The Double Tower of Ben-Imal
Abyss / Layer 1 — Pazunia
Extracted from the journal of O’ja of the Field of Nettles
On the fifth day of the march, we arrived at our ferry point. Three expendable black abishai had confirmed clear sailing, with no visible ambushes laid within two miles in either direction. Of course, the ‘loths could have planted their little frogs in the fetid water, but we are prepared for this also. Gristilamm, our vigilant leader, had prepared a few spells fresh from the academies to temporarily negate the hydroloth immunity to the Styx. I simply hoped they would be as effective as his previous spellslinger tactics. No match for physical force, surely, but useful, in its own pettily academic way.
Our osyluth ferryman was a pathetic example of his kind. Fauning and obsequious to our vigilant leader, he obviously wanted to be a part of the Ring this cycle. But don’t they all? He told us of his experience on the Styx, and of his near mastery of its currents. Why was I not convinced? Perhaps it was the simple urge to force the bone devil into line, even if it meant breaking his emaciated frame! But we couldn’t touch him, the little prick, so we kept our mouths shut and daydreamed of a covert assassination.
Our first few hours on the waters were without interest, apart from when our little bone baatezu nearly navigated us off of the side of Gehenna. We proceeded through the Gray Waste slowly, even lazily, and the hours dragged on like lazy larvae. We were startled to attention when the boat suddenly rocked violently with a hard impact from below. Made of reinforced pumice and thus quite durable, the attacker was unable to break a hole in the hull, and out navigator quickly slid us up against the shore, where we got to dry ground and quickly organised into our variable stance. If tanar’ri, we could push them into the Styx with our polearms. If yugoloth, we would surround and separate them from one another, impaling them from all sides at once, and pinning them in place.
I have no doubt that is was this clever tactic that cost many valuable baatezu lives. From the waters, gray as the rest of Oinos, came not tanar’ri or yugoloth, but something strange and unknown to us. A creature much like a finned minotaur slowly rose our of the waters, dripping polluted water. Its bone-like horns were exaggerated, curving high over the head and doing at least two full rotations before reaching metal-tipped points. Its skin was taut over what seemed like muscular fat, causing it to literally wobble as it waddled onto dry land. Its face was quite bullish, but it has razor sharp fangs in the place of an herbivore’s blunt molars. We quickly surrounded it, as it was clearly immune to the water’s effects, and proceeded to impale it from all sides. As its skin pierced, the water of the Styx flowed out, not like water, but like an intelligent ooze, creeping up out weapons and trying to touch our hands. Through sheer luck, I avoided contact with the deadly fluid, which cleared the minds of a half-dozen other barbazu. It was Gristilamm, with his powerful cold, who froze the entity into a solid crystalline statue, which we promptly broke apart and scattered.
The exact nature of this strange creature I have not been able to ascertain from any known records. We simply filled reports when we returned to Baator, informing the Dark Eight of this discovery, and recommending more gelugon be places on Styx-faring vessels.
Once the threat was ended, we returned on our course, but three of the mentally drained barbazu were permanently frozen, unreviveable by any heat we could apply. I believe the freezing of the creature caused this reaction in the unfortunate among its victims, extending the damage to the creature to those it itself had damaged.
But I digress. We returned to our course, and soon made our way to our objective: The Double Tower of Ben-Imal. Built at even intervals on a huge bridge crossing the Styx in Oinos but reaching neither side, this building was deemed a threat to the baatezu cause (considering the problems we have had with the Bridge at Khalas), and were ordered to destroy it, clearing it of inhabitants and taking the stone back with us. Elegantly tall, with its towers plunging into the Styx itself, the stained marble towers were an impressive sight.
We docked under the bridge to avoid detection, and proceeded up the walls into small doorways placed near the water’s level. Inside, all was darkened, as if by some magic, but our vigilant leader was able to temporarily negate the gloom with his own magic. We proceeded into the towers, searching for signs of life.
Of life, we found not a rat. Both Towers were still and silent as mausoleums, devoid of any sign of recent inhabitation. Stone furniture lay, fused with the stone of the building, with dust deep enough to refresh a ‘death’ mephit. Gristilamm and the second in command, a quiet cornugon, debated what should be done about this surprising discovery. They finally agreed that the osyluth and a skeleton guard would take the stone skiff back to Baator to get new orders, while the rest of the war party would camp in the towers, which we found could be accessed from one to the other by going outside and crossing the bridge. Our hope was to get an idea what, if anything, the ‘leths, ‘loths, or tanar’ri were using these empty towers for, while the ferryman fetched orders. If Gristilamm could secure the Towers as a baatezu base and supply station, it would be very helpful for incursions into the Abyss. such a success would look very good on the resume of every member of the war party, even the black abishai.
For the first six hours, we finished surveying the exact details of the towers. Structurally sound, despite the apparent decades of disuse. Over 100′ tall at the water line, and descending at least 50′ below the waters, the interior capacity of the 50′ wide towers was extensive. If vertical stables could be built, it would be no great challenge to keep a standing army of abishai inside each tower, ready to defend them with the backup of cornugons. Their location was ideal, inaccessible from either shore. We determined the stone it was built with was tempered to prevent any teleportation through its walls, and stout doors could easily be mounted on the openings by the water. Out only real concern was a Styx-immune fiend breaking away the stone at either tower’s base, but there was no sign of this being easy, as long as we our two amnizu guards to help defend.
After six hours, though, things got strange. After our run in with the horned Styx-beast earlier, we were already on edge, expecting something odd to happen. This, of course, disturbs a body all the more when it does happen. We spied a huge ferry, of undetermined construction, approach us at a lazy pace, idly but purposefully drifting to the tower. The nearer it got, the more clearly we saw that is was ephemeral, not fully solid. It passed under the high bridge, barely clearing the overhang, and docked at the opening, its gangplank perfectly aligned with the doorways on both towers, a testament to the sheer width of the craft. We watched from the bridge and at the door, and saw ghostly forms of ourselves leave our bodies and walk to the boat, disturbing not a mote of dust. They were perfect examples of ourselves. I saw myself, groomed to court an erinyes with polished arms and armour and a look of satisfied conviction all true baatezu held. On the boat we saw all manner of passengers, equally ghostly. There were ultroloths and guardinals, dretches, and glabrezu. Orcs, elves, githzerai, githyanki, tanar’ri, baatezu, all standing still, making no move to kill one another, or even notice their existence. Each was a perfect member of their race. Out ghostly selves boarded the ship and sailed off, continuing lazily down the Styx.
From that point on, I felt a hollowness inside me, as if, with the spectres, we had lost what it meant to be a baatezu. Though none would speak of it, for fear of being accused of treasonous thoughts, it was clear all others were similarly affected. Even the great Gristilamm, gelugon mage and master tactician, seemed disinterested. When the osyluth returned, he charged Gristilamm of negligence, seeing the lackadaisical behaviour as a sign of weakness, a way to depose the gelugon and thus gain power. Casually, chaotically, selfishly, Gristilamm killed the bone fiend, and we were all surprised that we didn’t care. We waited for another, less ambitious ferryman, who took us wordlessly back to Baator, where, despite our technically flawless performance, we suffered greatly. We neglected our duties, having lost faith in the baatezu cause. That’s how I ended up at the Field of Nettles. Once the Dark Eight had rounded up the troublemakers from that expedition, we were all sent to a skirmish at the Field, an obvious suicide battle. I check, and every member of the expedition was present, even fallen Gristilamm, the amnizu guards, the cornugon commander, all of us. We even learned of a second expedition, which had the same effect as the first, involving a large team of erinyes who were to pretend to be a cabal of human tiefling wizards, to avoid revealing our new base. Every one was assigned to the Field that day.
Of course, there were many battles at the field. I was posted there for the better part of thirty years, surviving by secretly breaking tactical edicts to protect my own life. Many of my fellow faithless did the same. Some were caught, and executed. Others, including Gristilamm, were not, by sheer virtue of skill.
But slowly, our seemingly infinite forces were depleted, even as they were replaced. More and more of the faithless expedition members disappeared, apparently turning stag instead of fighting. I and the other barbazu had no choice but to remain, as we were in the constant company of other, normal barbazu. So we fought.
One day, I was sent among the bodies with a small group to scout the area. The entire group was composed of faithless, I noticed. We were ambushed fairly quickly by a tanar’ri force, but managed to defeat them. Then, we saw him. Unmistakably an ultroloth, from his stare, his faceless eyes, and his black, body-concealing robe. He stood atop a pile of corpses and spoke in our minds. He told us of an upcoming battle to try to wipe out the tanar’ri totally. He told us of its inevitable failure. Then turning, he walked away down the other side of the hill.
We conferred, trying to decide what we should do. Once we had made clear to one another our disinterest in the baatezu cause, we decided to make for the City of Soot and hide in the buildings of dirty air. In less than a day, the fighting started, and we could hear the din of battle below us through the clouds. Few tanar’ri came into the City during the battle, busy with the baatezu. We thought we were safe. We were not.
After thirty hours of fighting, the battle came to a halt, with no one left to fight. Soon, cambion scavengers came to the City, and caught us off guard. Forced to scatter, I lost tract of my fellow rebels, and was badly wounded. I thought I would die in that dark, cold City, but a group of benevolent mortals came to my aid, saving me from the cambions and taking me to safety.
Their benevolence taught me the value of help for the sake of help, good for the sake of good, and it brought me here to Mount Celestia. After some years of training, I have become an honorary Hound among the archons, who treat me with respect. But I cannot help but wonder about the Twin Towers of Ben-Imal. Were the ghostly images our own guiding philosophies. If so, did the Towers somehow steal them from us? And then, who received them? The yugoloths knew of my group’s loss of faith, though that much was evident from our recent records. Did they use the Towers to steal our souls, as it were, and to react our movements? I known not. I have lived well in Mount Celestia, did my penance in the burg of Redemption, repented and have become an Archon. How this could aid the yugoloths I have no idea. I known not what became of Gristilamm, or the abishai, or the cornugons, or the amnizu. I have no knowledge of my fellow rogues, though I highly doubt they would approve of what I have become. The strange circumstances of my desertion haunt me to this day, and I wonder at how the Unity of Rings will bring my past back to my present, and what it will make of my future.