Cups Shake Things up
Midafternoon the next day the raiders reached the small village from which they had set out. A sad gathering of clay huts with roofs of brush and more clay. A single tavern at the center of the village served as town hall and the only source of distraction beyond the backbreaking labor of survival. Naked children ran laughing through the streets while men and women went about their tasks and shot wary glances at the foreigners.
“Did they seem this suspicious when we passed through a week ago?” Flye asked out of the side of his mouth.
“Well we did start that fight,” Kinesia said plainly.
“Their sour wine started the fight,” Bronan interjected. “We simply finished it.”
As the party approached the tavern hoping to secure lodging and transportation, a large man with his hands clasped obsequiously before him welcomed them.
“My friends!” he said in an ingratiating tone. “It is so good that you survived the wilderness. I trust your journey was a success?”
The raiders grunted as they passed into the tavern. Kurle, the designated diplomat, stopped to arrange things with the inn keep. Try as he might to engage the others, the man’s bluster trailed off when Traps made a rude gesture and entered the building.
The tavern was dark with a low ceiling. The scent of burned food and cheap wine permeated the single room of the lower level. A poorly made staircase led up to a loft where travelers slept. The snort of horses came through the thin walls in the direction of the rickety fenced lot that served as a stable.
“Must be someone rich in town,” Flye muttered. “No way these people can afford horses.”
The band took a large trestle table in a corner. Only a handful of locals were in the tavern. The farming community would only trickle in after they lost the light. A hard eyed serving girl brought flagons of wine, saving her best withering look for Bronan, whom she glared daggers at coming and going.
“I think you have made a new enemy, chief,” Flye taunted.
Bronan shrugged his great shoulders and looked into his wine with a scowl of his own, not looking forward to the inevitable hangover brought on by stuff of such poor quality.
“Well he did muss up her sweetheart something terrible,” Kinesia said teasingly.
Bronan’s scowl shifted to take in his crew and he pointed meaningfully at the wine to emphasize that it was to blame. Everyone smirked, enjoying the rare occurrence of seeing their leader mildly uncomfortable. Just as his fierce blue eyes began to grow angry at the gentle mockery, Kurle entered looking pleased with himself. His Zarmoran penchant for skullduggery coming in handy; a people said to twist the arm hardest in any negotiation.
“Did you fleece the oily snake, or did he fleece you?” Kinesia asked.
In response he gave only a knowing smile and took up a flagon of wine for a long pull. The others joined him, their good humor defusing the tension in Bronan. Soon they were all laughing and swapping old stories. Unwinding from a journey usually went this way. The nerves, coiled tight from violence and memories of recent bloodshed, slowly returned to normal. A steady flow of wine helped.
“Are all of you Hyperbroeans so large, Jug?” Flye slurred, the Pectish fighter being of smaller stature than the giant.
“Only those of my tribe,” Jug rumbled.
“Well how’d you get so big?” Flye pressed.
The huge man, showing the effects of the wine less than his fellows, assumed a solemn demeanor.
“Oh, you’ve touched a nerve, Flye,” Kinesia said. “He’s gone all nostalgic for the lost nomadic life of Hyperbroea.”
Jug’s face did not yield a smile and indeed his eyes had taken on a faraway look. Just when it seemed he would say nothing and Flye opened his mouth for a jibe, Jug spoke.
“The Tears of Fwheya,” he said in his deep bass.
At the goddess’s name the table went silent. Jug did not often talk of his homeland, but when he did everyone listened. Only Bronan from neighboring Swoleria and perhaps Kinesia, who had her own shrouded origins, knew much of the land of Hyperbroea.
“A secret passed hundreds of generations from our roots in Veinaheim,” Jug continued. “My ancestors fled the wars between the Veinir and Absgaard. We make it out of the sight of foreigners. Fwheya herself gave the knowledge to my people.”
“You could be a frost giant,” Bronan remarked, speaking as though he had knowledge of them.
Flye looked as though he might make a joke, but a sharp elbow from Kinesia turned his remark into a surprised squawk. His noise broke the spell over the table and, seeing that Jug had said all he would say, all returned to their wine. Almost unnoticed, more and more locals had filled the room nearly to capacity. Full night had fallen. The heat and smell inside the tavern would have gagged a sober person, but no one there could be described as such. Each cluster of locals periodically cast suspicious and often hostile glances at the table of raiders, some still nursing injuries from their visit a week past. Bronan and his fellows paid them little attention. The inn keep had come by their table several times to try and weasel more coin out of them, but their grunts and glares had sent him scrambling back to his bar.
“Well that makes two fancy cups you have, Bronan,” Flye said, making a weak recovery. “Now if we only knew why our employer wants them so badly. Bring out the first one so we can see it again.”
Bronan, rolling his eyes at being distracted from his wine, pulled out a cup of tarnished silver and placed it in the center of the table so that it was in plain view. It was inscribed with a plethora of symbols the meaning of which none of them dared guess. They had found it deep in the jungles on the border of dark Yogia among a ruined temple of Sit, the evil god of twisting snakes and lazy slugs.
“That was some nasty jungle,” Traps said quietly.
The others grunted in agreement. They had been saved several times by the cunning knowledge of the Core’nthian, whose steadiness helped them avoid pitfalls and other dangers. Ancient temples were, almost as a rule, riddled with wicked sets of traps.
“I thought that giant snake would be harder to kill,” Bronan mused, “but it had grown too fat and slow with all the easy prey of slugs around. I have no clue as to what Endomeatrius, the High Priest of Meatra, wants with the cup. He did not say.”
A vaguely serpentine shape coiled around the base of the silver cup. Its head seemed too misshapen and poorly worked to be threatening. The raiders chuckled and Bronan put the artefact away.
“I like it not,” Kinesia said with suspicion. “The whole affair has the feel of Broki upon it.”
Several made the Sign of Brodin to ward off the attentions of his trickster brother, Broki.
“So what’s so special about the golden cup?” Kurle asked, turning the conversation away from the Great Stealer.
Bronan glanced up from his flagon; eyes glazed with too much drink, and frowned.
“How should I know? Do I look like a priest or a sorcerer?” he said. “What care you anyway? We’ve all been paid half up front.”
“Can’t blame a man for being curious,” Kurle said crossly, the wine giving him momentum he was using unwisely.
Bronan shrugged, making it obvious he cared not one whit for what made the artefact special. Such was his irreverence for it that he drew it from his satchel and put it on the table. On the side was etched a humanoid shape with the head and legs of a goat. As the band stared at the golden goblet, Bronan sloshed wine from his flagon into it and brought it to his lips. All the men around the table smiled at their chief’s display of impertinence, but Kinesia, her wits also slowed by the wine, continued to stare hard at the cup. As Bronan began to drink she shouted a warning.
“Bronan, stop! It might draw the creature!” she warned.
As if her words were a spell, the oily lamps of the tavern all went out at once. Plunged into darkness, the locals cried out in surprise. There was a mad scramble as everyone stood and tried to strike a flame. Amidst the tumult a cold, cruel voice rose.
“I will be taking that back, barbarian,” it hissed from every unseen corner, “along with your lives.”
The shock shaking their warrior instincts awake, the band formed up around Kinesia, who brought a ball of red light into existence above them. Radiance illuminated the tavern to reveal a crowd of silent villagers, their eyes void of humanity and turned toward the raiders.
“He’s possessed them!” Kurle muttered, drawing his mace.
“Yes!” cried the creature, now illuminated as it stood upon the bar, seeming to hover over the crowd of hypnotized locals. “Kill them, my servants. Rend them limb from limb.”
At the Crossferatu’s command the villagers leaped forward shrieking and flailing. Jug lifted the heavy table and heaved it at the oncoming crowd, flattening several.
“The door!” Bronan shouted, punching a farmer in the face, who flew back into his fellows.
The raiders fought their way to the door, trying not to use lethal force on the innocent locals. The creature laughed the whole time, hurling insults. The sharp nails and field strengthened arms of the villagers bore down on the wine addled warriors, slowing their progress. Many of the mindless followers exerted themselves so much that they vomited. Traps, the lithest of their group, dove through two men at the door and tried to open it, but it would not budge.
“It’s held fast!” he shouted over the clamor.
“Brodin’s curse on these villagers!” Bronan grunted, his blood rage building faster knowing they were trapped.
Half of the crowd was down now, but the rest showed no sign of letting up their assault. The raiders, weary from travel and drunk, began to flag. As they drew themselves into a tight knot against a wall, a stinking mist crept toward them from the creature.
“Stay close,” Kinesia grunted and began muttering prayers to Fwheya.
The mist flowed over the villagers, who squealed in pain before collapsing into fits of bloody coughing. The deadly cloud rolled over their bodies and came up against an invisible barrier around Bronan’s band. Kinesia’s red light pierced the cloud, casting a hellish glow throughout the room. Soon the sounds of coughing ceased and all of the villagers were dead. The disembodied laugh of the Crossferatu filled the room, coming out of the thick mist.
“Fear not for the souls of these,” it said in a mocking tone. “All those in the service of Brahphomet can live forever.”
As the mist began to clear the band looked upon the twisted corpses littering the tavern floor. Faces locked in grimaces of pain began to twitch and spasm. One by one the dead rose, blood and vomit staining their mouths and clothes, eyes black with hate. Soundlessly they advanced on the raiders.
“How can the dead lift?” Jug asked in shock.
“Rise, Jug,” Kurle grunted. “They aren’t meant to rise.”
Discussion seemed pointless in the face of the creature’s necromancy, so Bronan and his fellows roared into the Crossferatu’s minions. Blades and clubs made quick work of the unarmed horrors, though the warriors were further weakened and scratched up in the fray. All save Bronan showed fatigue. His mighty, Swolerian frame heaved with his exertions of violence, seeming energized rather than drained. Though he appeared hale, a dark pallor had stolen across his fierce face.
“Let us end this, minion of Brahphomet!” he challenged.
The cruel face, skull visible through skin lacking muscle, leered back.
“Let us, Swolerian.”
As Bronan raised his sword and gave a war cry the Crossferatu raised its arm and a ray of green light shot out, striking the barbarian full in the chest. The raiders cried out in alarm, but their leader was unharmed.
The mocking leer of the creature turned to confusion and finally to a hateful glare. It had expected the barbarian to die from its spell.
“How is this possible?” it screeched and leaped from the bar and away from the enraged barbarian.
But, fast as the misguided creature was, Bronan was faster. With the speed and power of a leopard he struck with his massive sword. Propelled by iron hard arms the blade met with the Crossferatu’s thin neck, severing it in one mighty blow. The body dropped and the head rolled across the floor, coming to rest upright against the body of the twice slain inn keep. The eyes still seethed with rage and hate, though they were dimming quickly.
“I see it now,” its voice a low sighing. “You drank from the Horn of Brahphomet. I see it staining your soul. That is why you were invulnerable to my power.”
Indeed it was true. Bronan had taken a gulp from the cup they stole out of the tombs which the Crossferatu guarded. Even his fellows could see the effects of Brahphomet’s dark powers on the Swolerian. His mighty frame, second only to Jug’s, was starting to wither. His powerful muscles were shrinking, the poison of the dark god turning him into skin and fat. His sword dropped from his fingers and he collapsed onto his knees.
“Brodin help me,” he gasped, staring at his weakening hands.
A whispering laugh was the last sound from the skull of the Crossferatu as Juggernaut’s great hammer reduced it to dust with a sickening crunch. The giant turned worried eyes on his chief and then to Kinesia, the priestess of Fwheya.
“You must give it to him,” he implored.
The priestess looked uncertain, the only time that look had been witnessed by her companions. She could see bones starting to stick out of Bronan’s shoulders. Resolve filled her eyes and she dashed toward him, drawing a leather wine skin as she went. The Symbol of Fwheya was sown in silver upon the leather. She knelt before the Swolerian, caught his lolling head in her strong grip, and put the flask to his lips. His eyes, hazed with the weakness of Brahphomet, vaguely acknowledged her. He tried to struggle away.
“Do not run, Bronan,” she said forcefully. “Follow the Iron Path back to Brodin’s light.”
As the Swolerian drank, the effect was as miraculous as the Horn of Brahphomet’s had been insidious. His body straightened and his withering halted. His hands, thin and bony as a crone’s, gripped the wine skin and Kinesia’s wrist. The deathly pallor left him and his eyes took on their usual azure ferocity. His muscles bulged against his sagging skin, regaining their former glory. Surpassing his previous leonine capacity, the skin stretched. Veins stood out as though he had performed a strenuous feat. As Kinesia stood back a call of triumph tore from Bronan’s lips. The barbarian rose, glowing with the power of Brodin and Fwheya. He walked to the corner where their table had been and retrieved the Horn of Brahphomet. With a mighty wrench of his arms he tore the artefact apart, revealing a small length of bone hidden within. This he crushed beneath his boot heel. A flash of green light blinded the companions and an unearthly howl of bestial rage echoed from a dark gulf beyond mortal ken. Then only the light of Kinesia’s orb remained, and all was silent.
“Forget the gold,” Bronan said. “I cannot allow the powers of Brahphomet to spread.”
The raiders turned to Kinesia, still amazed at her redemption of their leader.
“What did you give him, Kinesia?” Traps asked quietly.
The Priestess looked down at the leather wine skin, the symbol of her order emblazoned upon it.
“The Tears of Fwheya,” she said mysteriously. “A closely guarded secret.”
Jug and the others had reverent looks upon their faces, but Bronan’s was a hard scowl.
“It tasted terrible,” he complained. “What is in it, fermented goats milk? How long have you been carrying that?”
The priestess of Fwheya only laughed in answer.
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