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.