[Campaign Journal] Sword, Sorcery and Minarets #09
by Gabor Lux
“This was not in the plan.” — someone suggested. In the cool night, Sohrab Khan’s keep seemed darker and more forbidding than before the discovery. Winds wailed through the pass, and amorphous shapes flitted around the mountain peaks. Marasura stood watch while the others slept, and when the night was over, it seemed everything was back to normal – the ruins were silent, and Sohrab Khan and his retinue were nowhere to be seen when the party finally entered the dining hall. Were they sleeping? A door lead to downwards stairs, then a room below a bastion, a corridor with wall niches, and finally a hexagonal room. Three stucco-covered openings were walled up, and Burzasp suggested they were the crypts of the dead: better let them slumber for now. A door to the north bore the mark of a single star, and below it a tiger’s head which had a keyhole in its mouth. Vifranavaz reached inside with his lockpicks to open the mechanism, and the jaw snapped open, trapping him. Finally, Marasura cast enlarge, then reduce on the lock, smashing it apart with the opposed forces.
The door revealed an antechamber with stone slabs in the walls, and a row of iron bars with a single door closing off a larger chamber. Wrapped bodies were resting against the wall to the far north in what seemed like old linen sacks, and a great stone slab lie sunk into the floor. Ornate writing around the edges read: “Sohrab Khan, the Defender of Birtham, Valiant Tiger-Warrior, the Sword-Who-Slays-Unbelievers, Follower of Baibars Khan: Underneath this stone lie the dead of them whose army rose against him.” There were two exits, to the east and west, and above both doors, there rose menacing statues depicting tigers. Below the western statue, there was a charred semicircle with charred bones and scattered ashes. As the others contemplated the chamber, Santiago quickly tried the stone slabs: the one in the centre left proved to be a secret door, pivoting on a hinge to reveal a 5’ by 5’ space with a lever: flipping it opened the door on this side, and opened another to the west. This was a way forward, but it would be a tricky escape route. Still, as Burzasp operated the mechanism, the characters filed in.
Marasura crept north with a hooded lantern, finding multiple entrances leading into a columned vault with a low ceiling decorated in fantastic stone carvings depicting golden roses on a black field. Dark forms, humans in black burnouses and peaked helmets slumped against the walls, their hands on ancient, decorative polearms. The revellers from the midnight feast! A more northern entrance showed even more: a pair of wooden thrones, where slumbered Sohrab Khan in his old finery, and next to him Gulafshan Zer in her armour and cloak. Behind the pair rose a huge glass cylinder full of swirling rose-coloured mists, casting a light on the scene.
He returned to the others. There was clearly a need for an escape route. Vifranavaz tried the door to the chamber with the bodies and the stone slab, and succeeded; but as he opened the portal, there was a sinister whoooosh above the door, and a circle of flame burned the ground before them. Silence. The bodies did not move, and the door could be propped open. So far, so good.
“We should not just jump Sohrab Khan” – whispered Burzasp – “There must be another way to save the girl. Someone should fetch her in silence.”
“No, his men do not move – I wonder if…” – Santiago was still all plans. – “Take her and run?”
Marasura again volunteered, followed by an invisible Vifranavaz. He snuck back to the thrones, but something was wrong. Gulafshan Zer’s slumber was uninterrupted, but the khan’s seat was empty. He ran back as silently as he could.
“Mischief stalks through these halls, and I shall strike it down!” – interjected someone in a deep, resonant voice. The form of the Khan silently appeared as if out of nowhere. His white moustaches and pallid face gave his reddened eyes a menacing contrast. For a heartbeat, everyone froze.
Meanwhile, Vifranavaz snuck up to the throne and whispered in Gulafshan Zer’s ear:
“Great lady, do you not wish to return to the sunshine from this place of dark? I am a good spirit, sent to exact your return to the upper world…”
“My lord! Treachery and misdirection strikes in your palace!” – cried her, and drew her sword. All around, a semblance of life started to return to the cloaked cadavers.
“Wait!” – cried Santiago – “Great Sohrab Khan, we are not your enemies! Haven’t we been sent by Baibars Khan to your keep? Aren’t we his own emissaries?”
“Baibars Khan! A traitor!” – the Khan growled – “He ordered me leave my ancient fastness, and like a coward, march back from this pass – Never!”
“But it is true, oh Khan!” – Burzasp seized the opportunity with a golden tongue – “He has seen his error and even now, he asks for your forgiveness. Or else, how do you explain this token he sends – this ring from his own finger?” – and he held up the jewelled ring of Khojar Mirza.
“Baibars has sent an army” – he continued – “as the armies of the wastelands have encircled Birtham, so does he now send relief… but he may be too late, and he asks your help, which only you may provide.”
Sohrab Khan thought for a while, then with an unholy mirth, said: “The armies of Sohrab shall come, and with them, the vanquished. With my lady, I shall ride to free Birtham, and bring battle onto the unbelievers. Tell your master that the City will prevail.”
Outside the ruin in the afternoon, well out of sight behind a large rock, Burzasp spoke.
“We are alive, and that’s something.”
“Shouldn’t we warn the outpost about their new visitors? There might be a misunderstanding.”
“The deluded old fool will be killed with his small undead band. Birtham is very well fortified” – Santiago suggested – “But while he is gone, we can loot his keep.”
The dull thud of drums sounded from underground. There were sounds of marching footsteps, and rows after rows of skeletons walked out through the smashed gates, until there were too many to count – probably ten dozen or more than that. Along rode black-cloaked men on wretched-looking horses. Sohrab Khan and Gulafshan Zer took the lead to the sound of trumpets, and the whole army started down the mountain road towards the dusty basin.
“The old guy will be pissed when he learns the truth.”
“Well, this is embarrasing.” – said Santiago.
They returned to the catacombs. Everything was silent and deserted, and the stone slab in the southern chamber was pulled aside, revealing an enormous, now empty pit. As they approached, however, claws ripped through a bunch of sacks against the walls, and out climbed nine pale, thin undead. The ghouls attacked in a hungered frenzy, but although Burzasp and Marasura got paralysed and barely avoided being torn to bits, the monsters were kept away by locking the door in the row of iron bars, and killing off the lot with a hail of arrows and javelins.
The throne room was dark and empty. Behind the thrones, the rose-coloured haze in the glass cylinder still pulsed with a faint light. Could this mist be something Sohrab used to control Gulafshan Zer? Upon a closer look, it became apparent there was a door in the glass, and it could be opened with ease. There were other things of interest: a brass pull chain in the ceiling by Sohrab’s throne (which remained unmolested), and a door to the west, which had a tiger head similar to the one that bit Vifranavaz. As Marasura investigated the passages to the east, he was jumped by dark shapes brandishing halberds, but this remaining guard did not pose a great challenge. The characters returned to the locked door and Vifranavaz got his hand caught again – finally, with sufficient time at their disposal, they simply dismantled its hinges and lifted it out of its place.
The room on the other side was closed off from three directions by tiger doors, while a barred cavity in the north wall contained three footlockers. Two were regular-looking things, latched but unlocked, while the third was a longish coffer made out of thick glass panes in a metal frame, and its contents proved to be five blackened skulls resting on velvet cushions, their jaws full of glittering gemstone teeth. There was no lock on the bars locking away the chests, and when Ambrosius and Marasura tried to pry it out of its place, they received an arc of lightning that dealt them severe wounds. Setting aside the recess, they opened the only remaining door, which revealed a set of stairs leading back to the keep, to a small gallery watched over by an iron statue depicting yet another tiger. The idea of proceeding further did not look so good.
Back in the room, Ambrosius finally found a way to neutralise the trap the simple way: with a grappling hook tied to a rope, he and Santiago forced open the bars harmlessly, and lifted the chests through the opening. One held coins – some 500 silver and 340 gold – three vials of liquid and a metal amulet on a chain. This had a disk that could be turned around, and an inscription: “Turn the disk and say Ali Shulwar’s name.” The second footlocker had a set of silk clothing in a woman’s cut, all of very fine make in colours of black and gold; and a set of banded armour that would also fit a woman, following the style worn by the Warriors of the Tiger. Finally, there was the matter of the skulls, and Ambrosius ended up carrying the whole glass chest by himself. Meanwhile, Santiago took a piece of chalk, and wrote a scrawled message on the wall: “I was here, you idiotic losers. You will never catch me! – Razi Yazeb” “It will make for a good distraction” – he laughed. After investigating the glass cylinder, he also decided to open its door as they were leaving with the new-found treasures. There was no way to smash up the thing, but at least he let the gas escape. There was a scent of roses and light-headed euphoria, but he hurried after the others and did not draw another breath until he was well out of range.
Outside in the pass, there was now afternoon. Down in the basin of dust, Birtham’s gates were blockaded by several black dots, and there was some kind of altercation going on. The characters packed the treasure on their pack mules, although the long glass coffer proved very unwieldy. Ambrosius decided to play safe, opening the lid and sweeping the skulls within into a linen sack.
They proceeded down the mountain road a while as Marasura was looking for alternate paths; then, one third the way down, he found a narrow trail winding below the high mountains, roughly to the southeast. It was a treacherous route, and the animals had to be lead; vast chasms lie underfoot and the rocky gorges were full of loose stones. However, they made some progress by the evening, and made camp in a small hollow. In the darkest night, the watchman heard heavy footsteps: rousing the others, they saw four stone statues with the rough features of humans marching towards them on the road. They fled immediately, running back along the road and holding their steeds as they could. Marasura’s mount stumbled and fell with a horrid neigh; Burzasp’s followed, taking most of the hard-earned treasure: the set of armour and clothing, sacks of coins and the glass chest, as well as other miscellaneous belongings. At least the stone men did not follow, although there were ugly sounds coming from their direction as they pounded the mule they had left at the campsite into a bloody mess. They passed the rest of the night shivering and miserable.
The next morning, the walking statues were no more at camp, and neither did they emerge as they followed the path into the mountains. There was a twisting and treacherous route leading north to the lower valleys, but for the time, they kept along the main path, as much as a narrow mountain trail was one. So they came to a larger open space atop a desolate ridge. Half buried in dust, a tremendous stone head rested among the rocks, small saplings growing in its cracks. On one side, there were colourful marks, and a dusty form in torn clothing was dancing wildly before the head. She was a woman, sun-burned and tough as leather, and as she noticed the visitors, she stopped her contortions.
“Who are you here where not even the birds fly?” – she asked in a harsh voice.
“We are… lost travellers. Unfortunately, we have lost our pack animals in the ravines. What is your name?”
“I am Wamanka, woman of the wastes! I worship this stone head, and if you care, I trade, if what you offer is good enough.”
Her wares, as they were, were charms made of bits of bark, but there was an additional item, a ring depicting a serpent biting its own tail.
“What might that ring be? It is interesting.”
“That be a serpent ring! In the underworld of the great city, it leads down and down, to she who is known as Vannaglakka – the serpent goddess!”
Marasura stepped forward, presenting a bit of machinery salvaged from Tridentfish Island. “I offer you this rare and valuable statue, in a style little known. Will you take it?”
“It is not to the taste of my god, and I shall have none of it. You shall have to present something else.”
“How about this?” – asked Ambrosius – “Look! A black skull, with gemstones for its teeth! It will make a great offering for your god, and that’s not just because I say it.”
“Very good! It will rest atop the head of stone, and be part of the ceremonial items. The ring is yours.”
When asked for directions, Wamanka pointed towards the path: “It continues some way along the ridge: then, at a fork, the path to the right leads to a chasm where stands a great metal altar in the mountainside; the path to the left goes down and down, to the northern plainlands.”
“Do you know whom the altar may be dedicated to?” – asked Burzasp.
“A proud eagle is displayed on it, in an upright purple triangle.”
”Great. A monument to Targ, who has come with his flying metal pyramid from the vast gulfs of space, and is known to rain terror and destruction wherever he goes. We will be going the other way.”
They started along the path. Wamanka watched them from below her god. Vifranavaz called back:
“And when the serpent ring leads us to Vannaglakka?”
“That is your affair.”
They continued east, turning northwest at the fork down towards the plains.
Original date 6 May 2012.
Referee’s Notes: It is fairly surprising the encounter with Sohrab Khan went as well as it did: it was a bit of a death-trap under the circumstances, but the party handled it with just the right combination of fast-talking and sheer bravado. Sometimes, this gets you very far as long as you can stay ahead of the game – and here, the characters could, even if they were pushing their luck in multiple ways. Another unexpected turn of events, and some treasure gained and lost just as unexpectedly.
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