[Session Four was a special session of ACKS: Opelenean Nights, as we had the participation of all but one partner in Autarch LLC. Tavis Allison had flown in from New York for our semi-annual strategy meeting, so Greg Lincoln, Newton Grant, and Greg Tito all came out to play, too. The additional four players meant our group numbered ten for the evening. Some of the course of the gameplay is best understood in this context.]
Again the party had returned to the Magi of Istanul without the scepter of Zenobia. However, their tales of confronting Iskander meant they were close, so close! It is possible that in his cunning mind, Aytollah had visions of seeking out Zenobia’s tomb himself, but surveying the wreckage of the adventurers, he decided it would better for them to continue the quest. Sadly there were in no shape to continue any sort of quest at all. Mahmud was a quadriplegic. Ethlyn was mush-mouthed and disfigured. Sharik was lame. Senef was a eunuch. Rakh was dead. And Raziel was one-eyed, one-handed, and dead.
Aytollah convened a quiet discussion among his elder brethren and returned with a plan. “Fellow Magi of Istanul, there is no power within our order that can heal your friends. You must seek the solace of the surface world. From our occasional forays, we of the Magi know where a caravan trail can be found. Majid will lead you there, and from there, perhaps you can get the healing you need. But you must pledge, in exchange for this guidance, that you will return to the service of Istanul!”
It’s likely that the battered and demoralized travelers would have agreed to sell their genitals to Iskara if it meant a chance to live whole and healthy, and all quickly swore oaths by the Staff and Crescent to return when their health was recovered.
A few days later, they were on a desert caravan trail, heading eastward. The paralyzed Mahmud had been strapped into a sand-sled, to be easily dragged; from his sandy litter, he prayed at dawn and dusk for Imram to take him to the Heavens. Rakh and Raziel were shrouded and also placed on litters, and the three survivors pulled the three casualties eastward.
It was here that Fate again smiled upon them, as a caravan of merchants came upon them from the west. This caravan was headed to the nearby town of Kirkuk, a day south-eastward. The youthful Ethlyn managed to convince the caravan master to allow the party to accompany the caravan. In the caravan, the party became acquainted with several fellow travelers, including Audarius, a Tirenean cleric of Ammonar; Avda, a veiled Opelenean priestess of Annara (Ianna); Kempt, a Zaharan ruinguard; and Kamishar, a Somirean mystic. These new adventurers were roused to great interest by the tales of treasure they heard, although the sorry state of the travelers seemed a cautionary tale.
Ten days after they had first gotten lost in the sandstorm, the travelers found themselves in the village of Kirkuk. Kirkuk had once been the site of a Thrassian temple, and ancient lizard graves pock-marked its hills. Subsequently it had become a Zaharan fortress, and the ruined remnants of castle walls still encircled the town. Now it was a thriving trade post en route to Alakyrum to the east. The oasis waters that fed Kirkuk were said to be holy, and a powerful cleric of the Empyrean Faith oversaw the village’s sacred grotto. It was to this cleric that the travelers turned to for aid in restoring their friends.
After two days of arduous spell-casting, all the travelers were restored. Sharik noticed that Raziel and Rakh had taken on a strange immaterial glow that he was worried would warn undead of their presence. Ethlyn and Senef, less grievously injured, both returned fine, save for the fact that their right arm seemed occasionally under the control of an alien entity. Mahmud alone seemed to carry no ill side effects.
All of the adventurers agreed that it was the Instrument of Fate uniting them, and that it was not for them to disagree with Fate! Thus they resolved to all go together back to the lost city. Still, 30 days passed in Kirkuk before the adventurers felt ready to travel again. Sharik used the time to learn a new dweomer from the local astrologer, while Mahmud, Ethlyn, and Avda recruited three young men – Abiram, Cleopas, and Wazir – to join the band. Kempt bought a camel and hired two light infantry to guard it.
It was now late summer, and the three day trek back to Cynidicea was miserably hot and desiccating. When the party accidentally stumbled over an ancient Zaharan cemetery and had to fight off a dozen skeletons, the fighting was almost reinvigorating compared to the sandy drudgery of travel.
When the party reached the lost city on the third day, they headed directly to the Aytollah’s chamber to let him know of their return. His words were kind, but his ever-present faceless mask denied them any sense of his true expression. He did have a heated conversation with Majid, Ethlyn’s mage, before sending them again to seek out Zenobia’s tomb.
The adventurers were confronted by seven giant bats that had taken roost on the fourth tier, but these were quickly dispatched. A trio of spitting cobras was shooed away by Senef the snake-handler. Thereafter the party reached the false tomb without incident, and moved towards the northern secret door, which they deduced to be Zenobia’s tomb.
Like Iskander, Zenobia lingered on in undeath. Her vile form was of a life-draining wight. Before the creature could even strike, however, the cleric Audarius strode forward with the Winged Sun in hand. “By the Law and Light of Ammonar, I condemn you!” the fiery priest shouted. The wight wilted before this unexpected display of celestial power, and was quickly cut down. [Audarius rolled a natural 20 to turn the wight!] With the queen sent on to her next life, the party was able to claim the long-sought scepter!
Strangely, they did not return immediately to Aytollah with it. Perhaps flush with their own success, they decided to further explore the fourth tier. Their continued wanderings led them into battle against a trio of giant blood-sucking varmints and against five shadowy creatures of chaos, a battle that led to a considerable horde of gold and a colorless, odorless fluid that Sharik identified as a potion of invisibility.
As they delved deeper into the fourth tier, the party now also began to encounter Cynidiceans who did not belong to one of the three religious factions they had heretofore learned about. These encounters were quite surreal. One such group they encountered, a half-dozen men and women wearing painted human masks, became absolutely convinced that Ethlyn was the reincarnation of Queen Zenobia. When she pointed the scepter at them, they were utterly awed, and henceforth began following “her majesty” around. A later encounter, with four Cynidiceans in feathered masks, was even stranger, as the dream-absorbed albinos invited the party to “come fly with them” as they flitted around the stone galleries of the tier. The last the party heard of them was the rumbling of a great stone boulder trap being triggered…
The next tomb the party opened confronted them with a most hideous sight: A great centipede-like worm, reared up to the height of a man, its disgusting maw surrounded by writhing tentacles. “It’s ZARGON!” screamed the Cynidiceans that accompanied them. “Then Zargon shall die!” shouted Mahmud, charging into the fight.
The creature was not Zargon, merely one of that foul god-beast’s hideous spawn, and it fell swiftly. Still, the fight with the pseudo-Zargon had reminded the party of the risks they were taking. They decided to return the scepter to Aytollah to see what reward awaited their loyal service to Istanul. Aytollah met them with an honor guard of his most loyal mages, and took the scepter from them in gloved hands with a gracious bow. Raising the scepter, he pronounced they had done a great service to the “Staff and the Crescent” – and with these command words triggered the wand’s paralyzing blast. All but Senef, Audarius, and Avda were instantly held.
The three of them gaped in horror at the treachery, then drew their weapons. Senef launched a telling blow on Aytollah, but then one of Aytollah’s minions spoke a dweomer of slumber and put Audarius and Avda to sleep. Magical missiles slammed into Senef, but he managed to wake up Audarius with a swift kick.
The enraged cleric then proceeded to stave in Aytollah’s head, and the fight degenerated into a crazed frenzy of unskilled combat, as a horde of robed mages battled a shaman, a cleric, and a priestess. In the course of the fighting, the paralyzed Kempt’s throat was cut, and Kamishar’s throat was almost cut – a last-minute shove causing him to lose an ear instead.
When the fighting ended, the party was still standing and the magi of Istanul were not, save for one – Majid. Trembling in terror, he tried to explain that the party would not have been harmed, that Aytollah merely feared them, but his excuses carried no weight. Majid was judged a traitor, and Raziel ceremoniously broke all his bones in the most agonizing way possible before sending him to the next life.
With the Magi of Istanul dispatched, the adventurers scoured their quadrant of the third tier, gathering up a silver rod with a crystal tip, an ornate flanged mace, and many silver masks and daggers. This, combined with Zenobia’s treasures, was quite a haul, so the party decided to return to Kirkuk, bringing their dead and wounded with them.
There were on the road but a day when a terrible war cry pierced the sandy dunes. A dozen fanatics, wearing hideous Zargon masks, fell upon them. Unluckily, Raziel was cut down with a vicious blow, and their loyal henchmen Wazir and Abiram were also felled. Rakh’s inhuman ferocity became apparent as he made a mound of corpses around himself, and he and Mahmud carried the day.
Senef’s healing arts and Mahmud’s laying on hands were able to save Raziel, though his wounds healed stiff and scarred. As for Wazir and Abiram, naught could be done. The party decided to burn their bodies, and that of Kempt as well, that their spirits might be freed. Audarius gave a solemn service pledging their souls to Ammonar’s Light, and the travelers headed home.