Thursday, April 15, 2010
HELGACON III - Valley of the Forgotten Kings
As the sands shifted about in fitful clouds behind them, a brave party of adventurers found themselves standing at the entry to a box canyon that their hosts at the Saluk nomad camp had whispered to them about as they'd gathered about the sheyk's campfire the night before. A lost valley, where few of the superstitious men of the high desert dared tread, where the tombs of long dead rulers of a bygone era slept beneath the merciless gaze of the sun. The fabled Valley of Forgotten Kings.
The group numbered five, if one chose not to count the gen familiar of the portly sha'ir Nabil Abdel Shafi. At the fore were the two brothers, Jiri and Hakim Jirib, both doughty warriors and seasoned adventurers. Behind them, a furtive priest named Kash Kash, who claimed to serve the Lord of the Desert (although he merely smiled evasively if one asked if he meant Asmar, Desert Lord of the Alwan pantheon) and a golden furred kedai huntress named Faridé Fouad.
The valley stretched before them, high sandstone cliffs trailing down into gravel trailing down into a sinuous river of sand that poured in from the northern end of the canyon form the high deserts beyond. Several dark caves dotted the rock walls, but the two most striking features were a toppled obelisk at the far end of the valley, and a row of majestic statues of seated gods and monarchs carved from the eastern wall, each one with a stone door between their massive feet.
The adventurers decided to approach the row of statues, and as they came closer they gazed upon the visages of the long dead kings. From left to right, the figures were: A two headed god bearing the beaked heads of an eagle and a vulture, with a smaller figure enthroned on his lap, a bald headed scribe with a tightly bound beard, a stern faced warrior in a domed crown, and a pleasant faced nobleman in a flat crown. Liking the softly smiling visage of this last one, they decided to approach him first.
Examining the door, the group saw that it was carved with the images of fish, their open mouths pointed toward the sky. Closer study revealed that one of the mouths concealed a hole in the door. Hakim drew forth a ten foot pole from the luggage strapped to their camel, and thrust it down the opening, and was rewarded with a click, as the stone door receded into the ground before them. Unfortunately, he was unable to withdraw the pole in time, and found himself the owner of a six foot pole as it wedged in the recess and snapped off.
Inside, the group found a large tomb carved with papyrus reed designs on the walls. A towering statue of a stern faced mameluk stood before them, his grim features staring ahead in space. His flattened head touched the roof, and his feet were braced on the ground, as if he bore the polished bricks of the ceiling upon his pate. Beyond him, a stone boat lay, bearing a royal sarcophagus decorated with chipped blue paint, at the foot of which rested a stone box carved to resemble a fisherman's basket. Nearby, in the west wall, a round bronze door with a sunburst design was set in the wall. The party walked into the tomb, looking about in wonderment, and set about exploring.
As Nabil the sha'ir and Kash Kash the priest examined the doorway, finding inch wide holes in the face of the door between the verdegris striped rays of the sun, the others turned their attentions to the casket and box. The brothers Jirib each took a side and lifted the lid, and stood blinking in confusion at one another as the sound of grinding stone continued even as they paused. Looking around, they saw that the statue had turned to face them, pointing an accusing finger at them as they gazed up at its scowling visage. Dropping the lid, they turned to face the animated carving.
As the brothers' weapons flashed in the dim light, the doorway behind them rumbled shut, casting the room into dim twilight. While incredibly strong, the animated statue was crumbling, and the brothers' blades held enchantment. After a brief scuffle, they chopped the living pillar down, then cried out in dismay as a section of ceiling collapsed upon them.
After regaining their bearings and binding their wounds, they saw the glitter of gold among the broken masonry, and found that each fallen brick had contained a gold piece, cast in the likeness of the fallen statue. After gathering up this windfall, they turned their attention back to the box and sarcophagus. Removing the lids of both, they found a mummy wrapped in royal robes, a fishing rod and basket lying in the coffin with him. In the box, they found a profusion of silver pieces, each cast in the form of a tiny fish. The eyes of Faride the kedai glittered in particular at this latest find. They filled their packs with silver and gold and examined the doorways, both the exit to the desert canyon, and the mysterious disk shaped door to the west.
The door to the outside was quickly determined to be openable via a small mechanism attached to a bowl, presumably meant to hold a measure of liquid, but the snapped off end of the pole worked just as well. Taking this remnant of pole, Jiri thoughtfully walked up and inserted it into one of the holes in the face of the sun door, and there he discovered that the door could be rolled aside using the handle like a crank.
Beyond, there was a long hallway with a floor carved to resemble flowing waves on the surface of a river. Dull bronze serpents were set in the floor in the first thirty feet of the corridor. As the party advanced down the hallway, examining this new find, one of them carelessly stepped on one of the broad serpent heads. From down the darkened corridor, a hiss was heard, and a bronze spear shaped like an adder flew down the hallway, barely missing those who were in front. Examining the missile, they saw that the fangs of the sculpted serpent's head were encrusted with some fell substance. The Brothers Jarib looked at one another craftily, and the headstrong Hakim stepped on another trigger in the floor, launching a second serpent spear which he just barely avoided. The two warriors gloated that they had obtained two poisoned spears from this trap, but the rest of the group decided to be more careful and avoided launching any more projectiles down the hallway.
The corridor continued for 90 feet, then turned to the north past a stone lattice in the far wall carved to resemble crisscrossing snakes and papyrus reeds. An eerie blue glow filled the chamber before them, and they sent Faridé ahead to scout with her night accustomed eyes.
The kedai came upon a large chamber with a darkly rippling pool at the center, and her sharp, green eyes spotted a cluster of small snakes swimming across the surface in a tight grouping. The room was lit by bronze disks hanging from the ceiling, each shimmering with blue flames. A row of stone tables and couches lined the north wall, and she saw a length of red cloth and something gold sparkling on one of them. With a low whistle and a flick of her wrist, she summoned her comrades forward, and they fanned out into the room.
As they entered, the cluster of snakes bobbed up and down in the darkling waters, watching them warily. The group found that the cloth and shiny object were a rough, rust colored cloak and an ornate mask shaped like the beaked face of a vulture made of brass and copper. Hakim stepped down to the lip of the pool and thrust his spear into the water.
It was then that a shapely figure rose from the pool, her back turned toward the startled adventurers as serpents cascaded down her back, gazing at the party with glittering eyes. She covered herself modestly and spoke to them in a low voice. "Avert thine eyes if thou wouldst live." Being well bred, the adventurers turned their backs, as the creature rushed over to the stone couch and clothed herself in cloak and mask, then turned to address them.
For a long while, they spoke to her, and learned that she was once a high priestess in service of the Tetrarchs. She told them of the legendary Throne of Changes, which if sat upon would deliver boons or curses based upon the whims of the ancient gods. She herself, in an act of hubris, challenged the gods to bestow all that the Throne might give when she sat upon it, and had been transformed into the creature that stood before them. She'd been granted eternal life and health, but had also become a strange, reptilian being, and her gaze was doom. Since the day of her transformation, she did abide in the catacombs, as she was no longer a creature of the world above.
When asked, she told them there was great treasure buried in the Tetrarchs' catacombs, and also warned that there were many dangerous creatures in the tombs, but if they wished to go on exploring she would not stop them. Her only request was that they spare her the gazing crystal in one of the upper chambers that she used to observe the goings on of the wider world, which was her only source of amusement in the long eons. The party promised her that they would leave it be, and parted company with the creature, after she gave them a final warning not to provoke her acolytes.
The group headed east down a corridor, and found a wooden doorway that they forced open. Beyond they discovered the ancient priestess' acolytes, a pair of grim mummies who sat up on their pallets with burning coals in their black eyesockets. Faridé and Nabil were so paralysed with dread that the burly brothers Jarib and Kash Kash had to physically drag them past, and into a corridor heading north.
This passage led to a crossroads, with a set of stairs to the north and a sloping corridor to the southeast, which they followed until they came to a bronze door marked with a cats head gazing out from a square, which Faridé recognized as the symbol of her people's lost goddess, the Ohai.
Stepping inside, they found a shrine to the Ohai, a long chamber with a dried up pool littered with the skeletons of fish, with the mummified bodies of great cats propped against the walls. In the northern end of the hall, a large statue of a cat peered down through a square hole in the ceiling. The fur stood up on Faridé's shoulders, and she felt an odd pulsing behind her eyes. In a flash of inspiration, she knew that she had been temporarily granted the gift of prophecy. As her green eyes went crossed, she informed her comrades that any one question they put to her, regardless of subject, would be answered truthfully.
Hastily, the party conferred, and decided to ask here where the greatest wealth in the catacombs could be found. The female kedai responded with a series of slurred directions: "Go west, then south, then west, then north, then east."
As they committed the route to memory, Hakim discovered one of the cat mummies was fake, and by turning it's terra cotta masked head, a door opened in the northeast corner. The group decided to check this out before trying to follow their comrade's cryptic directions.
Beyond the hidden door they found a twenty foot hallway, with a door at the other end. A strange, phosphorescent glow issued from the crack at the base of the portal. Cautiously, the group advanced to the door and opened it.
A rough carved room about 20' by 20' lay beyond, with a low basin in the northeast corner beneath a shaft in the cieling, that shone with dim light from above. The walls were lined with some kind of faintly glowing, greenish white substance. As the party stepped into the room, they were ambushed by a gigantic scorpion, as big as two men, which dropped down from the shaft and sprang to the attack, clattering its huge, serrated claws.
The brothers Jarib leapt back and drew missile weapons, as Kash Kash began to chant and ululate, paying homage to his true desert lord, Akrab the Scorpion, whose cult was outlawed in most civilized lands. Nabil ordered his gen Ban Ban into the fray, and the tiny jinni complied with much protestations. The scorpion struck at the party with its claws and tail, as the brothers cast javelins and fired bows at it. Kash Kash swung his heavy flail in a daze, and was struck by the thing's tail, shrugging off its poison. Nabil began to feel remorse for endangering his tiny familiar as Ban Ban swung his tiny fists and bemoaned the thoughtlessness of his master. Chagrined, the sha'ir stepped forward to collect up his diminutive servant, but was caught in one of the monster's clasping claws, then stung in the heart. The rotund mystic's eyes bulged in his sockets, and he succumbed to the venom with a gasp.
Meanwhile, Jiri and Hakim tried to stab the thing with their newly acquired serpent spears, but found the beast resisted the venom, in spite of the fierce wounds they were bestowing upon it. Kash Kash struck the thing again with his flail, enraging it into stinging him again. This time, the poison boiled in the outlaw priest's blood, and slew him. He died as he had lived, stung repeatedly by scorpions. With a final bout of flashing blades, the others slew the beast, and fled the room.
From above, the din of the fight had attracted two wayfarers who by quirk of fate had been drawn to the lost valley by uncanny connection to the adventurers who had just fallen. Their calls down the well shaft stopped the three surviving party members just as they were rushing out the door. The trio looked up to see two men drifting down the shaft as if they were lighter than air, settling down in the basin next to the grisly corpse of the scorpion and the half dissolved bodies of their comrades. One newcomer let out a wail of recognition, and knelt by the body of Nabil, while the other nodded in grim satisfaction at the corpse of the dead scorpion priest Kash Kash. The portly little man introduced himself as Zafir Abdel Shafi, brother of Nabil, also a sha'ir, and who bore a remarkable resemblance to his deceased twin. The sha'ir's gen, Nab Nab, was a djinnling, who had provided the magical flight down the shaft. The other, a stern priest wearing the brown cloak of Asmar, Lord of the Deserts, introduced himself as Ajarabh Scorpion Killer, who hunted the outlaw priests of the Sanam on behalf of his patron.
The party welcomed the newcomers and divested their fallen comrades of any necessities. After honors were spoken, the dao of the earth pulled Nabil's lifeless body into the ground, and they left that place of death to the dead scorpion and its worshipper.
Resolving to follow Faridé's directions, they wended their way back to the chamber of the pool, informing the high priestess of what had occurred as they passed through. The directions led them around a corner to a dead end corridor, full of solid gold statues, some clad in mouldering clothing. The greater part of them were posed as if seated, with expectant looks on their faces. Others looked shocked and cowered in fear. Among these, the twisted bodies of tomb rats could be identified as well.
After determining that the statues were much too heavy to lift, the Jarib brothers started cutting the arm off one of the tomb rat statues. Once they had stowed this weight of gold in their packs, the group decided to explore further down the corridor to the west.
Eventually they came to a chamber lined with earthenware jars, each a set of four with different animal head stoppers. Inside, they found mummified organs floating in a pungent tincture of spices and chemicals. The floor of this room was littered with smashed jars, further evidence that somewhere tomb rats were afoot. An opening led north and further west, and they decided to explore to the north.
This led them around a twisting passage that ended in a dead end with a mirror topped by a scarab design with a carven eye set in its carapace. Zafir stepped up to the mirror to examine it, and was shocked as his reflection reached out of the mirror with an evil leer and clamped his hands around his throat. His djinnling familiar's reflection ran along his outstretched arms and began to fight furiously with its tiny duplicate.
After a furious battle in the cramped corridor, the evil duplicates were slain, and faded into the air like mirages. The party fled down the hall and headed further west.
This brought them to a crossroads. To the north, they saw an alcove with a royal sarcophagus interred, to the south, a long corridor lined with statues of priestesses. Every so often, one of the carvings held a bronze bowl in her cupped hands, and as the party stared, the bowls each lit with eerie blue flames one after the other heading away form them. They could hear the faint whispering and chanting of female voices just at the edge of hearing in the still, cool air.
After checking the sarcophagus and finding it and its contents unremarkable, they headed south, to the end of the whispering hall, where they found a large stone door standing with a pivot in the center, with bas relief of an eagle and a vulture on its face. After examining it for a while and trying to press on the statues, Ajarabh suggested that Faridé touch it, seeing as she was the only female in the group and the decorations in the hall indicated an order of priestesses. Sure enough, the door opened onto the hot, sandy air of the dust choked valley beyond. They were at the door between the feet of the god statue.
From there, they doubled back and headed down the west passage back at the crossroads, following it until they came upon an embalming workshop, with four slabs containing inert skeletons, and a fresco on the walls depicting several goddesses with zoomorphic heads conferring over a mummy. They also found a set of stairs leading upward from the northwest corner, and they followed them.
At the top of the staircase, they found a door made from the lid of a sarcophagus, with a white female face with dark rimmed eyes rendered in chipped paint on the shallow bas relief carving. Finding it sealed tight, the group chopped through the coffin lid with their blades, revealing a room stacked with sarcophagi beyond. Some had been broken open, while a row of them lay propped up against the north wall. There were old dry bloodstains on the floor, crisscrossed with the clawed tracks of tomb rats. Tucked behind one of the standing sarcophagi, they found a tomb rat's shriveled head, neatly severed from it's body, which was nowhere to be seen.
As they searched the coffins, three of them creaked open, disgorging a trio of terrifying ghuls: blackened, shriveled creatures armed with deadly sharp swords and spiked shields, their silently grinning, fanged hyena skulls gazing at the recoiling adventurers with empty sockets. Ajarabh invoked his diety and sent two of them retreating into their sarcophagi, while the third stepped up to the attack without a sound.
After a brief exchange of flashing blades, the misshapen creature fell to the ground, and the party busied themselves exploring the room. They discovered one of the sarcophagi contained a clay jar full of copper pieces, stoppered with a plug of valuable lapis lazuli. It was too soon to rejoice, however, as the ghul they thought slain picked up its sword and rose once more to the attack. With horrified eyes, the group saw that the wounds they had given it were drawing closed and vanishing. In the ensuing fight, Ajarabh was wounded, but managed to keep his feet. Finally, Jiri dealt the thing a mighty blow, cleanly severing it's skull from the body, and the thing crumbled to foul shreds of black and bone fragments.
Following a doorway beyond the stack of broken sarcophagi, the party followed a winding hallway that eventually took them to the crossroads at the base of the stairs that they'd initially seen when passing the acolytes' chamber. Deciding to follow it, they came upon a corridor heading east and west the floor of which was decorated with a gigantic bronze serpent's coils. This led into a vast hall where the flat inlay rose into a huge bronze cobra's head arched over a low, stone and bronze throne. Here was doubtless the mysterious Throne of Changes that the transformed High Priestess had referred to.
Inspired by the mystic aura of the chamber, the priest Ajarabh stepped forward and sat in the throne. In a flash of light and a peal of thunder, he stood once more, marvelling that all of his wounds had healed.
Emboldened, Zafir the sha'ir sat down. In a flash and boom, he looked down in horror to find that his skin had become hairless and scaly, with golden slitted eyes and a forked tongue. On his shoulder, his djinnling familiar had transformed into a serpent. Seeking foolishly to undo his transformation, he rose and sat down again. In a second flash, all of his wounds had been healed. Tempting fate once more, he rose and sat again. With a final crash of thunder, his robes and packs collapsed, as his body transformed into a writhing mass of angry snakes that spread out across the room.
As confusion broke out among the alarmed survivors, Faridé's feline curiosity overcame her, and she climbed the dias and sat on the throne as the priest and the two warriors backed away from the snakes that suddenly infested the room. In a flash and boom of thunder, the hapless kedai was transformed into an undead mummy, her golden coat sloughing away over blackened skin as she rose with flames of ghoulish light in her eyes.
Overwhelmed by the horror of these terrible transformations, the survivors of the party fled the room and quit the tombs, much wealthier and wiser. It is here that the tale ends, and passes into tales for another night's telling.