[Campaign Journal] Sword, Sorcery and Minarets #12
by Gabor Lux
A Holy Quest
The mountain trail, now very familiar, wound below steep cliffs and crossed impossibly steep gorges which lead down to the plainlands.
“This is the spot where we recovered our equipment.”
“Yeah, I can see a horse skeleton down there. Shall we rest?”
“No, and if Sohrab has half a brain, he has spotted us this time. If we can’t find a way to get off this road, he will overtake us before morning.”
“What about the girl? Untie her?”
“No way! She is still under the Khan’s magic, or more likely already half a vampire. We shall take her to the Citadel of the She-Sultan, and see if Karttekeza’s priests can help her.”
Marasura was leading the group, looking for a mountain trail that would allow them to escape from this meandering path. At last, he found a very dubious goat trail that seemed to descend to the valley. It was unfit for both horses and men, but they took the opportunity, dismounting and leading the steeds step by step towards a rocky ravine. It was a tortuous and very slow process clambering down large rocks and finding the path, but ultimately, they were on the bottom, bruised and tired but all intact.
A small stream glittered under the rising moon, disappearing in a dark canyon. From above, there came the sound of several galloping horses and strange cries. Sohrab Khan’s pursuing riders didn’t seem to have a problem with the darkness. The cries halted for a while, rising in excited discussion about something.
“Let’s try not to draw attention.” – someone suggested. They waited while Gulafshan Zer tore at her ropes and gag, but to no avail. The clattering of hooves passed, for the time, and there was also the sound of what seemed to be several leathery wings. They waited and rested half an hour, then pressed onwards.
The canyon was narrow and hard to navigate without a light, but at least they emerged in a wilder valley of sweet-smelling grass, and a sea of red poppies emitting a pleasant scent. In the mountainside, there rose a large, beehive-like structure; the letters of an inscription reading “MIZAR NATEQ”, and the sign of a wheel were clearly visible on the crumbling façade. Santiago, immediately suspicious, sniffed the air, and feeling a faint euphoria, tied a wet cloth over his face, followed by the others. They marched through the field of swaying flowers, feeling lighter and lighter. Ambrozius and Burzasp felt their horses grow weak and stumble, until both creatures fell and lie gasping and wheezing on the ground in what looked like a calm bliss. Something glowed on the battlements of the dark ruin behind them.
“Shall we kill the animals before…?”
“No. It is probably better this way.”
They continued. Looking back from the bottom of the valley, they saw the swarm of giant phosphorescent butterflies descend upon the fallen bodies and cover them in a layer of shimmering light. They entered the lower canyon and didn’t turn back again.
Out of the mountains, they finally rested in a small copse.
“If she is a half-vampire, does she need to drink?”
“Let’s ask her. No danger here.”
“Release me, you monsters! Where are you taking me?” – were Gulafshan Zer’s first words.
“It is all in your interest. You will be taken to the Citadel of the She-Sultan, where you will be healed.” – responded Santiago. – “You will have to forgive us, but you are under an evil spell, which gives you a false sense of love towards a monster. You will understand.”
She glowered, but drank the water they offered her, and fell silent.
“We have been successful in our quest. With one small problem…” – Santiago spoke as they were discussing things in the garden of the Citadel the next evening – “…she is under the influence of the vampire who has charmed her, and maybe even worse. She tried to bite us multiple times.”
Surgat the Weapon master was contemplative: “Apparently, this Sohrab Khan controls substantial forces. But you have done all you can, and we thank you for that. Return alone tomorrow morning, and Karttekeza’s mysteries will open before you.”
“A big <expl. del.> peacock?” – Santiago mused as they were heading to the caravanserai to rest the night.
The owner of the caravanserai seemed startled when he saw the group, but beamed and whispered to Vifranavaz:
“You have returned, Great Khan? I am your lowest servant, at your service.”
“I have… returned?”
“Let us speak later if you wish, Your Illustriousness… I will keep your incognito, and the package you have left a secret.”
Still puzzled, Vifranavaz joined the others in the rented room.
“Is this a trap? Sohrab Khan is after us?”
“You fool! He mistook you for Talhuris Khan, your doppelganger!”
“If he is your doppelganger, and you aren’t his.”
“So what do I do with this?”
“Get that package the real Khan has left here, you oaf! Get back to the common room and grill him.”
Unfortunately, Vifranavaz did not sound convincing as Talhuris Khan at all, and the serai-keeper started to get suspicious.
Vifranavaz’s player [OOC]: “Screw this, this is what Suggestion and Hypnosis are for.”
GM: “One after the other, he makes his saves.”
“Doppelganger! Doppelganger!” – the man shouted. Vifranavaz ran outside, into the darkness. There was a commotion in and around the building as guests heard the ruckus.
“He is in the stables! He will suck the blood out of the horses!” – someone cried – “That will give me a minute or two to set things right.” – Burzasp continued silently, as he saw Vifranavaz climbing back inside, trying to sneak away from the mob – “Make me invisible and pretend to be asleep if anyone bothers you”.
Under the spell, Burzasp stalked down the stairs into the now empty common room. He noticed the door to the owner’s quarters, and crept noiselessly. A small boy and a girl were there, listening to the commotion.
“Do you think the doppelganger is around?” – asked the girl.
“Don’t be afraid, dad will catch it.” – the boy answered, but didn’t sound convincing.
Burzasp tiptoed across the room, towards the owner’s large footlocker. He reached towards the lock–
“Is someone there?” – the boy asked in a trembling voice.
Burzasp swallowed a curse and threw a silver coin towards the doorway.
“The doppelganger! Hide!” – the boy whimpered and they hid under the large blanket. Burzasp unlocked, then opened the footlocker as silently as possible, picked up the leather sack inside it, then as silently as he came, slid out through the opened window. When he examined the contents at a safe spot some way from the caravanserai, he found 400 silver coins and a scroll case, the latter containing a slip of paper and a vial of green liquid in a hexagonal vial. Unrolled, the message seemed to be a neatly written list:
The Priests of Jeng: lowly, uncouth, hostile. The sword – not Jeng’s concern.
Swahul: bizarre garden. Gifts for Bozawagh Kadarguat and three priests, sacrifice of perfumes. “Your own face will return your weapon to you, and your secrets will be discovered.” None of my men had it. Useless.
Sürü Miklari: at suggestion of old beggar. Rats, wretched pauper’s nest. If needed, with four guards.
Burzasp contemplated his find for a while, then, taking the case, hid the sack of silver under a pile of stones. He returned to the caravanserai, where the proprietor was wailing and tearing his beard in the common room.
“What is ailing you, oh Master of Refreshments?”
“Do not even ask! In all this mess, someone has burgled me, and taken all my saved money. I have become a beggar – and my children, a beggar’s kin!”
“Luck is on your side – it was no monsters, but desert thieves who have attacked your establishment. As I was looking near the horses to see if there were dopplegangers there, I overheard a group of shady men talking about the hiding place for a bag of money. They mentioned a growth of trees, not far from here. If you and a group of men were to make haste, you could still find the thieves and the coin there.”
The man fell on his knees, praising Burzasp and promising him his lifelong thanks; then hurried out, calling for his servants and the odd guest to follow him out to the desert. Burzasp returned to his room, satisfied.
The next morning, Santiago donned his weapons and armour, and set out for the Citadel of the She-Sultan. The gates opened for him, and Surgat the Weapon Master was waiting for him by the great tree.
“Are you prepared, then, for the Great Peacock’s mysteries, the mysteries of Karttekeza?”
“I will do my best.”
The door to the fortress opened, and they stood in a beautifully appointed, if slightly dusty room, an inactive fountain in its centre, and colourful tapestries and brass plates all over the walls. To the north was a simple, unadorned door; to the south, a set of grandiose stairs climbed upwards; and forward, there was a gold-embroidered purple curtain between two richly ornamented peacock statues, adorned with a symbol.
“Which direction leads Karttekeza’s way, oh Initiate?”
Santiago looked around doubtfully, thought for a while, then said:
“I can’t answer that question. I do not choose either.”
“You are most cautious, which may be both virtue and flaw. But here, the choice is obvious: the way to Karttekeza’s underground sanctum leads forward, even if it is concealed by this veil.”
Surgat parted the curtains to reveal a brass door, opening the lock with a brass key, then relocking it from the other side. They continued down a set of dusty stairs, lit by the dancing flames of candles in the wall niches. A columned hall opened, widening into a circular, domed space full of darkness. To the north, there was a stone throne occupied by a great, dark figure: an enormous statue of a man, painted a dozen colours from gold to blue. Behind, there seemed to be some sort of presence behind a set of rising bars – someone was watching? It was hard to tell in the darkness. The way forward was a brass door similar to the first, while the one to the south was more decorative, and flanked by two enormous, gem-studded plates hanging from the walls. The door bore the device of a rampant peacock.
“Why was the shrine of Karttekeza built underground, Initiate?”
Again, Santiago thought, but couldn’t find a good response. He looked around the room, full of dust and seemingly out of use, then shrugged his shouldrs.
“It is just as well, as you will learn of our faith’s deepest nature soon, Initiate” – said Surgat patiently – “And here, what way would you choose, Initiate?”
“The door between the golden plates?”
“Excellent! That way it is – although not all ways are exclusive. Follow me.”
Once again the door opened, and was relocked. They descended another stairway to the south, then the east. This was an even more grandiose hall, cool and fragrant with incense. Flames burned inside brass cages hung from the ceiling, casting a light on the gloomy splendour of gold, intricate frescoes and rich tapestries. Two muscle-bound colossi, naked from the waist up, stood by the stairs, but as they saw Surgat, returned to their thoughts.
“Here, oh Initiate, is the mystery of mysteries! Step forward – and see!”
Santiago stepped out into the hall, beholding the vast space. The east was closed off by an enormous purple curtain behind intricate brass gridwork; to the north and south, there opened columned apses with more riches. Yet what drew Santiago’s attention was the centre of the hall, occupied by an enormous brass cage. A large mass stirred inside, and he found himself looking at a huge peacock, standing a full 10 feet. The peacock stared back at him with oily eyes, swaying slightly. Above, suspended from the ceiling, was an enormous metal disk with a beaten symbol.
“What is the peacock? Contemplate this for a slight moment, Initiate, as I make the arrangements” – came Surgat’s voice. The Weapon Master strode through the hall and disappeared behind the curtains, leaving Santiago alone with the peacock and the two muscled men, whose eyes, he felt, were following his every step.
Santiago looked at the peacock. It seemed very old, and perhaps sickly. The deep colours of the enormous plumes were there, but the feathers were broken and the creature seemed to be disoriented. It opened its beak, uttering a sad croak, and something black dripped on the floor. Santiago looked around the hall and its ornaments, examining the disk above the cage; the purple curtain, and, just in case, the guardians watching him. A few minutes passed, while the peacock grew more agitated, shuffling and swaying in the cage. At last, Surgat returned.
“I still understand very little.” – Santiago confessed.
“Step forward and follow me, then. And don’t worry about this poor beast – it is ancient and age has dimmed its sight. It can feel good and evil within a man, and that makes it stir.”
They stepped into the other half of the hall, below a high pedestal with an empty throne. On the floor, there was a great stone font filled with something gold and glowing. Next to it stood a brown-skinned man wearing rich purple robes decorated with a hundred golden eyes. He wore a bluish, shimmering scimitar on his belt. Two men in white togas, embroidered with the sign of the peacock stood by his side.
“Welcome!” – came the robed man’s resonant voice – “I am Barhan Khan, High Priest and keeper of the Citadel’s mystery! It is time for you to learn the truth, which lives in all of us! Look into the font and behold!”
Santiago looked into the stone bowl, filled with a sea of phosphorescent globules looking like large frog’s eggs. The radiance was disorienting, but also had a strange magnetism about it.
“So it is!” – intoned Barhan Khan – “The time of Karttekeza, peacock-rider and demon-slayer has passed from Fomalhaut, and he is now dead and gone! A new time has begun, that of Yol the all-powerful, who came from the stars with his knowledge, and shall once touch all of us in perfect harmony! Yol gives strength, and his faith spread, will subsume us into the absolute! Take Yol as your own sacrament, and his crusader you will be, with power undreamt!”
“All hail it, the blessed protoplasm!” – answered the white-robed men as they grabbed Santiago by the waists. Barhan Khan drew a copper knife from his robes.
“The pain is slight, but radiant joy is everlasting! Assume Yol as your own, Initiate, and carry it where you go!”
“…so, it was very mysterious, and what happened changed my life, and my views on a lot of things. I must meditate on all that has happened. Unfortunately, I cannot tell you anything about Karttekeza’s mysteries, so please don’t ask.” – Santiago recounted his version of the story.
“And you feel completely well?” <Untranslatable pun>
“Never finer! It is as if I were a changed man. I can’t wait to return to the city to sprea… share the faith.”
Selling the horses at the caravanserai, they returned to the boat they had left by the Citadel weeks before. The sail unfurled, the company set out back towards the City of Vultures.
Original date 9 September 2012.
[OOC] “So we handed Gulafshan Zer over to a protoplasm-worshipping cult?”
[OOC] “Looks like it. And now she is also a vampire!”
[OOC] “Sohrab Khan will not be happy.”
Referee’s Notes: In hindsight, a caravanserai most definitely shouldn’t have large windows that allow passage in and out of a room; then again, the encounter in the dark felt and played out pretty much like something out of a western (with very stupid protagonists), which shaped the way I thought of the environment.
It is also interesting how Santiago suspected nothing about his predicament even after the most obvious clues that something wasn’t all right with the cult of Karttekeza. Anyway, a cleric level is a cleric level, and in a campaign where this status and the all-important healing magic can only be earned, not granted from the outset, it’s an achievement no matter the form it comes in. What is a slight difference in ideology?