The Hand of the Dragon and the Shadow of the Waste Walker

Session 3
Prophet motive.

Having gathered up what supplies they could, the mercenaries struck out from the site of the attack on the caravan. They had been nearly two days into the six day journey to Tyr, and pressing on to Ft. Iron, only a day further out, seemed like the only option in light of their supply situation. This meant a trip first out from the Great Alluvial Sand Wastes, and then through the badlands around the Dragon Horns. Traversing the dunes of the Sand Wastes was relatively free of difficulty, but crossing the rocky badlands proved to be somewhat more difficult, necessitating frequent boosties from Arturat to make the passage over various obstacles.
This was the skill challenge that set the precedent for announced skill challenges; I had been trying to work them into the narrative and role-playing, but circumstances at the table made effective role-playing impossible, so I just said “eff it, it’s a skill challenge, here’s what that means.” It turns out, letting the players know what the present tally of successes and failures stands at made the whole thing much more tense and enjoyable. The next time we did one I had some better descriptions prepared, but I let them know, and that’s how we’ve done skill challenges since.

Aside from the (rather challenging) traversal of natural features, the first day of desert travel was fairly uneventful. After traveling until midmorning, they encountered their first real landmark on the second day: half way along a mile-long lip of jutting rock, a quartet of pillars lay buried to an indeterminate depth. As they approached, the Tablelander, which relies on resting in the palm of its user’s hand in a pile of sand, began to spin uncontrollably. Even as they confronted the situation, the wind began to pick up, whipping sand into the air at dangerous, painful speeds. Huddling into cover behind the pillars, they finally noticed the carvings. At first they appeared to only depicted a sun, but as more sand was blown away by the sudden storm, first a sinister, serpentine figure was reveal. Out of its mouth poured water, carved so that it appeared to splash down upon and obscure a second, smaller figure.

While Lifthrasir examined the icons on the pillar, successfully determining that the prominent figure represented Dregoth, the fallen Sorcerer King of destroyed Giustenal, Arturat, Nasir, and YYpo!k’ L’trrx TiWer began to notice that as the sand blew away from the area between the pillars, hundreds of objects were being slowly revealed. As the storm grew stronger, and more sand was removed, it became apparent that the objects were bones, apparently arranged in a haphazard mound surrounding a tunnel leading below. Sensing that remaining on the surface for very much longer would be dangerous, they decided to descend within.

Upon escaping from the wind and blowing sand, it became apparent that the tunnel, too, was lined with bones, seemingly adhered to one another chaotically with some kind of resinous material. A short distance down the tunnel, the party arrived at an irregularly shaped chamber roughly fifty feet a side, containing uneven layers and piles of bones and floored, underneath the sand and bones, with… tile? Most alarming, however, were the sacks of what appeared to be, at best guess, eggs adhered to the walls using that same resin. Peering into the darkness, they could see other tunnels branching out away from the chamber.

Even as they absorbed all of this, the warren’s occupant showed itself, rising from a hollow in the uneven bones near one wall. Huge and flea-like, with three feathered fronds extending from it’s face, the creature was instantly recognizable to Nasir as an immature gaj. With a line of retreat to the surface unavailable, it fell to the mercenaries to do battle with the gaj. Arturat and Yypo!k began to pick their way across the uneven bones with Nasir covering their approach; during this, Lifthrasir began a drawn out psychic duel with the gaj, with both combatants having difficulty overcoming the will of the other.

The arrival of Arturat and Yypo!k in close combat signaled the tipping point of the battle, and it wasn’t long before the gaj lay dead and the mercenaries were once more left alone. Thinking on what he knew of the gaj species, Nasir suggested that this was, perhaps, not the safest place to stay; though individual gaj are solitary creatures, their warrens are often connected at the periphery to those of other gaj. As they rested and began to consider their next move, Arturat noticed a light moving, apparently within the wall. It quickly disappeared, but on closer inspection it was revealed that in one area there was some kind of gap behind the wall of bones. Peering through, the mercenaries could see a portion of stone corridor, lit, evidently, by a torch somewhere out of sight.

Unable to hear anything over the sound of the storm, Lifthrasir began, very gingerly, so as to avoid detection by any psychics within, to extend his mental awareness into the corridor, which he perceived to be reasonably empty. Having Arturat break the bones as quietly as possible, they eased their way through what turned out to be a window frame; the tile on which they’d been standing was, it was now apparently, part of a roof. They stood in a short length of hallway which they could see as terminating directly to their left in a small, well lit room. On the ground, faintly impressed in sand spilled from another window and then scattered across the floor, they could just make out what appeared to be clawed tracks, the most recent of which lead in the opposite direction. Deciding to first make sure that the apparent owners of this edifice had truly vanished in the other direction, and were not, most to the point, coming up behind them. The other end of the corridor came out in a large, well decorated hall. Opposite the corridor from which they’d emerged was another tunnel which had collapsed; at the other end of the room was a large, central door. As they stood in the hall, a terrible, screaming wail began to issue from the darkness, ending in a series of metallic pings and clanks; the mercenaries bravely decided that they’d save this direction for after they’d explored the other.
This is an example of the fact that the psychics in this campaign often disregard the strictures of the rules. This is largely a matter of convenience for me.

Moving back up the corridor, they entered small room to the left of the window by which they’d gained entry; lavishly decorated in marble and filigree of bronze, the centerpiece of the room was an alter, upon which sat an obsidian plate. A closer examination of the decorations by Yypo!k revealed the continued prominence of sun symbology and pictograms, though the inscriptions around the room were in a language which none of the mercenaries recognized. Lifthrasir, meanwhile, examined the plate.

Roughly twenty inches in diameter and three thick, the most obvious feature of the disc was the blood beginning to drip over its edge and onto the alter, which the mercenaries were able to identify only as having come from a mammal. Looking past the blood, it became apparent that the plate was covered in carvings very similar to those found on the projectiles which had been used to attack the caravan. Probing it carefully with his mind, Lifthrasir was floored to discover the control mechanisms of a psychic device that made the Tablelander look like a child’s toy; probing further, he concluded that this artifact was very, very old, dating to at least the Red Age.

Discussing the plate with the party, two camps emerged: take the plate, and leave the plate. On the one hand, the blood on the plate seemed like a pretty solid clue as to the sinister nature of the plate and its owners, but on the other, the plate could have been something as simple as a food processor built in an age of technology; the mercenaries had at least some vague notion that Athas was not always a desert, and that defiling magic was not always the dominant force in the Tablelands. Talking further, the concern was raised that regardless of its use, the value of the plate and its technology might mean that it was more trouble than it was worth to own. Resolving to explore the temple further, they left the plate with the condition that they’d return for it should their erstwhile hosts prove unwelcoming. As they set off down the corridor, Arturat wondered aloud to himself what kind of temple has the alter on the top floor.

Crossing the hall and passing through the central entry, the mercenaries found themselves at the end of a long hall, each wall of which had an alcove several feet above the floor, and a short staircase leading away from the hallway on either side of the door by which they entered. The hallway was floored in bone with a strange gleam; on closer examination, they determined it to be a nightingale floor, as well as the source of the noises from before. Moving up the stairs on either side of the entrance to the nightingale hall, they found themselves in narrow corridors that ran parallel. These corridors contain two passages apiece, each connecting to the alcoves visible in the nightingale hall, and each containing a statue of something that could only be called a finely dressed lizard guy.

Each passage also contained, at the mouth in the alcove, a prominent tile, each with a glyph; of the two tiles closest to the door by which they had come in, one bore the symbol of Dregoth, and the other the symbol of the sun. The two farthest bore a glyph of a lizard guy, and a glyph depicting water. Upon depressing the tiles, the merenaries became aware of a very faint sliding rumble. Weighing down one of the tiles with a statue, they determined that the nightingale floor was still active, and that the order in which the statues were placed on the tiles must be important. Yypo!k immediately deduced that it was Sun, Dregoth, Water, Lizard Guy, having recognized their order of religious significance from the pillars outside and the room with the plate, but was ignored in favor of the brute force solution.
The rationale is this: the rooms that the players just came through are the most holy areas of the temple. The crushed portion of the sanctum were the quarters of the high priest and his attendants, the intended operators of the controls for the nightingale floor. The notion is that you only really need to turn it off for ceremonies, and you do that by moving the important statues to where they could go during the ceremony anyway; the rest of the time you simply intercept anyone crossing theh floor, and if they belong then it’s not a big deal. It never came up in game, but I thought really hard about why anyone would build a puzzle-based security system.

Crossing the nightingale floor, they came to several flights of stairs, which were trapped with poisoned darts, as Yypo!k discovered to his cost. Proceeding more carefully, the mercenaries descended the staircase into a short section of hallway which they could tell led into a large, well lit room. Creeping up to the dooorway, they couldn’t see anyone, or much of the room, even, but they could hear the conversation going on within: a voice sounding suspiciously like Sub Matron Galash was in conversation with rasping voice which avered that it was the enemy of all magicians, servant as it was of the the Waste Walker and the Sun, and did not share her confidence that they shared a foe hated enough to make them friends. Even as the voice of Galash pled her case, Yypo!k detected the lightest brush of psychic contact, as though someone had been feeling with incredibly ginger precision and had withdrawn at the exact moment of contact.

“Adventurers! Should you rescue you me, you will come to considerable reward!” boomed Galash’s voice, giving pause to both the mercenaries and to Galash’s captors. Catching up to events just as a cry of “Intruders!” sounded from within the hall, the mercenaries decided that having been outed by Galash, the only option was to fight, and rushed into the room, which they took in for the first time. More that a hundred feet wide, and half that deep, the room was surrounded by a pair of wrap-around staircases leading from the wall containing the entrance to a second level opposite that, on which was an alter. Standing at the alter was a huge, shining black lizard man, who had apparently been in conversation with the severed head of Sub Matron Galash, which lay upon a somewhat gorey pillow on the alter.

The opposite half of the bottom level was obscured by a tall ceremonial wall, with two pairs of double doors evenly spaced along it. Taking in the approaching lizard men on the stairs, Yypo!k and Arturat rushed up opposite stairs, Arturat followed at a discreet distance by Lifthrasir. Focusing to his utmost, Nasir unnleashed an arrow that piered the throat of the large lizard man at the alter, who stumbled to the left and hid behind a banister. As Arturat and Yypo!k advanced up the stairs, they began to hear movement from the other side of the ceremonial wall, prompting Arturat to reverse direction and start back down.

As he did, both sets of doors burst open, one revealing a collection of unimpressive lizard men, and the other revealing a revenant dressed in the style typical of a priest or official. The latter announced to the mercenaries that the black curse of its master was already upon them, then extended a hand toward Nasir and unleashed a blast of sorcerous energy, knocking him off of his feet and causing him to tumble down the stairs. Arturat, meanwhile, vaulted the railing of the other staircase and fell upon the lizard men on the ground floor, scything through them without much difficulty.

As Yypo!k, too, began to approach the revenant, it unleashed another blast of magic, hurling its attackers back to a more comfortable distance. Lifthrasir began to descend the staircase, alternating between attacking the revenant with blasts of telekinesis and knitting the wounds of his allies. Employing the stance of the Masterful Spiral, Yypo!k was able to be begin attacking the revenant as well, despite his lack of ability to close range. As it began to split its attention between keeping its foes at arms length and retaliating against Lifthrasir, Arturat was able to join battle with the revenant as well.

The reptilian cleric had not been idle during this time, however, administering healing agents as he hid behind the banister. Choosing his moment, he rose from behind cover and, grasping his amulet, projected a beam of searing light at Nasir which left him patting out small fires in his clothes as he recovered from the attack. Arturat, Lifthrasir, and Yypo!k managed between the three of them to dispatch the revenant, and Yypo!k darted up the wall and onto the staircase, using handholds that were apparent only to him, as Arturat was forced to take the long way around. Despite his quick ascent, however, he was not quick enough to prevent the cleric from touching his hand to his forehead and taking control of Arturat’s body.

Lifthrasir’s first warning as to what had transpired was the swing of Arturat’s axe, which he nimbly dodged. Realizing what had happened, Lifthrasir lashed out and erased himself from Arturat’s perception, leaving him with a ringing headache and bereft of targets. While Nasir’s archery was frustrated by the cover of the balustrade, Yypo!k’s weapon of choice was not, and a particularly savage blow of his gythka sent the cleric over the railing to his death. As the other mercenaries filed up the stairs to interrogate the head, Arturat gazed down at the cleric who had possessed him, and then reached down and tore off his [Obsidian Scale Coat], taking it as his own.

The head, indeed that of Sub Matron Galash, recognized them immediately, and asserted that they were still in it’s employ, and therefor still entitled to be paid for the caravan escort, as well as a substantial bonus for discrete work, if they were to take her to the trade town of Shazlim. Discussing it amongst themselves, they decided that whether or not they accepted the reward, or maybe turned her in as both a member of the Veiled Alliance and an obvious magic item, they stood to profit, and so resolved to set out for Shazlim with the head in their possession.

Session 1
Escape from the Thunderdome

The events of combat are described in the order that makes the best prose, not the actual initiative order. Largely because I can’t be arsed to remember the details of a combat that took place five months ago at time of writing, but also because I was only going to mention the highlights anyway.

As the campaign begins, Nasir, and YYpo!k’ L’trrx TiWer lie on a cliff top in the middle of the desert, surveilling an encampment through a hooded telescope. Through it they can see Croesus, who appears to be quite angry. Pacing back and forth in front of two men tied to stakes in the middle of the encampment, he pauses occasionally to strike them and shout at them further. These two men are Arturat and Lifthrasir.

Forty-eight hours earlier, the party members were deeply engaged in the task of hanging around Altaruk, doing the sorts of things that mercenaries do in a back-water trade down. Soon though, troubling signs were beginning to appear; to sustain their degenerate lifestyle they would have to find work. And so they came into the employ of one Laeron of Tromblador. A caravan of his, evidently containing an object of some value, had been waylaid by local slavers. All that he required was that the object be retrieved, though he admitted that he wouldn’t be disappointed to see a few slavers die.

On the cliff top, Nasir and Yypo!k have been hard at work developing a plan in cooperation with Lifthrasir, demonstrating the value of having a pair of psychics in the party. The slavers’ encampment was built in the middle of a wide and shallow box canyon, the back wall of which the party members retaining their liberty were occupying. As Croesus and his lieutenants leave, Yypo!k begins by quietly letting himself down onto the floor of the canyon. Meanwhile, Nasir moves along the cliffs, before letting himself down further along. The plan is for Nasir to secure the weapons and equipment of the prisoners, and then cut the slavers’s kanks free, either to use as a distraction or as a weapon, as the situation demands, while Yypo!k frees the prisoners and recovers the object. In the actual event, Nasir was closing in on his first objective when Yypo!k, literally within inches of freeing the prisoners, attracted the attention of an irritable, unruly pet monkey, who set upon him with teeth and claws.
This was an unannounced skill challenge, with Max and Mike doing very well on their athletics, acrobatics and stealth checks right up until the very end, when Mike failed a whole bunch in a row. And you have to understand, when I say that this monkey was unruly, we’re talking about five points of ongoing damage before save.

Fortunately, neither Lifthrasir nor Arturat had been idle. Lifthrasir had been patiently working at his bonds since forming the plan with the erstwhile rescuers, and had freed himself some time ago, wisely hiding that fact from his captors. For his part, Arturat had been growing angrier and angrier as the import of recent events finally caught up to him, the sounds of his colleague’s struggle with the furious primate causing his anger to boil over. Bursting free of his bonds, his first act was to savagely chop down a slaver with a single blow of his outstretched hand, and then roar his battle cry so loudly that two men died. Lifthrasir dropped what remained of the ropes and unceremoniously forced the brain of the nearest slaver out through his ears.
Read literally, as far as the fluff text, and used on minions, the barbarian power Howl of Fury is the single funniest attack action available in the game. Seriously, the description is that the character hits someone with their weapon, and then yells so loud in a blast three that it does damage.

Realizing that the jig was up, Nasir began to run toward the tent which contained the weapons, dropping his bow en route in favor of his scimitars, which he used to make his way into the ersatz armory. As he emerged, battle had been joined between Yypo!k, the monkey, Lifthrasir, Arturat, and the two more senior slavers who had arrived on the scene due to the commotion. The party defeated the slavers without much trouble, taking one prisoner. Doing a once-over of the camp, they found the object, a smooth obsidian case which they had been explicitly instructed not to open, as well as a fair amount of the anaesthetic drug that the slavers used to keep slaves compliant, also commonly used in battle to recover fighting vigor.

The only other point of interest in the camp was a large wooden frame, not unlike a cross between a dry-dock and a pier, though built kind of strangely to accommodate a conventional silt-skiff. Aside from that, all of the pertinent facts – the empty slave pens, the larger number of tents than slavers, more… evidence of kanks than a group this size would indicate, and the rising dust plume on the horizon – as well as direct personal experience, indicated that these were not the only slavers, and that it was probably time to go. Liberating several mounts and freeing the remaining kanks, the party set off. A slow start over rough terrain slowed them to the point where a pursuing party of slavers was able to come within sight, but lost them again using a combination of superior reading of the terrain with good… kanksmanship(?), losing them after a jump across a ravine.
The chase was, once more, an unannounced skill-challenge; this time they passed and got the XP that would have been earned from the encounter that would have resulted if they’d failed.

Coming upon an small oasis, not more than a small and tepid pond in what must have once been a shallow cave, the party suspiciously inspected the situation, reasoning that an oasis is a good place to encounter predators. Looking around, Arturat noticed that some of the reeds in the middle of the pond looked kind of different from the others, and reported this to Nasir. Nasir, in turn, responded by goading Arturat into throwing a rock at these reeds. The reaction was nearly instantaneous, a barbed lash shooting out from one of the reeds to spear Arturat and drag him toward the water, from which rose a Chathrang. This was a long and brutal fight, the less said about which, the better.

Resting in camp, the party decided that they now had time to interrogate the prisoner. After some light coercion, the party learned that not only was Croesus unlikely to give up the chase, but that he possessed some massive advantage over them, though what the prisoner was unwilling to say, despite additional pressure being applied. Deciding that the best course of action was to render the issue moot by running like cheap paint, the players wrapped up their interview, packed up their things, and fled the camp toward Altaruk, leaving the slaver tied to the chathrang’s now empty shell. No mercy for slavers, apparently.

The next day, within sight of Altaruk they began to get the feeling that they hadn’t made it; the city’s gates were closed, and armed men lined the walls. Turning in their saddles, they saw the plume of dust that had prompted the display of municipal martial prowess; examined through a telescope it became apparent that at the tip of the plume was a catamaran, floating several feet above the ground, moving toward them at prodigious speed, accompanied by outriders on kanks. Nasir even managed to discern Croesus, shouting orders at the crew from the midcastle. Caught between the city walls and the oncoming slavers, the party realized that the only option was to fight.

They allowed the slavers to catch up to them, maneuvering into position to attack by reining in their kanks. Nasir began aggressively, using his most powerful… bow.. shooting technique(?) to seriously injure Croesus immediately as he came in range. Maneuvering toward the port side of the ship, Yypo!k unhorsed (unkanked?) a slaver as he passed, the man tumbling into the distance behind the battle. Lifthrasir began to move back toward the starboard side, dispatching several outriders in quick succession, causing the nervous systems of some to go berserk while simply swatting others off of their kanks with telekinesis. The way cleared by Yypo!k, Arturat yanked on his reins and plummeted backward toward the catamaran, leaping off of his kank in time to board the port hull at its prow.

Passing along the outside of the port hull, Yypo!k intercepted another pole-arm intended for him, yanking its owner over the side rail, and taking the opportunity to board as well. Nasir, meanwhile, exchanged arrows with Croesus, generally coming off pretty well; at the same time Lifthrasir continued to pick off outriders, defying their attempts at mounted archery. Arturat charged into a cluster of deck hands and one of Croesus’ lieutenants, entering a grueling melee with four opponents which would continue for most of the battle. Flinging several men off of the deck with his unarmed techniques, including the other of Croesus’ lieutenants, Yypo!k mounted the midcastle and finished the job that Nasir had begun.

With two thirds of the officers and much of the crew dead or locked in combat with a furious half-giant, the psychically motivated ship was beginning to lose lift, but not much forward velocity. Yypo!k slipped down the face of the midcastle opposite to the one he’d come up, and leaped onto the nearby kank of Lifthrasir. Arturat, however, was still locked in combat with the remaining lieutenant and a lone deckhand, and had no nearby kank to leap to, even if he weren’t. Bringing his horse to a stop to get behind the ship and then racing forward firing arrows, Nasir rode up to the prow of the port hull, leaving just enough time for Arturat to make the jump across, even as the remaining lieutenant was on his way to the stern to make what would turn out to be a badly judged jump for safety.

Upon hitting the desert, the ship tumbled end over end and shredded itself, scattering shell, bone, and wood fairly widely. Picking through the wreckage, the party found that the obsidian pillars that had kept the ship aloft were shattered in the crash. They also found Croesus’ bow, the Izmiri Recurve


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