So violently did Mount Khuzgaudh erupt in some bygone age, that the resulting lava floe breached the city wall in three places, bore down all buildings in its path and buried half of the city under fifteen feet and more of liquid rock. Most of the rest of the city had taken fire from the intense heat and burning ashes. Ever since, the cursed place had remained empty of all sapient life, other than those few times in recent history when desperate and evil men had resorted to it as a base for their plans of conquest. The High One of Melinarth and Ghrusoq himself (and his sire before him of the same name) had made full use of the tunnels and passageways but had had little or nothing to do with the ancient ruins on the surface. The current occupation of Melinarth is little different. Other than some evidence of rough rebuilding of the less tumbledown ruins, and a mostly feckless attempt at resurrecting the inner ring of gardens, the dead city lives up to its name.
The central plaza of Melinarth the Dead looks somewhat restored to occupation if not exactly to life. The struggles to renew the ancient gardens have resulted in wild growth amidst the ruins which mostly shuts off any ground level view of the rest of the city from the plaza. The spoke-like streets are for the most part overlaid by the ancient lava floe, which laps all but a small portion of the base of the pyramid in a stony embrace. A full bow shot across is that base. Five flights of stairs ascend from the plaza, fully three hundred feet high to the flattened top of the pyramid. Only one flight of stairs is free of obstruction from the lava floe. To the right of this singular, unobstructed staircase, a pathway in times past had been carved in the lava rock, around to the foot of the next staircase. It was midway up this staircase that everyone had seen Ahkrysyohs and his men enter the pyramid through a pair of compact, bronze, recessed doors.
Xoniuqé and his heroic companions in arms ascend the staircase. The steps are high, as if carved for taller than natural men. At the midpoint in the ascent they arrive at the doors. They are, of course, shut fast and stoutly resist all attempts to open them. No sorcery is used, or needed, to secure these doubled bronze portals. Xoniuqé and Lorinkh have, of course, been here before. And other than their direction of approach to these same doors, nothing has changed. On that previous occasion, the pair of them had issued from the depths of the pyramid. From inside nothing was easier at the time. But from out here, nothing could be more difficult. No fortified city of men ever secured itself with a more formidable entrance.
For the nonce there is nothing more they can do about the gateway to the depths. Ahkrysyohs has full access to the underground complex, while his pursuers must make use of less direct entrances. Xoniuqé and Lorinkh know of two more, or at least two that existed a generation of men ago when they were here before.
But before giving up altogether, several of the more energetic in the party climb the top half of the steep stairs. From that eminence the entire ruined city is laid out before them. By walking around the ten-sided edge the full circle view is stunning. The breadth of the pyramid's flattened top is sixteen paces, but the alter, the height of a tall man, occupies the center twelve feet of that. They search the other staircases for possible entrances, but turn up nothing.
Upon arriving at the summit, Lorinkh notices a difference at once. He calls down to Xoniuqé to come see. With a weary sigh, the aged wizard climbs up and stands beside the Drulath hero. Lorinkh points down to where the lava floe meets the smooth, black rock of the pyramid. Xoniuqé sees it too and nods: the pathway cut through the lava to the second set of stairs has been extended all the way around, giving access to all five staircases. What the purpose of that undoubtedly compelled labor was, is not apparent. But from up here it looks like a deep trough.
Without the path, or trough, seven-tenths of the pyramid's facets would be unapproachable but by the greatest difficulty. The porous lava has been eroded and the edges of the hardened, broken bubbles sharpened to an egg shell's thinness by millennia of blowing sand. Within those miniature cavities, recesses, fissures and crevices reside the denizens of this arid wilderness: scorpions, spiders, serpents and their prey. The way is therefore treacherous, hazardous and even deadly.
Xoniuqé begins to counsel with his people. He points as he speaks. "Over there in that clutch of trees you can see a large ruin. It was apparently once a sort of pleasure palace, I suppose. In one corner of it the floor had given way, and when we were here last the stairs down were exposed. What it's condition now is, who can say? In any case, my memory of that descent is disagreeable and I would rather try another.
"And over yonder, along that edge of the floe, is another tunnel, or there was at the time. The tale of how we came by the knowledge of those two entrances to the depths is too long to relate here and now. There are undoubtedly other ways to get inside, just as there are other ways to go down, once inside, that no one here has any knowledge of. The realm of Melinarth Beneath is much more extensive than this city that communes with the sky."
While they talk about their options, several members of the party are exploring the top of the pyramid and the raised alter. Horgand discovers a lever recessed in the floor and trepidatiously pulls up on it. The lever feels loaded and only remains upright when held with a degree of stiff force. Nothing occurs and he allows it to fall back into its groove.
Suddenly a voice exclaims: "Look! Down there!" The attention of everyone is instantly drawn to the scene developing below. A horde of armed men, including Warriors and Thugs, is issuing from the outer ring of ruins and already proceeding at a rapid pace down the streets converging on the central plaza. In the lead trots a battalion of Knights of Chaos! No one in the plaza can see the approaching enemy as yet. But they hear the cries of alarm from above and see the gesticulating arms alerting them to the coming danger. The Knights of Mytros and their men-at-arms mount and array themselves, facing toward the mouth of the street that draws the most attention from those on the top of the pyramid. Very soon, the cavalry can see their counterparts, quickening their pace even as they widen their frontage as they near the plaza-end of the street. The rest of the thus-far victorious host likewise forms for battle. In their rear, at the feet of the stairs, the cowering dregs of the Apostle's minions are forgotten. Horgand wastes no time debating what to do. He descends the pyramid swiftly, brushes through the heedless crowd of abandoned acolytes and joins the wizard's sword and crossbowmen.
Atop the pyramid, the heroes are stricken with dread: the throng of their enemies continues to disgorge from the ruins and alleys until the approaching mass is like a flood oozing through the ruin-lined streets. Warriors wheel left into the street by which the pursuit of Ahkrysyohs had been conducted, and so the way from the dead city is blocked. And behind the Warriors with their halberds come the surging masses of Ushim, and Urtukim, auxiliary troops to the Apostle's core of worshippers and fanatics. That in itself might be a small positive sign that Ahkrysyohs is running short of devoted troops, if he must resort to employing the races of the Ekbashim. But it is a marvelously large horde that they face now, already several times their own numbers, and still emerging from concealment in the ruins behind. The leading elements draw closer, crossing the lava floe nimbly and emerging from the trees. And then the Knights of Chaos and Mytros mutually charge each other and battle is joined!
At first the Knights of Mytros drive back their foes, pressing deeply into their formation. But the Knights of Chaos do not break! They recover, and begin to slay the Knights of Mytros and their men-at-arms of the second rank. As Urtukim draw near the cavalry melee, the pressure of sustained combat becomes too much and the Knights and men-at-arms break! They are scattered and smitten.
In the center the Drulath Legion meet the Thugs and elite Warriors. The Thugs are led by a pair of hulking giants. Behind these forward troops press up Ushim, while more Ushim, archers as well as combat troops, draw closer to outflank the Drulathim line. Crossbow bolts and shot from the gunnes tear holes in the enemy phalanx and then the melee is joined in the center.
Suddenly, the cowering minions of the god Qurosh'g throw off their ragged cloaks and reveal weapons, with which they attack the rear of the Drulathim main line, and the townspeople from Uhrbum Mhortuorum. The townspeople have a stiff fight of it. But the legionaries make swift work of the audacious yet doomed fanatics.
While the battle is in progress, up on the pyramid Xoniuqé, Lorinkh and the others are desperately seeking a way inside. The lever that Horgand had discovered picks at Lorinkh's curiosity and he searches for a second, connected part of the puzzle to the otherwise useless lever. By exploring the steps above the bronze doors, those also closest to the lever, he discovers that the top step is bisected by almost invisible parallel cracks; the space between is about the width of a standing man's feet. While Auhxalys holds the lever up, Lorinkh stands with his full weight upon the stone between the hairline cracks and that section of the top step drops under his feet about an inch. The lever is locked in place. And slowly a section between it and the top step settles at an angle to reveal a broad staircase descending steeply into the depths of the pyramid.
It is about then that the ambush below takes place. Horgand turns to the aid of the townspeople. And Lorinkh rushes down the steps as quickly as possible to aid the hard pressed townspeople in combat with the fanatics of the Apostle of Qurosh'g. Xoniuqé, Auhxalys and Sehlinah watch as Nouvzé enters the staircase. The women step in to back him up. Alone on the top of the pyramid, the wizard watches the battle unfold below, keeping an ear and eye on the gaping mouth of the staircase.
The battle has taken a turn for the better, for the moment at least. In the center the Drulathim have routed all but the Warriors. This precipitates a rout of the Urtukim approaching behind more Warriors on the left. But the victorious Knights of Chaos join these in an attack upon the Drulathim and Xoniuqé's sword and crossbowmen. The outflanking Ushim on the right throw in a brisk attack which is repulsed by Drulathim legionaries, in line with Ahnxst and Myrdagyn leading the stout axmen. The Ushim rout to the lava floe, where they turn about, regroup and begin to advance again.
While the pressure is removed, the Drulathim, axmen and townspeople begin to ascend the pyramid to the relative safety of the heights. But the wizard's fighters and the Drulathim on the left of the first line are caught in melee by the Warriors and Knights of Chaos. The legionaries, better drilled, can make a fighting retreat out of it, but the pressure on the sword and crossbowmen is too great and they fight and die where they stand.
Inside the pyramid, Nouvzé has seen where the staircase narrows to enter a round shaft lit feebly by scones with torches in them. Spiral steps wind down into blackness. While he peers and listens he first hears, then sees, an approaching multitude of the Apostle's fanatic guard. In less than a minute they will be at the top of the shaft and attacking! The young swordsman turns and ascends to the doorway where the two women grip their weapons. They are all that stand between the returning Ahkrysyohs's men and the wizard.
Outside, the horde is about to reach the base of the pyramid. Then Xoniuqé's band will be attacked from below, both within and without.
(To be continued....)