad glance at the wares. He then asked the sellswords to accompany them to Ianthe, saying, “There we have more treasure, coins more suitable to men such as yourselves. Also our lord, Baron Timeon, is in need of such excellent warriors. I’m sure he could be persuaded to take you into his service.”
The blond-haired woman was very upset by the death of the Khitain, but tried to hide the fact. She introduced herself as Lady Julia, an Ophirean noble, but without family or finance. She and the Khitain were traveling to Ianthe when she happened to join up with the caravan for mutual protection. She now thought she would have been safer without them. “True” said Katos kindly, “but we would have been dead without you. Thank you, noble lady, for your excellent aid. I am sorry your friend did not survive.” He then slipped a simple ring from his finger and gave it to her as the others watched. It was a huge ruby ring cut in the shape of a four-horned beast’s head similar to the one on his other hand.
The Gates of Ianthe
After some time, the company rode out of the forest. Several miles in front of them loomed a dark, gaunt, flat-topped hill. Dark clouds whisped over its severe slopes. Lady Julia gazed at it and said, “That is Tor Al’Kiir. Old wives say a god once made his abode there” Katos muttered, “Old wives oft speak idly.” The road to Ianthe circled the base of the hill, but soon the company crested over one of its flanks and saw the royal city of Ianthe spread out below their feet, the Red River flowing in the distance, sparkling red in the sun’s dying light.
Katos sighed in relief, then spoke to the party, “Welcome, strangers and friends, to our home. She is ancient, but her face is ever changing, A contradiction of the old and new.” He waved his hand over Ianthe. The city sprawled down to the river, its many gold domes and alabaster spires rising above red tile roofs and white walls obscured by a low cloud of thin smoke, surrounded by high granite walls, guarded by towers.
“The Old City wall still stands there in areas,” he pointed, “cutting across the city, offering a secondary, although crumbling, defense. There, near the river, is the Royal Palace, a fortress of might. It is written, ‘He who holds the sacred scepter, inspires the palace; he who inspires the palace, controls Ianthe; and he who controls Ianthe, rules Ophir; amen. It is in that palace and the barracks nearby that the mighty Ophirean army now lurks, awaiting General Iskandrian’s command. Beyond the city, there on the river’s south banks, lie the Tombs, a beauteous region of Stygian aspect which extends for miles.”
“There are three gates, each bound in iron. ‘Travelers entering from the south must pass through the Tombs, cross the Bridge of Skulls where the heads of the executed (which are many, for the King’s Justices are severe) are displayed, then pass through the River Gate. Those coming from the northeast enter the Gate of Gold and are soon lost amid the markets and palaces. We approach from the north and enter through the gate of mighty Avanrakash, may his bones lie undisturbed.”
“She is full of life, yet stinks of death. The placid fools within take no notice of the chaos besieging them. The fat merchants, bearded scholars, ragged peddlers, stinking beggars, and accursed footpads, all go about business in the usual way, as if nothing had changed. Yet the ladies and slaves, lordlings and harlots, tread carefully Ianthe’s paved streets, studiously ignoring her sewers’ fetid breath and greater ills as well.”
“Fear breeds fear, and Ianthe reeks of it.”
“You too will smell the tension. You will see that the fools zealously mind their own business, ignoring murder or kidnappings which cross their paths, each afterward swearing to the City Guard that he saw nothing, heard nothing, knows nothing, forgoing that his own life will be forfeit next. At night, the streets are deserted except for the cautious tread of the Night Watch and the multitude of thieves.”
Darios hissed painfully, with a sudden glance at the setting sun, “Speaking of night, we’d best make haste. The gates are barred at dusk. And though a bribe has been known to gain entrance then, more like it will gain naught but a shaft in the heart or a night’s stay in the graces of the Royal Torturer.”
Katos nodded, then turned a severe gaze on the party. “Be advised, foreigners such as we are never trusted in Ianthe, but especially in these times, We could all be cut down tomorrow in the middle of Emerald Square, and none would concern himself over the affair. We must be each others’ watch-guards and surety.” Katos then spurred down the hill toward the black gate of Avanrakash.
As the armed company approached the gate, a cry rang out, and the gate closed. The gate-sergeant called down to the travelers from his elevated perch on the wall, “Hail and halt. For whom does your banner fly?” Tullweim announced they were mercenaries in search of work. The sergeant replied “I cannot allow your troops passage into the city, by order of General Iskandrian. The General has proclaimed a new law. Only troops with a noble patron are allowed within Ianthe’s walls. Violators of the law will be impaled. Groups of more than 10 men may only move about the city with special permission issued by the palace. But few gain an audience to receive said permission. Those lacking permission are arrested for conspiracy against the crown and are imprisoned. Also, only on-duty soldiers may wear metal armor in the city. No one else may do so. Violators will have their left cheek branded.”
Since the Crimson Wolves had no noble patron and none of the gate guards were going to risk impalement, Tullweim would have to leave his troops encamped outside Ianthe. Katos and Darios wished to spend the night in Ianthe, and knew an excellent inn, The Bull and Bear. They said they were certain Baron Timeon would hire the Crimson Wolves if the Argosseans recommend them. Pay was likely to be 2,500-3,000 sp a month for the entire troop. Tullweim put Enaro in charge of the company and left all the goods from the caravan with them to use as they wished.
The gate guards allowed up to 10 of the travelers through the gate after they had removed their metal armor, but then locked it for the night, Tullweim, Cuana, Dhak, Xacksmith, a Zamorian thief called Taras, and 2 Nemedian Adventurers accompanied Lady Julia, Katos and Darios as they discussed arrangements to meet at Baron Timeon’s palace the next day.
The Sign of the Bull & Bear
The adventurers shouldered their way through the dispersing crowds to the Bull and Bear. It was an old inn leaning slightly against the neighboring buildings, like an old man threatening to collapse should his crutch be removed.
The tavern was crowded, full of noise, sweat, and the odor of some type of food assaulted the patrons’ nostrils. Several off-duty soldiers were starting a game of dice. A fat man argued with the innkeeper about the proper way to make beef stew. From the smell of the swill, it seemed the keeper could benefit from a few lessons. A rabbit-faced man was sitting deep in the shadows, eying the room over his mug. A well-dressed girl wore thick make-up and stood coyly in a corner, looking very shy. Katos and Darios excused themselves to a dark corner booth. It was plain they wanted no company. A serving wench swept over and asked if Tullweim and company wanted a room or anything else.
Tullweim took a seat at a table with Lady Julia, Cuana went to the bar as did Dhak, and Xacksmith was most interested in the soldiers’ dice game. Tullweim noticed the bashful girl and called her over to his table. She looked frightened and refused. Tullweim coaxed a bit and she said, “My name is Torali. My father’s estates were heavily indebted and were seized by his creditors. I have only just arrived in Ianthe and saw the lights of the inn. But I have no coin, and I’m afraid I will be put out into the street.” She was very afraid of the Nordheimer barbarian and really just a child. Lady Julia took a special interest in her and protected her from Tullweim’s clumsy advances. Julia was quite touched and offered to hire Torali as her maid. Torali accepted.
Cuana struck up a conversation with the man at the bar. The man introduced himself as Fabio, and was quite gregarious and free-speaking. He used to work for Baron Timeon as a cook, but had recently lost his job because his viands were considered too plain for his master’s palate, so they should suit a soldier’s taste quite well. Cuana questioned the cook about the Baron and Fabio replied, “The Baron is looking for some good troops. His last ones rode off to seek their fortune with Tiberio. Timeon is willing to pay 35 sp a head a month, bonuses to the commanders, so I say the ones who left are fools. Tiberio will give them naught but glory and death.” At this point Dhak interrupted the conversation and probed further to which the cook answered, “The Baron may be fat but don’t let his looks fool you. He’s no slouch. He’s set up an alliance with Count Antimedes, the biggest of the nobles and the king’s favorite. I heard it straight from the Baron’s curvaceous consort, so I know it’s true. Timeon and Count Valentius are worst of enemies, I gather the Baron insulted Valentius’ good friend, the Countess Synelle. If you’re thinking about working for Timeon, stay out of Valentius’ way.” Cuana candidly offered the cook a job with the Crimson Wolves and cleared it with Tullweim. Fabio asked for wages of 40 sp a month.
Meanwhile, Xacksmith joined the off-duty soldiers dice game. Xacksmith used his skills at sleight-of-hand to have the dice fall exactly how he wanted them to. As the Hyrkanian began to scrape the coins out of the winnings helmet, a soldier grabbed his hand. Another picked up the dice, peered at them, and said “These aren’t the same dice we began with. The dog is cheating!” The table was flipped over and the coins flew. Five soldiers dove at Xacksmith. The Hyrkanian thief leapt over the bar, one of the drunken soldiers pursued while the others blundered behind. While Xacksmith fled to the back of the bar, Dhak, with his Stygian suspicion struck the Crimson Wolves new cook. Cuana, pulled the cook back while Dhak struck again, Cuana responded with a fierce punch of his own to Dhak’s chin.
Through the chaos, Tullweim noticed the serving wench was helping herself to his coin purse while attempting a show of affection. The giant Aesir grabbed the wench to retrieve his hard-earned money and she bargained not to be struck with rumors of what she knew of events in Ianthe, “Well, there’ve been assassinations of various courtiers and kidnappings of nobles’ wives or children to insure the noble’s cooperation. The City Guard has been powerless to stop them and Iskandrian refuses to do anything. Even more frightening is the way so many of the city’s prettiest young women have been vanishing. One by one for the past several months. Ones like Torali there. No one knows what happens to them. Some say they’ve been sold as slaves into Stygia; others say they’ve been traded to Lunar Chanters for some hideous rite. They say that some of the tombs have been found open and the bodies missing. The Guards laugh it off as pranks by the fops, but I’ve heard there’s necromancy abroad again. When the king dies, which’ll be any day now, Count Antimedes is favored for the throne. He’ll seize it sure as my hair is black. But there are rumors of necromancy in the palace itself. Some say the king plans to rise from the dead and that’s why he hasn’t picked an heir. I pray to Mitra that it is not true!”
After the chaos, Tullweim had his men stood up in an intimidating manner and moved towards the soldiers. The soldiers demanded their money be returned to them. Tullweim decided it better to appease the soldiers then cause trouble before they had a patron and agreed, much to Xacksmith’s chagrin. The Argosseans Katos and Darios were spied receiving a note of some sort from the bartender. They argued a bit and then stood up to leave. Darios politely refused the adventurers offered company, saying that he and Katos would return within the hour. As they left the front door the man in the shadows stood up as well. Cuana stood in his way and wished him a good night. The man stared back at Cuana and quickly turned away continuing toward the door.
A moment later, a scream was heard outside. Tullweim, Cuana, Dhak, Xacksmith and Lady Julia rushed outside to see Katos fighting with a dark figure, Darios lying at their feet, another dark figure stood over his form. The two assassins tried to flee, Lady Julia caught and killed the one who was bending over Darios, then searched him immediately, finding nothing. The other fled down the nearby alleys. Darios was dead.
Tullweim asked Katos about the attack but he was unable to provide any information. He was now eager for the adventurers to protect him. He offered 500 sp for their protection. Katos took them to a secret room in The Serpentine slums, and asked them to carry Darios there, avoiding any people, especially the Night Watch. Katos attached great importance to Darios’ body and would not abandon it. Dhak stayed behind and broke a nearby lantern to use the flames as a scrying source on the assassin. Unfortunately he did not have the power to sustain the scrying for long.
Katos led the party up an alley filled with muck, rats, and slime. He then twisted the remains of a once elegant street-lantern hanging from a wall. A hidden door swung back, revealing stairs which led down into the ground. Lighting a lantern that rested inside the door, he led the way down into a dim, clean chamber, filled with odd bottles, bowls, and paraphernalia.
Katos took his dead friend’s hand and pulled an iron ring from the middle finger, and placed it on his own. It was a hideous thing, obviously quite ancient. It bore three eyes and four horns and seemed to match the huge ruby ring Katos wore on his left hand. He also removed Darios’ cloak, ripped out the lining, and removed a crumbling parchment. He then turned to Tullweim and said, “Since we found these rings and this scroll in the tombs of Garian, we have been pursued. We thought them but rare antiquities, but a message I have received tonight casts a new light on them. I know little, but what I know, I will tell. In ages long past, the Avatar of Al’Kiir, god of lust, pain, and death, dwelt upon Earth. His priestesses trafficked in human sacrifice of the most horrible kind. The fairest maidens were married to the god; the best warriors fought madly for his amusement. The people cried for release.”
“Eventually someone responded. The white sorcerer Avanrakash, last of his kind, formed the Circle of the Right-Hand Path and entered into a pact with Mitra. Avanrakash and his followers were jointly given enough power to destroy Al’Kiir, and they marched against him.”
“A great battle raged. Mountains were formed, rivers moved, deserts made, seas consumed. All died except Avanrakash, and he was mortally wounded. With his staff of power he drove Al’Kiir from the body he used on this plain—his avatar—and sealed him from the world. Avanrakash then presented his staff to the king of Ophir and disappeared into the mountains, presumably to die. Though none know his true end.”
Xacksmith asked about the crumbling parchment and Katos read it to the group, “Lo, call to the great god, entreating him, and set before the Image the succedaneum, the bridge between worlds, as a beacon to glorify the way of the god to thee.”
Katos wished to spend the night where he knew he was safe. He expressed a desire to have the party remain, but did not press them. Katos paid 500 sp to the group and was still willing to introduce them to Baron Timeon the next day. The party returned to the Bull & Bear and retired for the night.