Written by Jeff Lee
The jungle was hot. The sun had not yet risen, but already the heat was stifling. Zara, a gevet of the deep desert, had no problems enduring heat, but this was something entirely different. The air was heavy and wet. It clung to you, weighing you down like a drenched blanket. It was a new sensation, and an uncomfortable one. She glanced sidelong at her companion. Suisan, being human, would certainly be feeling the heat. Yet her companion showed no sign of discomfort. Her long, red hair had been pulled into a braid, then coiled into a neat bun at the back of her head. A black bandanna tied around her head kept the sweat from her eyes. Her long blade was slung across her back, and now she also carried a crossbow, the silver tip of the loaded bolt glistening in the predawn light. Suisan carried a machete in her hand, hacking a path through the wild undergrowth ahead, giving a light grunt with each swing of the blade that could barely be heard over the noise of the jungle. Like the humidity, the noise was another heavy layer of sensation. Birds, insects, frogs, primates, a thousand thousand voices clamoring amid the deep green of the place. It was mind-numbing.
The pair’s slow but steady progress continued until the last web of vines parted to reveal an open space ahead. Grasses grew up between large, weathered flagstones, the remains of some ancient court or mall. A stepped pyramid arose at its center, made of unmortared slabs of black basalt. The two women surveyed the area a moment, then Suisan turned to Zara and raised a hand. The cleric had to make a conscious effort not to flinch as the antipaladin reached out. There must have been something readable in her stance or face, however, because Suisan’s face split into that wolfish grin as she reached out and flicked away a large beetle that had been crawling, unnoticed, along one of Zara’s horns. Then she gestured towards the pyramid with the machete.
“This is the place. We’ll stop here and wait for the sun to rise before going further.”
Zara nodded in reply. She gave a nearby tree a close examination. Once she determined it was free of snakes, spiders, or anything else venomous, she leaned against its trunk, glad for the rest. This part of the jungle was trackless and much of it impassable due to the undergrowth and thick vines that clung to the trees. She and Suisan had taken turns hacking a path through to their destination. It was exhausting. Sleep called to her, mind and body. The women had decided to press on, however, taking advantage of the daylight. The blazing sun ensured their prey would be sequestered in the pyramid, waiting for night to fall. They would catch the abomination in its lair and finish it.
Suisan sat on her heels a short distance away, studying the pyramid. It towered above the surrounding jungle, nearly half again as high as the tallest trees nearby. Only one entrance was visible, at the top of the stairs which ascended to the small, square temple atop the pyramid. Suisan did not relish the climb, but at least she wouldn’t have to chop through vines and brush the entire way up. She took stock of her gear, loosened her blade in its scabbard, then opened a pouch and dug until she found a small vial of milky liquid. She turned to the tiefling, caught her eye, and raised the vial, shaking it to make her point. The cleric nodded and retrieved an identical vial from her belt. Suisan popped the cork and downed the contents. A burning sensation in her throat followed the magical liquid into her belly and spread outward, reaching to the top of her head, down her arms to her fingertips, and down through her legs, feet, and toes. The fatigue of the long march faded, and she felt as energetic as she had when she’d awakened that morning. Depleting her already-low stock of potions was distressing, but necessary. Any treasures she found in the temple could be used to purchase more. Zara did likewise, then took up her holy symbol, fingertips on the gilded edges of the polished, green stone. She prayed to Makash for power and guidance. She prayed for victory and, if victory was not to be had, for a good death. Meanwhile, Suisan stood watch, her eyes occasionally moving to the tiefling, watching her lips form the words of supplication as she prayed.
Once the sun had cleared the treetops, the two women entered the small clearing surrounding the pyramid. Crumbled walls and piles of stone were all that remained of other buildings that once surrounded the pyramid, save for a few still somewhat intact to the north. Though the thick press of trees in the jungle had not yet reclaimed this spot of land, brush and vines choked the stones at the outer edges. Some were nearly unseen beneath the verdant vegetation that covered them, smothered by the green of the jungle as it retook the land that had been carved away when the city was founded centuries ago. What remained seemed to indicate that the buildings were arranged in such a way that the main streets all ran to the pyramid at its center, like spokes on a wheel. It was down one of these that the pair moved, picking their way around bushes, over vines and tumbled stones. Zara was examining the worn, mossy carvings on a stone when she heard the hiss of Suisan’s blade as it cleared the scabbard. It was then that she noticed how much quieter it was in the immediate area. Something had caused the jungle life nearby to pause its normal cacophony. The cleric brought her halberd to the ready just as a looming form exited a broken arch ahead of them.
The figure might have stood nearly eight feet high, but stood stooped, with its knuckles planted on the ground before it. Shaggy, orange-brown hair covered its legs, back, arms, and shoulders. The chest, hands, feet, and face were bare, the brown skin like saddle leather. Yellowed tusks protruded from a wide mouth, curling up over the lips to either side of a broad, flat nose. Gleaming, wide-set eyes glaring red beneath a furrowed brow that sported a pair of curving, ram-like horns. The creature was unclothed, save for a leather belt that crossed its broad chest. The belt secured a large weapon to the hairy back: a broad, flat blade of wood, edged in shards of black obsidian, glassy and razor-sharp. Most disturbing was a spidery rune, carved into the flesh of the forehead, healed into an ugly scar. The massive form reared upright, nearing its full height, and unslung the macahuitl from its back.
“Enuka,” breathed Zara.
“Yes,” answered Suisan. “Several of them,” she clarified, turning and pointing her sword behind them.
Zara glanced back. Three more enuka had moved from the ruins into the street. All of them were similar in basic appearance—ape-like primates—but the enuka were a protean race, prone to mutation, and it showed. One had rolls of fat that made it broader than its fellows. Another had long black spines protruding from its fur. The third’s face sported bright blue cheeks. What they all had in common was the twisted rune scarred into their foreheads. Its presence filled Zara with a vague sort of dread. The enuka raised their voices into loud, hooting howls, slapping their chests with open palms and stamping their broad, flat feet. Then they moved towards the two women in a rush, running on three limbs, both feet and a hand, while gripping weapons in the other. There was no time to move, nowhere to escape as the huge warriors closed.
“Take the one in front,” said Zara. “I’ll handle the rest.” She raised her holy symbol and called upon the Green Mother. Suisan gave a surprised grunt, but acquiesced, moving to confront the one charging in ahead of them, yelling a challenge in response to its hooting war cry.
Zara finished her spell as the three others barreled in. A wall of spinning, translucent blades flashed into existence, spreading out to cover the breadth of the road. The first enuka, with its bristling spines, was carried through the wall by its sheer momentum. Blood sprayed in all directions as the blades sliced into it. The bestial warrior shrieked in pain, its flayed form thrashing as it hit the ground. The blue-cheeked one managed to halt her charge, tearing up turf as she slid to a halt. Her blubbery companion was not so lucky. His broad arm, holding a wicked axe, went through the wall of blades. The haft of the axe was severed, as were several of the enuka’s fingers, tendons, and muscle groups, before he yanked his savaged arm back from Zara’s magic barrier.
Suisan let the enuka come to her, watching its rampant charge. As it reached her, the hand it had been using for mobility reached up to grab the handle of the macahuitl and it brought the weapon down in an overhead arc. She sidestepped the attack, stabbing at the enuka’s chest as its momentum carried it forward. The blade pierced its chest, two feet of steel vanishing into its torso before it twisted away, pulling the blade from Suisan’s hands. The enuka whirled, slamming the flat of its weapon into her side before she could recover her balance and knocking her to the ground. She watched as it grabbed the quillons of her blade and pulled it free, tossing the bloody blade aside. Blood flowed from the wound, but the enuka ignored it, roaring at her and giving her a view of its mouthful of sharp, yellow teeth.
The spiny enuka, despite the terrible wounds it took from its trip through the wall of whirling blades, gathered itself and rose. Its weapon destroyed, it lunged at Zara, attempting to impale her on the spines growing from its forearm. The cleric retreated, backstepping as her foe advanced, slow and bleeding, but unwilling to give up the fight. Zara fended off a half dozen wild swings and then, as her opponent began to flag, she struck. Zara brought her halberd down into the enuka’s left thigh, the axe blade biting deep. The enuka fell to a knee. Zara raised the weapon high, swinging down onto the back of his head with a wet thunk, and the enuka went face down and did not rise again. Zara swung around to aid Suisan, seeing her bloody blade on the ground several feet away, then the big brute closing on the antipaladin, crouched in a defensive stance with a dagger in hand. She moved to the sword, grabbing it up and moving toward the fight.
The enuka charged, roaring and swinging its glass-edged blade. Suisan fended off attacks, using the dagger’s edge to deflect the macahuitl. It was fine steel, and held up under the assault. Chips of obsidian split off and flew each time the weapons made contact. The enuka was immensely strong, and even such glancing blows numbed her arm and made her shoulder ache. The enuka had backed her into a tumble of stones, a crumbling foundation with a few low, standing walls and was running out of room to retreat. She heard Zara cry her name, saw the cleric off to one side with her blade, tossing it. Suisan reversed her grip on the dagger and threw it. The blade wasn’t made for throwing, but it bit into the enuka’s cheek, leaving a gash before falling away. Suisan didn’t see. She dove to her right after the dagger left her hand, rolling up to catch her sword as it came down. As the enuka turned to follow, she swung with a two-handed grip, slicing nearly through his left ankle. The enuka stumbled as its leg gave. Suisan parried his wild swing, throwing his arm wide, then brought her sword down on his thick neck once, then again. Her opponent fell. She glanced at Zara and gave a nod. The two women came together again, assessing the battlefield.
The blue-cheeked enuka came scrambling over a low wall. She must have worked her way around the wall, thought Zara, bringing her halberd to a ready position as Suisan flicked the blood from her blade and stood to her left. The enuka advanced, raising a spear, then unexpectedly pursed her lips and spat. A stream of yellow spittle arced out and struck Zara in the face. The cleric cursed, her eyes burning painfully. The enuka howled in triumph and charged forward with her spear. Suisan moved to intercept. The spearhead rang against her sword as she parried, sending the spear out wide. She thrust forward, this time catching her opponent in the hollow of the throat. Suisan let the blade slide in a hand’s width then pulled it to the side as she withdrew, leaving a large wound from which blood began to gout. Reflexively, the enuka raised a hand to stanch the wound. As she did so, Suisan used her blade to bat down the spear, then reversed into a vicious upward slash, taking the enuka in the side of the head. As her opponent hit the ground, she turned back to the cleric. The tiefling was blinking her eyes rapidly, tears streaming down her face. Her pupils were dilated, only a thin sliver of color separating them from the whites, which were badly bloodshot. The lids and surrounding skin were reddened and beginning to swell.
“Venom,” gasped Zara. “I—I can’t see.” Suisan gave no response. “Give me a moment, and I’ll—” Before she could finish her sentence, howls rose up from the buildings to the north. Suisan sighed and grabbed the cleric’s arm, who flinched involuntarily at the contact. Suisan grinned, knowing the cleric wouldn’t see it.
“Come on. Sounds like the vampire has a whole tribe of enuka camped on his doorstep. We need to move, now.” She began to stride along the street towards the pyramid with the cleric stumbling after her, arm still in the antipaladin’s grip. The yells and cries of the enuka drew steadily closer. Suisan grimaced. The blind cleric kept tripping over roots, rocks, and her own feet as she was pulled along. The urge to put a dagger between her ribs and leave her for the enuka rose up, but Suisan forced it back down. She stopped short, causing Zara to stumble against her.
“Keep still, stay quiet, and hang on,” ordered Suisan.
“What are you…? Oof!” The question ended as Suisan leaned down and lifted the cleric up onto her shoulders, then began trotting towards the pyramid once again.
“I said shut up. If we both live through this, I might make you carry me home. You’re heavy!” Suisan said no more, saving her breath for the jog down the ancient thoroughfare towards the pyramid steps. The sounds of the enuka were coming from both sides of the pyramid now. They had split into two groups, Suisan thought. Unsure of where the alarm was raised and searching for trouble. Might buy us a little time.
Suisan made it to the base of the pyramid without encountering any more enuka. By this time, she was breathing heavily and her thighs and calves burned. Without ceremony, she slid the cleric from her shoulders.
“Time to start climbing. The steps are tall and narrow. No vines or loose stones to trip you up. Looks like the enuka have been taking care of the place.”
Zara nodded, still blinking tears from her eyes. She placed a hand on Suisan’s shoulder, and together they started their ascent. They were nearly halfway up when angry bellows from nearby enuka announced that they had been spotted. Suisan risked a glance back. A half dozen of the massive primates were dashing down the street towards the steps. She could see more moving among the ruins. She noted the ones in the street, like the four they had fought earlier, all bore scars on their foreheads, the same symbol or glyph carved into their flesh. Suisan turned back and concentrated on getting to the temple atop the pyramid first, preferably without losing the cleric in the process.
Ten more steps.
The cries of the enuka were close. A spear clattered off the steps to Suisan’s right. She could hear the slap of enuka hands and feet against stone.
Zara cried out next to her as a loud crack sounded. Suisan saw a rock fly past, between her and the cleric, and clatter against the steps. The rock had struck Zara a glancing blow, most of the impact on one of her horns. The top of her ear was torn and bleeding. The impact caused Zara to stumble, but Suisan supported her and urged her onward.
Thirty steps. Now forty. Spears and stones continued to fly past or rattle against the ancient stones.
Ten steps from the top, pain erupted in Suisan’s right calf. She halted, twisting to see what had been done to her. A javelin hung at an angle from her leg, dragging on the wound its head had bit deep into the muscle. The six from the street were bounding up the steps on all fours. With a grunt and a curse, Suisan yanked the missile free, tossed it aside, and limped for the top with the cleric in tow.
At the apex of the pyramid was a stone building, perhaps fifteen feet in height, made of unmortared slabs of black basalt. A pair of stone doors stood at the top of the stairs. Faces with bulging eyes, long, pointed ears, horns, and mouths impossibly full of sharp fangs leered in bas relief on the doors’ surface. Without hesitation, Suisan limped to the doors and threw her shoulder against one. It gave, pushing effortlessly inward, despite the slab of stone being nearly eight feet tall, half as wide, and four inches thick. Grabbing Zara by the arm, she thrust the cleric in ahead of her and slipped into the narrow gap before pushing the door shut and pressing her shoulder against it.
The only light in the place came from the gaps around the doors, highlighting the portal and dimly illuminating the immediate space. Suisan cast her gaze about for a bar, lock, or some other means of barricading the doors against the approaching enemies. Nothing. There was nothing.
“Zara! Do you have anything you can wedge under the doors? A crowbar? Anything! I won’t be able to hold against all of them!”
“Hold on!” The priest of Makash fumbled in a pouch at her belt and pulled out something small that Suisan couldn’t immediately identify. Then she grasped her holy symbol with the other hand and began to chant a prayer.
An impact on the door shoved Suisan back, the door swinging in a few inches. Suisan braced and shoved hard, forcing the door closed again with a grunt. She strained, feeling the warm blood from her leg wound begin to fill the bottom of her boot.
“Hurry!” Suisan yelled.
Zara reached up and traced her fingers quickly over the doors, locating the gap between them. Then she slapped the small item in her hand against it and pressed, sliding her hand along it as she finished the spell. To Suisan, it looked like…clay? Then the spell took hold and the stone of the door began to move like the clay, spreading to fill the gap between the doors, the light from outside beginning to vanish. Likewise, the stone of the door frame began to meld with the doors, Zara’s spell merging them into a solid block of stone, a wall instead of a door. When the spell finished, the two were left in darkness, listening to the muffled sounds of the enuka outside, pounding on the stone and roaring.
Suisan turned and put her back against the recently made wall and slid down into a seated position, with an explosive exhalation of breath. She inhaled deeply, then began to laugh.
“Excellent work, priest. Now we’re safe from the enuka, and firmly shut up in the lair of the Khaynite vampire.”
“Would you prefer to face the enemy outside? I can reverse the spell.”
Suisan thought about what lay somewhere down below. She was glad of the dark, and Zara’s blindness. They hid the involuntary shudder from both the cleric and herself. Still, the laughter subsided into a chuckle, but did not dissipate entirely.
“Perhaps. Before we decide, let’s arrange it so both of us can see again and get my damn leg to stop bleeding.”
Zara gave a chuckle of her own. “Agreed.”