Year of the Dog: News and rumors around Shushan
Argos’ non-war with Zingara is rumored as a real war out here. A number of eastern-based mercenaries headed there, in much the same way that a number of Shem-based mercenaries headed to Koth.
Koth is undergoing a slow rebuilding process: the east is still not happy with Strabonus’ rule. Ophir, having survived war with Aquilonia surprisingly well, is back to its usual internal tension between east and west. The emissary from Ophir to Stygia did manage to secure the trade agreement, in spite of a diplomatic incident involving some rogue guards and a temple.
Brythunia and Zamora are beginning to suffer from raids out of Turan. Prince Yezdigerd, a possible successor to Yildiz, is a fire-brand and ambitious generals in the style of Shah Amurath (now deceased) are following his example. Turanian slavers use Zamboula as a base where Zuagir and Kushites can bring their slaves.
Child sacrifice seems to be at an end, at least in the west and south. The Flame Knife cult has fragmented into splinter cells, Becharadur is out of business, the Temple of Derketo in Stygia is no longer organizing anything, and the corsairs are reduced to individual commands.
However, two hitherto-minor cults, the Hyena god and the Ghoul god, have steadily grown in power since the fall of Natohk here in the east. Some say that other things than Natohk were unleashed from Kuthchemes. Others whisper that there is a sinister conspiracy that links all the worshippers of desecration, including the Kite god Jhil and Yog, god of empty abodes, who is widely worshipped among the Zuagir.
Shushan is a huge sprawling city of open-air bazaars, teeming with a mixture of races. Large numbers of children could easily be bought here with none to wonder exactly what use they are being put to…
“Well met, my friends! How has the desert treated you?”
Keth’s booming voice welcomed Celo and Morath as the four old comrades in arms met up once more. Both rogues dodged Keth’s bear-hug of greeting.
More practically, Bardic signaled for drinks and updated the others on what he and Kayan had been doing. A fair amount of the year had been spent getting to the border between Zamora and Koth, to Cala’s horse stud. Kayan had made some legal arrangements there and a little more money had been realized out of yearling sales.
Keth had spent weeks over the intervening seasons crafting various potions. He had brought with him 60 pounds of potion bottles. He had not come bearing antidotes, since those could be bought in any large city from people that Morath and Celo would be far more likely to find than he would.
Morath and Celo were close-mouthed about what task or tasks the thieves of Nippr had set them to. Their weapons were sharp and their armor undamaged.
“Speaking of weapons, have you pair still not decided on who gets the third relic sword?” Bardic asked.
Celo shook his head ruefully.
“No, we haven’t had an all-out fight where we needed both so it’s been left up in the air. I’m thinking whoever can con the other into believing they deserve it, gets it.”
“Here’s another option: I’ll give it to Kayan. I got his swords silvered, but a real relic that burns through undead will be a huge asset in his hands.”
Morath and Celo were relieved at this option and both agreed to it readily.
We need some top talent
“The harpists still sing of our deeds, and I hear many in Shushan are already eager to join us, or help us,” Keth remarked later. “Not that anyone is saying what we are doing here – most stories say that we seek treasure around Kuthchemes.”
“Yeah, it’s weird, walking through a market with guards admiring me,” Celo chuckled. “When I was a kid, guards would be trying to catch me.”
“How did you cope in Nippr? Was your fame not a problem?” Bardic asked curiously.
“I went disguised, mostly.”
“Oh right, makes sense. Well, looking at what we need to do, I’m for hiring the best people we can get. Remember Roaring Pass? We didn’t go there until we had the best team.”
“Good mercenaries are expensive these days,” Morath muttered.
“And whose fault is that? I seem to remember it was you that demanded a thousand up front and a thousand on completion, from our buddy Edric!”
“Meh. Supply and demand. But here, it seems like most of the good ones went off to chase some war in Argos, or are over towards Turan somewhere.”
“Well, we need to keep our ears open. And think about specialists. We could need someone really good at getting into places and finding traps. Like Yemmi.”
“My skills aren’t shabby you know,” Celo pointed out, amiably enough.
“Or Cass, I’d love to get Cass…”
“We know you would…”
“…but her whole non-killing thing is a bit of a drawback. Speaking of non-killing, I’d really like that slab of no-talky metal we had back then to turn up. Except without the whole ‘puny men, you are beneath me, I sweep you away with my non-lethal shield’ thing.”
“Yeah, what was his name?”
The day passed in happy reminiscence. And then it was time for the panel of judges to assemble for:
The Ax-Factor: Shushan!
Ever seen the part of Whose Line Is It Anyway where the participants play “world’s worst…”? This was much the same with the GM doing an ‘instant sketch’ to suggest what kind of NPC was appearing.
It was funny, but I can’t write it all up here without taking thousands of words. Highlights: Keth thinking the weird mage would be ‘pretty handy’ to bring along; and, the players recognizing Forgrim as I mimicked silently taking a helmet off and signaling my price.
Category one: information or equipment
The ‘judges’ had some second thoughts during auditions and some contestants were sent to boot camp only to be axed. I’m still not sure if the judges fully understood that this category was about help in Shushan, not adventuring.
The finalists include Guardsman Nafor, a wiry middle-aged local guard; Desa Abani, an attractive middle-aged wise woman, Osusk Nar, an eccentric Alchemist, and ‘Mickey’ Fel, a paranoid fence.
Category two: less-skilled or cheap
This category reflected the fame of some of the judges, including hopeless amateurs, flashy fame-grabbers, and kids. The judging was easier since most of the decision making was around fighting ability.
The only finalist was Herez Wolf-kin, a Zuagir whose tribe had chosen the wrong side back during Natohk’s rise. He’s ruggedly masculine, dark and wiry like most Zuagir. Morath can guess that he probably has his own agenda but for now he will do as a guide.
Another surprise audition occurs for Celo only: see One-Night Stand, below.
Category three: experienced and pricey
This proved hard for the judges, in that very few could simply be ruled out at audition. After some agonizing there are still half a dozen left: in order of likelihood of hire they are:
Forgrim the Silent, bald and silent, covered in tattoos and ritual scars. He is a known quantity having fought alongside all of the others, and seems to agree with killing demons.
Rollo the Hand of Blood, a desert-crafty Ghanata and ruthless warrior who wields a mighty tulwar in combat. He is also a known quantity, having been a hireling of Bardic and Morath’s before. He also knows the trail from Shushan to Zamboula and knows where to turn off for Kuthchemes.
Russ Cliff-path, grizzled treasure hunter. Russ claims to have actually explored parts of Kuthchemes.
Vikos Kullwood, reformed thug. Enormously tall, tattooed and with a flattened nose, Vikos is the epitome of ‘meat shield.’
Phaedra Grey, hardened archer. A tall woman with stern features who keeps her dark hair back in a long ponytail. Celo is keen for range power and Phaedra is never without her longbow. The soulless pragmatism of this prostitute-turned-mercenary appeals to Morath.
Jedyah Pathfinder, vengeful huntsman. Raven-dark hair hangs over this Shemite’s tanned skin. His eyes are green, suggesting mixed parentage.
Category three’s capabilities are open to purchasing power. With a cap-level of L15 (as they can’t be higher-level than Bardic’s cohort) the players can buy their hires up by level, at a cost of 200 per level. But with only 11,000 worth of silver that’s going to limit them drastically.
Which brings us to…
“Hi Hirst, long time no see. I’m bored! Want to rob the local treasury?”
Deeply tanned and with short curly dark hair now, the wild society girl Celo knew as Bailey Zaid speaks Shemitish with a strong Corinthian twang. She goes by the name of Justina Sweetblade since she left Palena. Her small athletic frame has lost its puppy fat, and is now garbed in dark colors, and her gear is blackened. Her dun cloak helps her blend in with the arid lands.
She still loves danger, and sex in public places, and although she still bears something of a grudge – she believed that handsome Hirst had died horribly in the last days of the revolution, then discovered that Hirst was in fact the renowned adventurer Celo and is alive and well – it takes only the prospect of a fun night’s robbery and romping for her to get over that.
Checking back with the lads Celo gets endorsement for a quiet robbery to boost funds, so he and Bailey/Justina plunder a local source and Celo’s share is 2,800.
“All of that is all well, but that still only brings us to around 14,000 or something less. And camels aren’t free.”
“Not to mention those ‘certain things’ we might need to get from the alchemist,” Morath agreed.
“Any other prospects for treasure, then?”
Rob Yog’s Zombies
Morath had been shadowed; and at the point of a dagger the priest of Yog confessed where his plan had been to lure them; Desa Abani and Herez were both able to confirm that some sort of ancient tomb sacred to Yog was supposed to contain treasure. Guardsman Nafor conspired to allow them to slip quietly out of Shashur without an entourage.
This would have been an interesting exercise for some ‘boot camp’ work: whichever NPC survived would have shared the loot and been hired, but the characters are trying to turn a quick buck, not share it out and endure a high body count, so Herez guides the four plus Kayan to the locale not far out of Shashur.
They fate-point equipping with hefty bows, Celo having a +4Str longbow so he can use Bull’s Strength with it, and Morath taking a +2Str hunting bow as that is what his proficiencies extend to.
First impressions can be deadly – I mis-play another NPC making him “hiss” instead of “growl” when he stands up from amid his wolf pack to view the party. Morath makes a shot from the saddle at -8 for range and horseback, and wounds the lad. So no prospect of hiring him. But Bardic has already set a ‘no kids’ rule so it makes no difference.
“This valley contains the ancient tombs,” Herez pointed out. “Most are broken.”
“Smells damp,” Bardic commented.
“There is enough moisture in the ground for thorn trees and sharp grasses to grow,” agreed Herez. “Goats and Camels can graze, though your horses may struggle.”
Leaving Herez with the horses under some acacia, they unlimbered gear and made their way down the rough, stone-broken valley afoot. Herez had been up-front that he himself worshipped Yog, and since his attitude seemed to be ‘the point is an empty land, not a tomb where priests stash loot’ Bardic was willing to trust him with the horses, even Yildiz, Morath’s valuable gelding.
Whatever once closed the tomb entrance, it was now open. Celo and Morath searched the dusty steps – and walls – down to an entrance chamber where six dustily impressive columns supported the ceiling far above.
Morath checked the dust on the columns suspiciously. It was no evil explosive powder, but it did seem to conceal a translucency to the column. He jerked back with shock as he realized that inside the column a figure was frozen, in a posture of pain and torment.
“Bet it zombifies too,” he warned, drawing his relic sword. Sure enough it was glowing.
As they explored on through to a large and sturdy hardwood door, two shadow-like beings attacked, only to be withered in Mitra’s holy power.
The undead theme was continued throughout the tomb-raid. Keth’s circle of protection from evil and Turn Undead were used as they pushed past an extremely complex trapped iron door into the main tomb chamber. It was huge, discouraging detailed exploration. Loose tiles concealed zombies that rose to attack. The main risk was in taxing Keth’s Turning power too quickly so he was instructed to hold fire while the rogues and Kayan dealt with these minor nuisances with the relic swords.
Each zombie had a focal gemstone, more valuable than the normal jet bead sorcerers generally used.
The many columns of the main chamber flanked a nave dominated by two daises. The first held a sarcophagus, the second a statue of – presumably – Yog himself, pointing in menacing fashion.
Keth made what he could of the obscure relief and glyphs of the dais. Each side had a small circular depression where something like a largish ring could be placed.
It was time to explore a little wider out. Cutting down the occasional zombie that their feet triggered they moved right. The first and third chambers were disappointing while the second cost Keth another Turn Undead to deal with two flanking Wights: they chose to leave the “accursed by/of Yog” warrior in his side-chamber sarcophagus.
Intending to pass to the opposite side, Bardic noticed the corner seemed unusually bare for a dusty tomb. As they approached, a large skeletal creature, a few hideous veins seeming to pulse with sinister life, burst up and confronted them. Morath, who had been elected to probe the corner, scuttled back to Keth’s protection with a screech of fear. His relic sword was still firm in his grasp!
The great undead thing gave off a screech and three others of its kind emerged from the distant corners. The adventurers waited quietly. So long as they were within a few feet of Keth it seemed they could not be affected.
The four attacked simultaneously, but all five adventurers were ready with their best shots. Kayan did worst, as they were unnaturally hard to strike; but the blades of the others bit deep: then Keth toppled all of the creatures with cunning strokes of his staff. Being prone – and large – made them easy prey and they were finished without getting in a single attack.
Each bore a ring. Fitting each ring to its place on the dais unlocked the sarcophagus lid. But it also provoked a wraith-like shape to emerge from Yog’s statue! At the same time that they all readied for this opponent, Bardic’s keen ears caught the sound of the sarcophagus lid beginning to grind shut again. With a mighty hop-up he drew his Akbitanan dagger and wedged the lid open!
Meanwhile Keth battered the shape with another Turn Undead and Morath and Celo’s silver-tipped arrows persuaded it to go defend Yog someplace else.
The remains of whatever priest or ruler lay in the sarcophagus included some rich items. But Celo also matched the sinister bone mace it bore to a concealed niche in the underside of the lid. Operating it like a key caused the whole sarcophagus to slide across, revealing a cavity below it. And in that cavity were ancient gems, and relic bracers and a relic mace!
“Time to go!”
Even with the injurious rate of exchange Mickey Fel (the fence) will give them on the jewelry the characters now have over 20,000sp. Bardic is less happy when Desa Abani’s explanation of the bracers reveals that the name of Yog must be called on to operate them (mantle of protection equivalent). As he resolutely ignores gods, he is again forced to miss out on a relic. Keth is also dubious about using the mace to rebuke Yog’s followers and undead.