What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
I'd asked Tim Harford how his Sunday evening Legend campaign in Oxford was going.
'Alas, it's on hiatus pending the return of one of my players,' Tim told me. 'Still, we did have time for another of the regular players, Alistair Jackson, to run an excellent and seriously creepy two-parter set in the Kaikuhuran Desert. Ralph Lovegrove and I played professional tomb raiders, roped in by an Elleslandic crusader who was strapped for cash. It rapidly became clear that in raiding this particular tomb we were in over our heads, but we weren't at liberty to extricate ourselves because our idiot employer was stubborn. It was part Legend, part Call of Cthulhu, and part Blackadder Goes Forth. Cleverly done.'
When Tim, who has run some of the best games I've ever played in, says that a scenario is seriously creepy, I want to see it. So I prevailed upon Alistair and here is a reconstruction of that adventure.
* * *
Current affairsThe fortunes of war ebb and flow, but recently the Crusaders from the north were enjoying success, driving deep into the Caliphate of Zhenir and reducing the Emir of Hakbad to a vassal. These great gains have stalled lately, however, because of a miscalculated gambit by the Coradians. Concerned at the risk of overstretch and needing to organize their new conquests, they offered the Caliph a treaty. For five years there would be no aggression on either side. The Caliph, whose coffers were depleted by the interruption of trade more than by the war itself, agreed.
The leaders of the Crusader forces in fact had no thought of leaving the Ta’ashim lands unmolested that long. After six months’ retrenchment they sent to the Holy Father to ask if an infidel could legally hold land or possessions. Anticipating the answer “no”, they planned to declare that since the Caliph was an infidel he owned nothing, and thus they would be free to continue their advance. To their dismay, the reply came back from Selentium that as God made the sun shine and the rain fall on faithful and unfaithful alike, so the infidel could own property and could not be deprived of it without due cause. The ramifications of this are still being worked out, but the signs are that the advance has stalled.
Beginning the adventureHow the characters get involved will depend on the campaign, but this is how it went in our game:
The sun rises over the city of Al Sutu. Already the streets are teeming with people. In these lands folk rise early and retire late, with a siesta in the blistering heat of midday. Most of those already about their business are olive-skinned Ta'ashim, but they rub shoulders with the paler skinned Coradians, for this city has lately fallen to the Crusaders, and is now a part of the dominions of the True Faith.
At a caravanserai on the outskirts of the city, Sir Roger of Crowmarsh is gathering a group of retainers and hirelings for an expedition. If the characters are in the former group they will already know Aelfric of Wetford, Sir Roger’s sergeant, who is organizing the party. If in the latter group, they are given a Crowmarsh badge to sew onto their tunic and told the terms of employment. They will be paid four shillings a week. Also, one eighth of the value of all treasure brought back will be split between the surviving men at arms, with retainers getting an extra half share.
Other NPCs the characters will soon become acquainted with:
Ayeesha, a woman of considerable beauty who is Sir Roger’s intermediary with the locals. She is of the Ta’ashim race, though a convert who conspicuously wears the symbols of the True Faith. Crowmarsh retainers will know she is also Sir Roger’s mistress.
Julius Nepos, a scholar who seems to be an Emphidian in his late 30s. He is aloof, entirely self-assured to the point of arrogance, and with blazing eyes that bespeak great energy and purpose.
Halbord Halversson, a mighty Thulander and former pirate who pledged his sword to Sir Roger when the latter spared his life in a sea battle a few years ago. He’s in his early 30s.
A knight’s taleSir Roger of Crowmarsh is a landed knight from Albion, a vassal of Baron Aldred. He made quite a splash when he arrived in Outremer, bringing a substantial force of men that put him in the second rank of Crusader lords below the great nobles. He soon developed a reputation for piety and valour, and was thought likely to acquire substantial estates from the new conquests.
However, Sir Roger’s crusading career was based on shakier foundations than was generally known. Although a wealthy man (and among his preparations for departure had been a wedding to a wealthy young heiress) his contribution to the holy cause necessitated a considerable plunge into the books of the moneylenders of Port Clyster. His plan was to pay these loans from the proceeds of ransom and plunder. Up until recently that was working just fine, but the prospect of a long pause in hostilities has left him deeply concerned. Nor can he act openly to handle this problem. As usury is a sin, admitting that he has dealt with usurers would damage his standing in Outremer. This would be sure to harm his chances of receiving a fiefdom when captured lands are being distributed.
Learning from an Emphidian scholar of a Kaikuhuran royal tomb nearby, far west of the usual burial sites and thus hopefully intact, Sir Roger has therefore decided to stake his fortunes on the treasure he hopes to find there.
Despite the detailed background given here for Sir Roger, he's not an essential participant in the adventure. Quite possibly the characters will have their own resources and don't need a patron. The only NPC who must be part of the expedition party is the scholar, Julius Nepos.
Who is Julius Nepos?
He is in fact a near-immortal wizard called Epiphanes of the Unbroken Ring. To avoid detection by his many enemies, and having come off the worse in a series of sorcerous duels that have diminished his formerly near-demonic power, Epiphanes has put on the physical form of a pedantic scholar, thereby masking his psyche from magical detection. That’s why he needs the characters’ help in crossing the desert, as any overt use of magic risks drawing the attention of his foes. His desire is to obtain Ithobal’s Thirteen Cryptical Pages, said to be the work of feverish inspiration over thirteen nights as the priest-king lay on his deathbed. With those Epiphanes hopes to restore and augment his powers and finally take revenge on those who oppose him. He won’t reveal any of that until and unless he has to. He has no particular need to harm the characters, and has no use for Ithobal’s grave goods other than the Thirteen Pages, so he may simply let them take what they want. Unless, that is, they have annoyed him.
Setting outThe party needs to comprise at least a dozen fighting men to deter the bands of robbers, both Coradian deserters and dispossessed Ta’ashim, that haunt the desert fringes. If Sir Roger is the expedition’s patron he already has his sergeant and a dozen of his best men at arms. (Unless the characters are already his retainers, they’ll need to bring other skills to the group – survival, tracking, and so on – as Sir Roger has no need to hire more soldiers.)
Camels are bought for them to ride, and they’ll also need about a dozen porters and labourers with mules. The foreman of the labourers is Idris, a tall, saturnine, half-caste fellow brought up by monks of the True Faith but who isn’t averse to calling on the Ta’ashim god and even pagan spirits in a crisis.
It’s best to set forth before dawn to avoid travelling in the full blaze of midday. Julius Nepos consults various indecipherable charts and compares these with entries in his leather-bound ephemeris, which consists of papyrus sheets sewn between wooden covers. (Even to the untutored eye this book looks very old indeed. A good perception roll such as Observation against Julius’s Holdout will tell the character that, despite its antiquity, the handwriting in the book is the same as they have seen on Julius’s handwritten notes.) The upshot of these calculations is that they must strike out north-east from Al Sutu.
At first the journey is uneventful. They are passing through populated lands whose farmers are now at peace under their new Coradian overlords. After a few days, however, the land grows increasingly arid, the farms more scattered, and soon the day comes when they pass from a small village by a spring up a dry canyon, and emerge onto the edges of the Empty Abodes.
Before them rolls the desert, rocky here with strange pillars and mounds rising from it, carved into weird and wonderful shapes. On they trek, tracing their path over sheets of bare rock scattered with stones and occasional patches of sand.
They become aware of a curious phenomenon in the air around them. Occasionally as they move along there is a rushing sound as of something passing at great speed, and the quick-eyed glimpse small whirlwinds rushing over the rocks only to dissipate after going fifty paces or so. Some of the labourers begin to pray, muttering that these whirlwinds are the forms taken by genies when they wish to travel swiftly in the world.
‘It is not so,’ says Julius Nepos curtly. ‘The vortices are created by the cool air of night being too quickly heated by the sunblasted rocks. As the sun rises, they will fade.’
A meeting at the oasisThe going is harsh from now on. For some days they pass through shimmering desert until they come to a deep, steep sided valley. This must once have been a flowing river and a tracker or survival expert may theorize that water is still to be found by digging into the sand. This proves to be the case, and if Sir Roger is leading the expedition he will decree a day of rest to allow the refilling of the waterskins and the watering of the camels.
Toward the afternoon of this day, a small party is seen descending the path on the other side of the valley. A train of laden camels is led by four figures in flowing desert robes. The first is tall and magisterial of bearing. The other three are small, either midgets or children – but which, given the robes, is hard to tell. The leader introduces himself in a jovial baritone as the merchant Ali al-Malik, and he invites the leaders of the characters’ expedition to a meal once his tent is erected.
(If Sir Roger is the patron, he will go but Julius Nepos is nowhere to be seen, so he’ll take one or two of the PCs instead, leaving Aelfric to oversee the rewatering and posting of guards. Halbord Haversson tags along and waits outside Ali’s tent in case he’s needed.)
RefreshmentsAli turns out to be a genial host. The three children serve the meal in silence, but flash each other sly, knowing looks as they do and may be caught at times seeming to listen in on the conversation with detached amusement.
‘At the end of this trail lies the village Nebthu,’ Ali tells them. They will have heard Julius Nepos speak of it. ‘I know it well. You may wonder at a place so remote, which only the hardy or foolhardy would go out of their way to visit, but there are thriving copper mines there which make it worth my while to visit,’
If asked about ruins, Ali freely confirms there is a great tomb not far from Nebthu. It is said that in very ancient days the region was fertile and well watered and the capital of Ancient Kaikuhuru was located here. As the land turned to desert the place was abandoned, and the people moved east and founded Kaikuhuru itself, but later they grew decadent and were under a terrible threat from the east. Pharaoh, being without sons, married his eldest daughter to a wizard priest of the western lands called Ithobal, and he saved Kaikuhuru and ascended the throne. He was a mighty mage, whose name now rivals that of the Seven Eternal Wizards, and his reign was longer than any three monarchs of modern days. However, there was lingering resentment among the insular Kaikuhurans that a foreigner sat on their throne, and as the memory of his deeds faded into history and his power weakened with age, so the resentment grew stronger. In the end he was overthrown and forced to flee, having been mortally wounded. Folklore has it he came west, where he gathered those followers remaining to him and, knowing it was his time, he bade them lay him to rest in the city they founded here.
The scholar’s absenceCharacters who haven’t gone to eat in Ali’s tent may notice that Julius Nepos isn’t around. The last anyone saw of him was when Ali al-Malik’s party arrived. If they search they’ll find he’s definitely not in the camp. If they retrace their route along the valley they see the whirlwinds are back, many of them, thrumming across the ground. But there is no sun to heat the rock here: the valley is deep and narrow, getting sunlight for only a couple of hours around noon. Now the day is getting on and the valley is in shadow.
The next morning Ali’s party packs and leaves long before sunrise. As the characters strike camp, they notice Julius Nepos is back. He doesn’t deign to give any explanation of his absence, saying only, if pressed, a paraphrase of an old Chaubrettean adage: ‘J’ai mes raisons que la raison ne connaît point.’
Onwards to NebthuOn they go into the desert lands, the hard rock and gravel now left behind and the rolling dunes beginning. Great waves of sand pile up on either side as they move on. There is no path to be discerned anymore, but the landmarks are clear, and Julius Nepos reads the stars at night like pages from a book, and after two day's journey they reach Nebthu.
This lies in another valley, much shallower than the last and broader, but clearly another dry, or rather underground, river. Many wells dot the valley floor and a ribbon of farmland runs along it. The village stands on a rocky height on the desert verge so as not to waste any arable land. On the cliff face opposite are carvings of kings, or perhaps gods, but so weathered as to be almost untraceable.
They are well into Zhenir by now, if borders mean anything that are drawn on the few primitive maps that exist. At any rate, it’s likely the Caliph would regard the villagers of Nebthu as his subjects, but it soon transpires that tax collectors seldom make it all the way out here, with the result that the people recognize no definite overlord.
The headman, Jamasp, is welcoming and confirms that their destination is not far. He warns against it, though: ‘People who go to the ruins do not come back.’ Nonetheless he is happy to provide them with a night’s hospitality, for nothing, and fresh supplies, at a price.
The ruinsThey set forth. The dry river runs along the foot of some hills fronted by cliffs, only a hundred feet high but sheer. Following the cliffs northwards, they slowly gain height until they rise some two hundred feet or more. As the day ends the party comes in sight of a canyon that runs into the cliffs. The spurs of rock on either side of the canyon are carved into two huge sphinxes, two hundred feet high, staring out over the sandy silence. Yes, two hundred feet. To simple folk of Ellesland this must seem like the handiwork of titans -- as indeed it may well be.
Reaching the canyon they can see that it runs for perhaps a quarter mile before emerging into some wider space. All along that distance the walls of the canyon have been smoothed and then graven from base to crest with depictions of triumphs, tribute, gods and glory – a staggering feat of ancient stonework. At the far end, the canyon narrows and the bluffs on either side are carven into huge statues of kings, each with a flat-topped crown.
First night’s watchDusk is falling, so it is wise to make camp in the canyon mouth. Tell this to one of the characters when it’s their turn on watch:
‘You feel uneasy. The gibbous moon riding overhead seems to leer down from the sky, bathing the silent desert with the whiteness of bone. In its light, looking along the canyon, you notice an incongruity in one of the great statues of the kings carved from the bluffs at the far end. There is something standing motionless atop one, protruding up from the flat crown. An obelisk the height of a tall man, perhaps? You didn’t notice it in daylight and it’s odd because the twin statues are otherwise symmetrical, insofar as weathering allows. As you peer at the obelisk, if that is what it is, a cloud covers the moon and you lose sight of it.’When the character wakes the next sentry, the moon has come out again but there is no sign of the obelisk – or whatever it was.
Entering the dead cityThe next day they venture into the canyon. The ancient kings who stand like gate posts seem to glare down on these interlopers. A feeling of menace presses upon them. As they pass between the carven kings they look down a long flight of stairs onto a dead city. It lies in a great bowl surrounded by sheer cliffs.
The city was built with its structures pressed close together in the confined space. Time has brought the palaces and temples to ruin, and the narrow streets are buried in sand and debris, the whole place being a sea of broken rubble, with carven pillars and pylons rising like islands from a sea.
The silence is complete. The wind is still, not an insect stirs, nor a bird soars. All they can see is millennia-old ruin. Around the base of cliffs are many tombs with small temples outside them, those even more ruinous than the city buildings. But it is clear where they need to go. Opposite the mouth of the canyon is a mighty mortuary temple, much larger than the others and much more intact than anything else in the city, with its roof still intact, defying the aeons of neglect.
At the base of the stairs is a small open space. Here they could establish a new camp if they don’t want to return along the canyon each night; Julius Nepos will suggest this if Sir Roger is not here to make the decisions. Sand lies everywhere, between the chunks of rubble and dusted across the pavement of slabs on which their new camp is set. But it seems to any wise in the arts of tracking that the sand is oddly disturbed. Rather than being piled up it seems freshly swept, as if this sand has been trodden by many feet before they got there – but perhaps not long before.
The trek across the rubble is appalling. Slipping sand over shifting rubble makes for a terrible journey, in which a momentary lapse in concentration could lead to a sprained ankle or broken bones, and the heat is tremendous. There is no wind, and the sun beats down from a brazen sky. The city is a dreary place in the merciless light, the shadows deepened by the sun's glare and the stones leached of all colour. The glare of the sun is treacherous, too; shadows shift, disguising crevices in the rock, making it easy to stumble. In places there are deep gullies between piles of rubble, forcing them to pick their way down and climb again on the other side.
Julius Nepos is not unprepared. Before departure he had some of the labourers equipped with tools which they now employ to clear the worst of the rubble, relaying slabs of pavement and fitting planks across the crevices to make a more level track between the camp and the temple.
The mortuary templeAt last the group reaches the temple steps. At the top they can see a great hypostyle hall, its roof still mostly intact and casting deep shade over the intricately decorated pillars within.
Old hands at this sort of tomb-robbing may advise caution, but the promise of shade and the patches of wondrous colour still visible on some of the pillars proves too much for the sunstruck men at arms. They surge up the steps. The first to reach the top – a metaphorical redshirt, let’s call him Sellius Aquila, a Selentine mercenary – pauses in dismay as his foot depresses a flagstone. He looks back, too dazed by the heat to react to his comrades’ shouted warnings. A great cylinder of stone drops from the roof eighty feet above and falls to squash him flat, then rolls down the steps forcing everyone to dodge or be carried to the ground underneath it. (Easier the further back down the steps you were.)
It’s mid-afternoon already and the party may not want to press on while exhausted, especially after losing one or more men in so brutally sudden a fashion. The way back to camp is far easier now the ground has been levelled, taking only an hour rather than the six or more it took them to pick their way across to begin with.
During the night there is only one event of note. When somebody wakes realizing that they should have relieved Halbord Halversson, they find him dead, apparently quite peacefully, of extreme old age.
Second dayNo doubt there’ll be anxious debate. While the deadfall trap could be ascribed to simple mechanics, as long as you credit the ancient Kaikuhurans with preternatural artifice, Halbord’s death evokes stories of the death-touch of ghuls, a race of fallen spirits that are said to have been driven into exile after a war with the jinn and now reduced to dark things that feed on corpses.
‘I know a man as saw one,’ claims a man at arms. ‘In the cemetery at Crescentium, this was. He went to put flowers on his sweetheart’s grave, only he’d been held up by business and didn’t set out till late in the afternoon. It came for him at dusk and he said it had a lion’s head, a serpent’s tongue, a body like a bear, and little twisted legs like a dead baby’s.’
‘Preposterous,’ Julius mutters under his breath.
‘You don’t believe in ghuls?’ a character might enquire who overheard him.
Julius regards them as if they had crawled out from under a rock. After a pause, disdainfully: ‘Oh, the ghuls exist. But they are protean, with no one true form. Commonly they take on the appearance of the last corpse they ate,’
It will take some leadership to stop the labourers from panicking now. Some of the men at arms too will want to leave in that case. If Sir Roger is here, he’ll use a combination of charisma, cajoling and threats to keep the group together. Otherwise it’s up to the characters.
The hypostyle hallThe group (perhaps reduced in number) heads back across the ruins. Whatever may have come in the night for Halbord, their carefully arranged path is undisturbed and their journey is easier than yesterday. A haze has come over the valley and the sun can no longer be seen. The sky is a dome of bronze and the desiccated city broods under its dull gleam. The silence is complete, so that every heavy footfall or jingle of harness echoes across this hateful place, where each shadow seems to hide leering menace and the very silence feels watchful and ominous.
At last they reach the temple again, where the one splash of colour among the bleached stones is provided by the protruding mortal fragments of their former companion, still pinned under forty tons of rock.
(‘Has anything eaten him?’ your players may ask. And indeed, on close inspection and only if they care to look, it does seem as if the flesh of his face has been chewed or pecked away.)
The hypostyle hall is huge, and yet at the same time oddly cramped owing to the forest of pillars. An alert character (some kind of perception roll will be needed if they didn’t think to say they are looking) spots unusually vividly dyed runes at the base of two of the pillars directly ahead. Now that those have been noticed, similarly ominous runes can be seen on many of the pillars. To avoid passing between them, the party is forced to take a circuitous route to the back of the hall.
The wisest course would be to mark out that safe route as they go, as the runes can be hard to spot, especially when the sun is going down, and if they need to return at haste there’s a danger of blundering past them. If that should happen, get the player concerned to roll magic resistance against an attack of unspecified power. For each failure they get a debit of disaster, which you can call on to inflict a fumble or other piece of catastrophic ill luck on them at any time. (Don’t be lenient. This is an old curse but one of baleful strength. When activated it might lead to maiming – a lost eye, a severed hand – or madness or accusations of heresy; a life-changing mishap, in other words.)
DescentAt last they reach the far side of the hall and can see the idols and dedication. A great statue of the ancient Kaikuhuruan god of death is flanked by two smaller statues of the pharaoh. Examination reveals that one of the latter masks the entrance to the tomb and can be opened by tugging one of the symbols of rulership it holds, crook or flail. (In our game, a character reasoned that the crook, a symbol of protection of the people, was likely safer than the flail, a more aggressive symbol. But he felt it prudent to tell the porter Hedbert to pull the thing for him. His caution was rewarded as the statue fell forward onto the unfortunate porter, crushing him.)
A passage lies beyond the pharaoh statue, descending down steep stairs. At the foot of the stairs, two side passages lead off the main corridor which continues on into the darkness. The foot of these stairs is an obvious place for a pit trap, and Julius Nepos will call a warning if no one else spots it. The point here is not to hurt the characters, merely to keep them nervous. However, a difficult perception roll also detects rustlings in the darkness to either side, horribly suggestive of something moving.
The ghuls can see in darkness, but the characters may be inconvenienced because their torch- and lantern-bearers cannot stand directly behind them because of the tilting slab trap. There is room for two characters to fight side-by-side in the passages against one troll, and that should be a tough fight for averagely tough adventurers – say 5th rank in Dragon Warriors or 140 points in GURPS. Edged weapons are turned by the ghul’s rubbery skin, so that they take only half damage, but maces and the like are fully effective. However, it seems the things cannot be killed. Even crushed and oozing, they drag themselves along the ground, chittering phrases that were once spoken in life by Sellius. Visibly their flesh is reknitting itself, their broken bones cracking back into position.
‘Cast them into the pit,’ Julius Nepos will command if no one else thinks of it.
A tomb chamberThe group moves on, into the narrow sand-dusted halls of the tomb, the walls inscribed with ancient script promising grisly death to those who trespass here. Improvise some galleries and votary chambers, with more traps if your players enjoy the dungeon experience, or just hints to build tension if not. For example, if the characters are studying the bas-relief murals you could describe one that shows one of the ranks of priests being stung by an insect. In the next room, the corresponding figure is now a leper cast out from the community. Then have somebody think that he just felt a bite on his neck and let crawling fear do the rest.
Eventually they reach a chamber with no way further on. It is a tomb, complete with sarcophagus and a pile of glittering treasure. To the uninitiated this would seem to be their goal attained. Here is gold enough to restore Sir Roger’s fortunes and let each man take a share that would buy him a good farm and the ease to do no more work than he chose for the rest of his life. It is, of course, a false tomb to dupe robbers, as Julius Nepos points out if no one else does. In fact he assumes that nobody would be so stupid as to even imagine this is the genuine tomb chamber.
Still, this is more gold than any of the men at arms have ever seen. As Julius starts searching for another way on from here, the men and labourers start to fill their pockets from the piled-up treasure. Unless one of the player-characters tries the sarcophagus, the camel driver, Todbert, steps up to it and gives the lid a shove. With a series of hisses, stone bullets burst from all around the rim and ricochet through the room. Those within five yards need to dodge or throw up their shields to protect themselves. Selim the labourer does neither, and loses an ear to a lethally sharp flake of flint. Todbert, of course, has no chance and perishes where he stands with his windpipe drilled out.
(If you’re using GURPS the volley does 4d cutting if directly adjacent to the sarcophagus, 2d at up to three yards, 1d at up to five yards. Treat as an attack of 14, with -1 at 3 yards and -2 at 5 yards owing to range. Characters can defend with Dodge and Drop, or a Block if they have a shield.)
The secret doorThey can find the way on by moving a candle beside the rear wall. The flame starts to flicker near a deeply incised carving of a sun disk. A closer look confirms there is a crack there; the sun disk pivots around a central hinge. Around the edge of the carving is an almost-hidden inscription in vatic Kaikuhuran. ‘It’s a warding spell,’ Julius will reveal if asked. What does it ward against? If any of the characters are scholars they may be able to read for themselves that the spell on the door prevents the passage of something called ‘Darkness Made [or given] Hunger’.
The darknessPassing through the hidden door, the group find themselves in natural caves, although somewhat improved. The walls are plain, lacking the intricate decorations of the outer tomb, and the floors bare and sandy.
As they advance into a larger cavern, their sources of illumination begin to behave oddly. Previously the torches and lanterns clearly lit an area and then their light faded gradually into the darkness, as you’d expect. Now, the line of demarcation between light and dark is abrupt and absolute. The clearly lit area is as before, but beyond that is instant pitch blackness. More disturbing still: as they move on they occasionally see the darkness bulge a little, as if trying to push back the light.
Out of the darkness ahead, without warning, comes a volley of missiles: throwing sticks, aimed not at the party but at their torches. A trooper, Maric, has his lantern knocked from his hand. It shatters and goes out and he is swallowed by the darkness. He gives vent to agonized, panic-stricken screams. Another trooper, Sigurd, pushes towards Maric’s position, torch in hand, but though it’s only a few seconds before the light washes over him, in that time the stalwart warrior has been reduced to a pile of stark white bones.
There’s not much the characters can do to respond to the throwing sticks. Other than retreating, their only option is to press on, shielding their sources of illumination from the unseen snipers, who are in fact a pack of ghuls who are unaffected by the Darkness Made Hunger. The darkness itself is alive. If anyone strays out of the light, they feel as if a thousand mouths are tearing at their flesh. They take d6 on the first round, then 2d6, then 3d6, with armour giving no protection.
So the party must advance, their pool of sanctuary illumination growing ever smaller and dimmer as the torches are knocked away. Perhaps a labourer panics and runs, casting aside his torch. They can hear his cries of terror echoing through the caves even after his bones clatter to the floor. The darkness presses ever closer, the missiles continue to hurtle from all sides – and then they see a doorway ahead, and written around its frame the votive inscription to keep the darkness at bay. (That inscription works only on portals, by the way; the characters can’t simply copy it and carry it on them for protection. However, if somebody comes up with the idea of building a framework of doorways to carry around with them, like a small portable hut, then they could conceivably hold off the darkness that way. Julius Nepos has no problem as he can conjure illumination and a protective shield around himself to ward off thrown weapons – a smart character will stick close to him.)
As the characters spot the doorway, the barrage of throwing sticks intensifies. More torches and lanterns go flying. The last few yards could thus become a frantic scramble in pitch dark as they feel their flesh being gnawed away. But once across the threshold, they are safe. The darkness there is mere darkness.
The real tomb chamberThey are in a short corridor with a heavy door at the end. From the blackness of the cavern behind they can hear nothing. No more throwing sticks are flung at them. The survivors may be ragged and bloody, but at least they are alive. Anyone who didn’t emerge from the cavern is surely dead.
No doubt the characters will be tense as they approach the door ahead. Yet there prove to be no traps, and as the door swings open they see that beyond lies the wealth of empires. The room is heaped with treasure: gold chariots and furniture rising from drifts of gold and jewels, decorated weapons ranging from tiny daggers to mighty two handed swords and maces. Armour, studded with gems and glittering with beaten gold. And rising in the centre of it, the sarcophagus of the priest-king Ithobal.
The only limit is what they can carry, but to Julius Nepos the real prize lies within the sarcophagus – a case, or rather a series of cases, the size of large wagon. After breaking many seals (each time with a muttered benediction) and opening many lids, he uncovers the gold death mask within. Normally this would sit on the face of the mummified body – but there is no mummy here. The interior of the sarcophagus contains just a wooden box, about the size and shape of a book, and a golden death mask worked into a perfect depiction of that genial and hospitable merchant, Ali al-Malik. If anyone is watching what Julius is doing, rather than stuffing sacks with gold and gems, they will notice that he is noticeably paler as he reaches in and takes the box.
No matter how many remain in the party, even with their sacks stuffed until they can hardly carry them, they could have taken as much again and still made no impression on the treasure hoard.
Back outsideThey retrace their steps with trepidation, but in fact the going is easy. The palpable menace of the Darkness Made Hunger is kept at bay by their torches, and this time there are no volleys of throwing sticks. It is not long before they are threading their way through the hypostyle hall. Beyond, the valley is filled by thick, swirling clouds of sand whipped up by the wind, though to the observant there is an oddity. The wind is harsh, but it does not seem strong enough for such a sandstorm. Nor does the rubble-choked valley seem to have enough sand to make such enveloping clouds.
As they descend the mortuary temple steps, the ghuls come forth. Packs of them dart through the rubble, fearing no sun under the drear shadow of the clouds of sand, screaming their hatred through the shrieking wind. Rather than a massed attack, they are content to harry the party with skirmishing and barrages of rocks and throwing sticks, retreating into the sandstorm if pressed.
Too frantic with haste, Arn the labourer falls from the planks he helped position and is broken across a fallen pillar. Others succumb to panic, drop their burdens of treasure, and race off ahead into the sandstorm, never to be seen again. Whittle away the NPCs as you wish now, and let the player-characters roll to make good speed without twisting ankles that could mean a -1 on combat rolls or worse.
But soon they approach their camp in the clear space at the foot of the stone steps. As they do, the storm slackens, revealing that blocking the way ahead is a ghul larger than all the rest. Blue witch-lights glow in its eyes and darkness gathers about its claws.
The ghul begins to make an arcane gesture, then pauses in surprise as the storm lifts further to reveal that at the top of the stairs, under the shadow of the two carven kings, stands the pleasantly smiling figure of Ali al-Malik and his three diminutive servants.
‘Epiphanes,’ says al-Malik, looking at Julius Nepos. ‘You have what is mine.’
Julius appears not to relish the prospect of a confrontation, but he gathers his resolve. ‘Ithobal. The world has moved on since your time. In my favour I have nine points of the law.’
The ghul leader gives a guttural shriek and hordes of ghuls come pouring out of the rubble to rend and devour. The band of treasure seekers must fight for their lives, with no opportunity to take sides in the wizardly battle between Ithobal and Epiphanes.
The ghuls are unable to approach Epiphanes (Julius), but all of the other characters are locked in desperate battle. They are heavily outnumbered, but the tumbled masonry makes it difficult for the ghuls to bring their numbers to bear. Most of the remaining labourers will be cut down now, their treasure-sacks cast back into the ruins or left to spill gold in the dust. Many of the men at arms may fall too. Give each of the player-characters a couple of ghuls to contend with and see how they fare, especially with the ghul leader casting dark sorcery into the fray.
While most of the ghuls are falling on the treasure hunters, a pack goes bounding up the steps toward Ithobal (al-Malik) and his retinue. The three children move swiftly down to meet them, uttering a warcry in an unknown tongue that brings the ghuls to a sudden halt. The children’s hair shimmers and turns red, flickering like flames; their eyes burn like coals; their skin becomes the colour of brass and the air swims around them as if from intense heat. A pale smokeless fire envelops them, gathering bright around their upraised hands like scimitars, and they lay into the dark ghuls with searing flame.
Ancient is the feud between ghul and jinni, and some of the ghuls hurl themselves upon their enemies with howls of hatred. Many more, however, recalling how the feud tends to go, turn and flee howling into the ruins. The ghul leader, largely abandoned by its minions, nonetheless unleashes its fury on the remaining members of the party for a climactic battle. (In our game, one of the PCs, Abdur Rahim, had fortuitously helped himself to an ancient two-handed mace from the treasure hoard in the tomb. The ghul’s unnatural vitaility availed nothing against the mace, and Rahim smashed it across the pavement with two mighty blows.)
As the ghul attack abates, the surviving treasure hunters are given a moment of respite. If bold enough, they could sneak up on Epiphanes/Julius while he is distracted and steal the box he took from the tomb. But few could blame them if they prefer instead to seize the opportunity to flee, with two of the mightiest wizards of history tearing reality to shreds before their eyes and forging it into weapons to fling against each other.
Their escape route must take them right past the jinn and within yards of Ishobal/al-Malik, but both are focussed on obliterating their enemies and are not concerned about a few hapless mortals. As the characters pass between those mighty carvings and into the canyon, the sandstorm ends in a wall of sand and dust, and they pass into the sunlight. Their camels, having fled the camp at the coming of the ghuls, are milling around at the end of the canyon, and collecting these they can flee into the desert, the wholesome sunlight welcoming them out from the menace of the accursed valley.
(In our game one of the characters looked back to see a group of black clad figures pursuing them. These were agents who also coveted the Thirteen Pages, and who had tracked the characters to the tomb to let them do the work of acquiring them. They would resurface later in the campaign, but you may feel the characters already have enough to mull over without burdening them with fresh worries.)
Home againThe journey back to civilization is uneventful. At the hostelry in Al Sutu they are greeted by Ali al-Malik, who is celebrating a successful trading trip. He invites them to join them. He is as pleasant as ever, and speaks in ways that might be interpreted as referring to commercial affairs, or might refer otherwise. In particular, he mentions his desire to spread his influence and connections to the Coradian lands, a place he sees as rich in opportunity. Perhaps to their surprise, he does not demand the return of the Thirteen Pages if they have them. If they didn’t take the pages, he at least alleviates some of their curiosity by telling them anything they didn’t already know about Julius Nepos. One question might be: ‘Is he dead?’ But that is one question al-Malik declines to answer.
If the characters accept al-Malik's/Ithobal's implied offer to be his heralds in the northern lands (and he may not let them refuse) then bear in mind that, jovial and reasonable as he seems now, his power is derived from a religion older than Ta'ashim or the True Faith. Nor will the relationship be an equal one. For both those reasons it's a dangerous bargain - and great grist for the mill of an ongoing campaign. Like hard drugs and deals with mob bosses, by the time you wise up and want out it's too late. One place you might look for inspiration if the campaign takes that direction is Elizabeth Kostova's novel The Historian.
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DM notes: Apologies to Alistair for the liberties I've taken with his scenario, curtailing some of the inspired story flourishes that served the campaign in which it was set but that don't translate so well when it's framed as a scenario suitable for customization in other campaigns. In the original, Ayeesha was a warlock and coveted the Thirteen Pages for herself. Alistair also mentioned that as the survivors escaped into the desert at the end they heard 'a great eldritch scream of rage, hatred and agony receding into the north that suggests that Epiphanes has ended the wizardly duel as runner up.' Individual referees will want to make up their own mind about that, hence the ambiguity I've left at the end.
In Alistair’s original version, al-Malik was the immortal Imref Kharid and Julius Nepos was Cathedron the Unbidden. I’ve changed it here to figures with a slightly less exalted myth level because I think that in any encounter with a truly legendary character of, uh, Legend, the PCs should not emerge unscathed -- and in any case the Imref Kharid of my Legend is a warrior, never a wizard; mighty in myth rather than in mere magic. (Hence the parenthetical reservation expressed in the footnote in The Lands of Legend.) Of course, in Alistair’s game the PCs ended up acquiring the Thirteen Pages, so it’s likely that isn’t the last of their dealings with demigod wizards, but you might want to think long and hard before doing that as it will end up being the central thrust of the campaign, and when regularly pitted against legendary figures there’s a risk the PCs will become extras in their own adventures. I’m not saying don’t do it, I’m just saying be aware of where that rabbit hole is going to lead before you shove the players down it.
Because the scenario was run as the prequel to a campaign still in its infancy, the player-characters didn't have a great deal of agency. That's reflected particularly in their battle with the ghuls at the end, which is just a sideshow to the conflict between the rival sorcerers. If you're fitting it into an established campaign then it's quite likely the player-characters will initiate the expedition or at least be equal partners with Sir Roger, and if some of the characters are expert in occult lore then they may have researched the Thirteen Pages for themselves, in which case Julius Nepos needn't appear. You know the ropes.
How powerful should the wizards be? Certainly they should be mighty enough to be consistent with having endured for millennia, and however experienced the player-characters are, all of them together should at best be able to fight one of the wizards to a draw. (Outwitting them is another matter. A thousand-year lifespan can make you carelessly arrogant, and we all know that the greatest heroes win through not with swordplay or sorcery but by their wits.)
To Tim's list of influences/resonances listed at the start I'd add The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Wages of Fear. I don't know if Alistair actually drew on those movies, but you could do worse than soak up their atmosphere before you run it. For another way to handle millennia-old wizards, take a look at the 'scions' of the great wizards in Jack Vance's Lyonesse trilogy. Vance may have been influenced by the twelvefold incarnations of King Gorice in ER Eddison's entirely wonderful The Worm Ouroboros. (What other "magician" in popular fiction was meant to have twelve regenerations, each a different persona with a shared essence? Who, indeed?)
Alistair adds: ‘This was run as a prequel to our regular campaign in northern Albion, run by Tim Harford, where my character is the widow of a slain crusader, Sir Roger. In the campaign I have some strange magical powers, and this is the backstory of how that happened – the Thirteen Pages ended up in Sir Roger’s belongings, and when he died on crusade they were sent home to his wife.’
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The main illustration is “Wadi Rum Caravan” by Arlan Akylbay. Follow him on Instagram and read about the painting here.