Thursday, January 15, 2015

RL #21: The Touch of Death

Safely removed from Gorgi, the party began to set up camp. As they did, a trio of lantern-lights passed along the road, though at too far a distance for their nature to be discerned. The companions took their sleep in turn, though Leilana was startled during her watch when she turned to see Valana suddenly awake and staring at her intently. "One of your company possesses something of great significance to my people," the gypsy uttered. "You."

Valana reminded the druid of the scroll she carried, stating that it was penned by a Dukkar, a rare male Vistani gifted with Sight, many generations ago. The author, Hyskosa, recorded six verses, prophecies that together foretold the unraveling of the mists, rulers, and of the world itself. One of these verses had already come to pass. Leilana pressed for more details, but Valana answered her cryptically, then fell silent.

In the morning, a low haze covered the ground, and Valana explained that she could lead the PCs through the mists to find her family. The party followed the gypsy into a thick fog, walking until the sun shone high and hot overhead, and the ground was covered with sand. The mists burned away to reveal a vast desert, with endlessly rolling dunes in three directions and a steep cliff face in the fourth. They were standing near a road that led to a small village.

Valana was distressed and unable to say where the party was, or why. With little other recourse to escape the oppressive heat, they walked along the road until they came upon a brown, withered hand emerging from sand along their path. They uncovered a corpse, a dried-out husk dressed in a tattered garment. Unsettled, they proceeded on to the village, arriving at a spring in its center as lithe, brown-skinned villagers outfitted in flowing white robes and headdresses looked on. Standing next to the spring was a woman wearing a gold-trimmed gown, a snake's head circlet, a gold medallion, and several pieces of ornate jewelry.

The woman introduced herself as Isu Rehkotep, servant of Osiris, god of the dead. She welcomed the party to the village of Mudar in the land of Har'Akir, and explained plaintively that the villagers were wary due to a series of recent kidnappings. When the PCs mentioned the corpse they discovered along the road, Isu bid them to take her to it, and they did. Upon returning with the body, a female villager rushed to it in hysterics. Gaertorin attempted to comfort her, but the woman shrieked at the intrusion and several men surrounded her and the weathered corpse, finally carrying it away from the spring. Isu invited the PCs into her temple to help answer their questions.

The temple itself was a whitewashed, sandstone building of elaborate architecture, with two great statues guarding its entry. The first, a powerful male figure with the head of a hawk, depicted Ra, the sun god; the second depicted Anhktepot, the last pharaoh of Har'Akir. While Ra's statue appeared to be immaculately maintained, Anhktepot's was damaged and worn.

Inside, Isu led the party through a grand hall adorned with columns, prayer mats and tapestries before passing through a curtain into the priestess's public antechamber. Isu's exotic pet cat, Bashet, paced the room (showing a particular distaste for Aginot) as the priestess told the legend of Anhktepot:

The pharaoh Anhktepot ruled centuries ago in the land of Har’Akir. This nation encompassed the entire Abal river valley in the great Akir desert. According to our beliefs, the pharaoh is the link between man and the gods. The pharaoh is himself a god of this land. The pharaohs ruled by the divine grace of Ra, the sun god.

Anhktepot greatly feared death. It was known that when a pharaoh dies, he becomes a servant of Ra in the underworld, exalted above all other servants. For some unknown reason, Anhktepot did not want to die. Maybe he feared the wrath of Ra should the sun god discover that Anhktepot had been a false pharaoh. Anhktepot commanded his priests to find a way for him to cheat death. Many slaves and prisoners died horribly as subjects in Anhktepot’s gruesome experiments in immortality.

Frustrated by his lack of success, the pharaoh had several temples burned and razed. He stalked into the Kharn temple, greatest in all of Har’Akir, and cursed the gods for not granting him his heart’s desire. Ra answered Anhktepot. He told the pharaoh that when he died, he would live, though he might wish otherwise. However, for cursing the gods, Anhktepot would suffer eternally. Ra did not say how this curse would be manifest.

Anhktepot left the temple elated but confused. He still did not know how to cheat death. That night, when he touched Nephyr, his wife, she died instantly. Everyone he touched that night died. His wife, several of his servants, and his eldest child all died by his hand. According to our customs, they were mummified and entombed in great buildings in the desert. The funerals took over a week.

Anhktepot soon understood that after the sun left the sky, his touch was death. So long as Ra shone upon him, he was safe. But once he was no longer under the sun’s watchful eye, whomever he touched died horribly.

Shortly after the final ceremony of his wife’s funeral, he was visited in the night. A mummy wrapped in funeral linens entered his chambers. By the vestments he knew it was Nephyr. Unable to speak, the mummy tried to embrace Anhktepot. Horrified, he screamed for her to leave him forever, which she did. Nephyr walked into the desert and was never seen again. Her tomb has remained open and empty through all these years.

Anhktepot was also visited by the mummified bodies of those he had killed. He came to understand that he controlled them utterly. They did his every bidding. He used their power and his own deadly touch to tighten the reigns of his evil power over Har’Akir.

He killed many priests, making them into his undead slaves. Occasionally he would find one of his mummies destroyed, burned from the inside out. Some scholars believe Nephyr was responsible for the destruction of Anhktepot’s mummies, but no one knows the true answer.

One day, the priests rebelled against Anhktepot and murdered him in his sleep. He was still the pharaoh-a god and blessed of the gods. The priests gave him a funereal befitting his station. Shortly after the funereal, the Walls of Ra appeared, cutting us off from the rest of Har’Akir. All that remains of the life we once knew is Mudar and the tomb of Anhktepot, which lies a short way through the desert. All of this happened many generations ago.

Occasionally the villagers say they have seen the mummified body of Anhktepot staggering across the sand dunes. They blame most of their ill luck on him and use his name to frighten small children. I don’t know what has happened to Har’Akir or if Anhktepot truly does walk the land as one of the living dead.

Isu offered the party a place to sleep outside, near the spring where they would be safe. Strangely, many travelers had come to Mudar in recent weeks, she explained, but most often, the heat of the desert claimed them. The spring's water was sacred to the village; all were welcome to drink it freely, but filling a decanter or taking water away from the spring was considered a serious crime.

Distraught by the day's events, Valana bade the PCs to participate in a fortune-telling near the outskirts of the village, away from the populace. The PCs agreed, and seated themselves in a small circle, out of sight of any villagers. Valana removed a deck of cards from a pouch around her waist. She asked each companion to shuffle the cards in turn, then entered a trance-like state and revealed the following:
Six of Hearts - "The card of the hex. A sign of mystery and events to come. Look for the sign of six. The king understands the hex as the knave does not. [The heart] is the symbol of loyalty betrayed." 
Queen of Clubs - "This card is the traitor queen. She who should serve has betrayed her lord." 
Four of Diamonds - "The sun shall set this many times before the king can be sought. This time is called the Night of Thoth." 
Four of Hearts - "A strengthening of the aspect of the Night of Thoth." 
Jack of Clubs - "This card represents evil personified. He attempts to overthrow the king. The queen now serves this knave." 
Four of Clubs - "A further strengthening of the sign of Thoth." 

Before revealing a final card, Valana asked each companion to shuffle the cards again.
Ace of Clubs - "A singular presence. A symbol of those who do not belong. They have a terrible task ahead of them. [The club] is the symbol of physical power. This card holds the power to destroy."

Upon finishing the last reading, Valana broke from her trance and collapsed, stating that she needed rest. The PCs helped her back to the spring, where they set watches for the night.

In the late evening hours, after all the villagers had retired to their houses, Gaertorin spotted a lone figured illuminated by the moonlight in the desert, stray ends of cloth fluttering in the breeze as it walked among the dunes. Shaken, the half-elf assured the safety of his companions; when he looked back again, the form was gone.

During the midnight watch, Leilana heard a rustling sound and turned to see a brown, withered corpse attacking her from behind. The druid screamed, awakening her companions as the creature raked across her neck and face with its claws. Injured nearly to unconsciousness, Leilana ran the creature through with her spear, and Gaertorin crushed its skull with his mace.

The party dragged the body to the nearby temple steps, and the final watch passed uneventfully. In the early morning hours, as the sun began to warm the village, Leilana turned her focus toward the spring and began to cast a spell...

DM's Commentary

I'd never have thought that Carmen's decanter of endless water would come in so handy when I arbitrarily gave it to her as an initial magic item. So awesome when things like that just work out.

The only other thing to mention is that these session recaps shouldn't dissuade players from taking in-game notes - names, maps, and especially specific events like the fortune-telling should be recorded in as much detail as you think you might need later on. This time, I did include the minutiae since Aginot already posted his notes as well, but please don't count on me to always provide this stuff later, otherwise I may start omitting them from my write-ups.

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