OR: A Halfling and a Gnoll Walk Into a Ziggurat
An encounter with a vile Chelaxian spy cost them their lives. And that's only the beginning.
Reincarnated from a tengu and a human into a halfling and a gnoll respectively, they're on a hare-brained quest to return themselves to their original forms. Aware of rumors of a wish-granting phoenix hidden deep within an ancient Ghol-Gan ziggurat in the Sodden Lands, they depart on an epic journey through fetid swamps and steaming jungles to plead the immortal avian for aid. Will they make it through the unknown dangers and deadly guardians of this long-lost temple to forbidden gods, or will they become the latest victims of its millennia-long killing spree?
This is a closed, two-person campaign tied into the Skull & Shackles game Benjamin Bruck and I are playing; no extra player requests please. This is also mostly a back-and-forth writing project with very little, if any, dice rolling to determine results. Hopefully it will be a thrilling read as these two sneak, talk, and (rarely) fight their way through the horrible swamps of the Sodden Lands and a deadly dungeon half-sunk into the storm-tossed waves of the Abendego Gulf. With the help of their hired guide, the crass big-game hunter Ozzie Baeyan, they seek to restore their rightful forms- or die trying.
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"FAIZA!" Augusta growls, attempting to add some aspect of Taldan gentility to the gutteral yips of her new form's bestial vocalizations. "Come in here! I'm writing a letter to the Master of Gales. I think he'll assist us in our quandry. Or at least not laugh into our metaphorical visages upon completion of his perusal." Augusta sits at the small table of their ratty private room, inkpen clutched daintily in her speckled paw. She licks the nib with her black-spotted tongue, dips it into her inkpot, and begins writing:
Most Gracious Master of Gales–
A tragic series of events have befallen Faiza and I, leaving us in the unfortunate and unenviable position of existing within forms ill-suited to our sense of self and present and future goals and desires. Faiza has been transmuted via reincarnation into a halfling, while I have suffered greater, being returned to life shackled into the flesh of a slavering gnoll. This situation will not inherit, as I am sure you can sympathize.
However, a solution comes to me. As I am sure you are aware, I possess a vast knowledge of ancient empires and the rumored remnants thereof. My studies have brought to my attention the existence of an ancient Ghol-Gani ziggurat known as Xanthuun. While its reputation is vile, and the last known successful expedition occurred before the advent of the Eye of Abendego, I am certain that the two of us, with the aid of a guide familiar with the surrounding environs and capable of assisting us in navigating those natural hazards, can travel with relative safety to this half-sunk ruin. Within lies a place of unearthly beauty known as the Golden Phoenix Aviary, wherein it is said dwells a phoenix capable of granting wishes in a manner similar to that of the genies of the East.
I propose a mutually-beneficial arrangement: if you would kindly provision a vessel capable of delivering us from the Shackles to the coastline of the Sodden Lands, we shall disembark, travel inland to the Ghol-Gani ruins, discover the location of the Aviary, and return with as much treasure and lore as we can transport. By this time I should have easily mastered the mysteries of teleportation through my arcane studies, and be capable of transferring ourselves and our precious cargo to the Colloquium safe and sound. From there, the precious artifacts and long-lost secrets of the ancient empire of Ghol-Gan may be unveiled at leisure, further cementing the Colloquium's position as the premier scholarly institution of the Fever Sea.
Enclosed is a list of gear and provender essential to our mission. In addition to these mundane supplies, Faiza and I shall procure, with our own coin, additional magical supplies which should ensure success, hire a local guide, and provide the captain you select with recompense for their generous assistance.
Please respond at your leisure; the address of our current lodgings is included at the base of our list of supplies, and we possess funds enough to endure in our environs with a modicum of comfort for some time.
Yours in scholarship and confidence,
-Marquessa Augusta Chastity Petrovia Jeggare II, Co-Lady of the Rock
"Do you wish to append a missive of your own, Fair Doctor?" Augusta inquires, reclining upon the crude wooden chair and only risking upending herself twice. "DAMN THIS BESTIAL FORM!" she roars. "I'd sooner be a deceased and reanimated catfolk than operate these vile appendages. And this curved tail makes reclining an impossibility. No wonder the hyena-things are such a rotten lot." She shuffles in her ill-fitting outfit uncomfortably.
Faiza glances over Augusta's shoulder at the document, skimming it briefly before turning back to finish disassembling a delicate glass alchemical apparatus. "No. I think that will be sufficient, though I must admit I'm not quite so confident in the Master of Gales' charity as you seem to be.
Faiza pauses, setting her equipment aside "And by the way, if you truly find that tail so troublesome, I could remove it for you. It would be a simple enough procedure, though with these useless hands I suppose I'd need to procure a set of surgical tools first."
"Erm. Um. No, thank you." Augusta looks askance at Faiza. "Nor would I take any drastic measures surgically adjusting your particular current form, were I you. I'm not an expert on wishcraft, and I'd hate for us to find out that such alterations don't translate well when we are returned to normal."
She clears her throat. "As to your original point, I believe the Master of Gales to be more interested in our success in this endeavor than even you or I. Were I not otherwise affiliated, I would surely take the findings within the hidden depths of this Ghol-Gani ruin and auction them to Magaambya or the Pathfinder Society, whoever bids higher, and he knows it. The Colloquium of Abendego is a fine enough institution of learning for one founded a handful of years past, but compared to Magaambya's multi-thousand-year history, the Society's globe-spanning excavations, or any number of a dozen or more places of learning across the Inner Sea and beyond, they are a young upstart with very little to lay claim to as their own original work. If the Master of Gales wants his school to be taken as more than a place for ill-mannered pirates to learn their letters, he'll jump on the opportunity to make an historical breakthrough."
Augusta pushes back her chair, sealing the letter with a daub of fuchsia wax and her signet ring as she stands. Producing a bird feather token, she speaks the command word, attaching the letter to the odd metallic bird-thing that forms from the minor magic trinket. She whispers to the artificial creature, and it cocks its head, lets out a tinny shriek, and lifts into the air, flying through the open window. "Either way, I suppose we shall have our answer in a matter of days."
THREE DAYS LATER...
It is early morning, and sunlight filters in through the shabby curtains of the private room's sleeping quarters. A starling flutters into the room, exhausted and haggard-looking, a note wrapped about its leg. It looks about the room and tweets before landing on Augusta's shaggy, poorly-dyed mane. It pecks at her ear, pecks again, then deposits the letter and a small pile of droppings on her snout before departing the room.
"GODS-DAMNABLE SKY VERMIN!" screeches Augusta as she wipes the leavings from her snout. She mutters a magical incantation to cleanse her face, rubs the sleep from her eyes, and spots the note at last, which has by now rolled onto the rough woolen blanket. She gasps and unfurls the small parchment...
|Master of Gales|
Marquessa and Faiza–
You have my interest.
I have conscripted a local fishing vessel, the Bird God, to transport you to the Sodden Lands. It should arrive in port tomorrow morning. The captain's name is Gerald, and while he is himself a humble fisherman by trade and a very sociable character, he is by no means a man to be trifled with. He has some very powerful friends and while he would not think to call on them to settle a dispute, they most certainly would intervene on his behalf were he ill-treated. Even the Hurricane King himself courts these people in the most civil and obsequious manner possible, for they count demon lords among the adversaries they have laid low. This said, I think you will find him a remarkably pleasant host and expect no trouble. I only warn you for your own sake.
His cousin, Ozzie, who will serve as your guide (the two happened to be having a bit of a family reunion and I found it most convenient to hire the pair) is most familiar with the region surrounding the ruins of Xanthuun. I forewarn you: his dialect is nigh-indecipherable. Fortunately, he's not much for words and you can expect him to pipe up only when it is truly necessary. He is a self-styled big game hunter with the trophies to match, and should be able to navigate you to the ruins with ease, as well as keep your camp under guard should you decide to leave him and his large, noisy musket behind while you explore the area.
One final note: when addressing me, Marquessa, please do not bandy about ten-silver words like an over-educated Taldan noble with a meaningless title, even though that is, in fact, what you are. I am myself a man of no little education, but if you think you are impressing me, you are most certainly not.
I eagerly await your return and wish you the utmost of luck,
–Master of Gales
Augusta sits stunned. Her jaw trembles slightly, and she crumples the note and hurls it across the room.
" 'If you think you are impressing me, you are most certainly not,' " she says mockingly in a nasally voice. "Maybe next time you address ME, you swamp-sucking poltroon, you'll treat me like a LADY!" She stomps to the window and lights a cheroot, seemingly savoring the sodden city skyline, but the rictus snarl upon her muzzle tells a vastly different story.
Under her breath, the following can be heard...
"If he'd stop fondling plants so much, maybe he'd find less brambles in his crotch..."
|Faiza RPG Superstar 2010 Top 8|
Faiza sits at the desk in her private room, perusing her formula book and enjoying the fresh morning air. She removes her inkpen from its case and begins to write, clumsily now with her undersized hands--
GODS-DAMNABLE SKY VERMIN!
Faiza looks up, puzzled. The shout came from Augusta's room, clearly, though the wizard rarely awakens this early. Is there perhaps some danger? Faiza waits, straining her ears for further noise....
"Ah," thinks Faiza, as she closes her formula book. "I expected this would happen sooner or later.".
Faiza gets up from the desk and walks out into the short hallway that connects her room with Augusta's. She knocks gently on the door. "Augusta? It's Faiza. I can't help but notice you're gibbering incoherently. I suspect your recent transformation has deformed your brain. Are the "Runelords" talking to you again? Have you fallen? Do you need assistance?"
Augusta sighs, rolls her eyes, and opens the door to her room, cheroot clamped firmly in her teeth. "At this juncture, I'd gladly accept the Old B#@@%'s telepathic mutterings in lieu of the pedantic drolleries of our financier. Come on in, Sassling. I bid thee enter."
Augusta's room, seen from the hall, sits more or less as the last time Faiza left it: cluttered with assorted books, scrolls, writings, and arcane materials, all of which are impeccably clean to the point of almost gleaming. Her regular prestidigitations make the clutter of the room seem almost staged: a place this full of assorted clothes, unkempt sheets, and empty bottles and spent cheroots should possess some modicum of filthy veneer, but everything sparkles and shines like it was just crafted. The only new items are a recently-drained bottle of rum and a crumpled sheaf of paper with writing on it, both of which laying unloved in a corner.
Augusta sits on her bed and begins thumbing through a book. "Bad news: our beloved druid benefactor is an ass with a juvenile sense of humor. Good news: our expedition is funded. The Master of Gales has commissioned a fishing vessel, captained by a man, simply named Gerald, in the style of our compatriots Nutzloss and Muchango. So expect low breeding. Word has it he has powerful friends, so we should treat him with gentility no matter how much chew he spatters upon our garb. I also infer that this means our travels should be free from interference from piracy; word of his associates has reached even the Hurricane King. And if even one such as he walks upon eggshells within their presence, lesser scoundrels would best leave us be.
"Our Gerald will arrive upon the 'morrow in the early hours. His cousin, Ozzie, will be our guide, which is fine, since every skilled traveler of the Sodden Lands seems to have disappeared from our vicinity." She points to the crumpled paper on the floor. "Feel free to peruse the missive. I shan't bring myself to again view its crass contents a second time. When you are done, we can discuss our preparations and plan of attack, as it were."
Augusta lays open the book she was flipping through, displaying a map of the Sodden Lands. "Alright, darling, here's the area in question. The western coastline is heavily wracked by storms from the Eye of Abendego, so we'll be sailing around the northern horn, close to the coastline, and disembarking about a twenty miles southeast of Xanthuun. The going will be a tough slog through swampland and dense jungle, so it will take us a few days to arrive at the ziggurat.
"Now comes in the really clever part. The ruins of Xanthuun are a flooded mess full of awful horrors both natural and maddeningly non. But the Golden Phoenix Aviary hides in a natural grotto mostly above the water level, veiled by potent illusions. No one's found the above-ground entrance, instead having to pass through Xanthuun's tangled passages to gain entry. But a coating of illusions like that should glow like a will-o-wisp at midnight with divinatory magics, yes? So we shall range across the surface near the ziggurat while I sense for dweomers until we find the veiled entrance, and through trial and error, prove to our meager senses the untruth of these magics, gain passage, and be in and out before the old cyclops ghost-king even knows we're there."
She pauses. "I, um... I mentioned the still-extant King Ammelon VI yet haunts these ruins, yes? He is nothing to be trifled with." She looks to a pile of other books, their titles hinting at contents full of undead and ethereal lore and chuckles nervously, emitting an accidental hyena-like giggle at the end. "I'm sure we'll be fine. Any questions?"
|Faiza RPG Superstar 2010 Top 8|
"You most certainly did NOT mention anything about a cyclops ghost-king...and now that you do mention it, I would like to point out that your most powerful spells will be utterly useless against such a foe and--to be entirely honest--I'm not sure I'll be very effective either should it come to combat. Are we perhaps getting in over our heads with this venture?
As to the grotto itself, what divinations did you have in mind? It occurs to me that the architects of Xanthuun may have left spells in place to obscure magical auras, rendering detect magic fairly useless for our purposes. Besides, if it were that easy, you'd think someone would have tried it by now. You would be capable of casting true seeing with aid of a scroll, yes? This may be a wise investment.
Truly I hate to play the cynic in this matter, but if I'm going to march through a wretched swamp for several days and nights, I should like to have something to show for it at the end of my journey--other than an unceremonious death in some ancient tomb that is."
Augusta sighs. "YES. I have planned ahead. I have procured, scribed, and prepared arcane sight, as well as the more mundane detect magic." She lays out two sheets of rolled parchment. "In addition, I have acquired, at great personal expense, two scrolls of true seeing. One for you, and one for me- the spell is touch-distributed. I was hoping to save them for absolute necessity and scribe one into my spellbook once I can fully decipher the magic therein, but obviously that is not to be in my future."
She sighs heavily, then lights another cheroot with a gesture from her thumb and index finger. "From what I can deduce, the illusion effect will prevent many far-seeing divinations, but localized detection should reveal the magical auras. Or do you know of a way to disguise such auras that I should be aware of? This is hardly a singular item obfuscated by simple magical aura; this is a region veiled by illusions. It will be a beacon of dweomers. At most, we are searching a 600-foot cube of space, or an equivalent area, and we have almost twenty minutes to do so, assuming my twice-casting arcane sight."
Chuckling, Augusta says, "may I ask, when did you become such a scholar of the arcane? It seems in my recent experience that such matters were left to my purview. Not that I'm complaining; I'd love to talk further regarding magical theory and its intricacies."
Before Faiza can respond, Augusta continues. "Ammelon VI I have no intention of facing in combat. I intend, once our forms are impro- er, restored, to transfer, via incantation, our persons to the safety of our camp, as overseen by our companion Ozzie.
"As for our unexpecting host: Ammelon VI was, in life, a potent spellcaster, gifted of bloodline. His ab-dead apotheosis and long unlife have granted him great expertise in the fields arcane, above that of his magical lineage and living experience. Should we face him in the long battle, we would surely perish. However, if we can survive his initial onslaught, or avoid it outright, we should escape unharmed.
"As for the potential for our demise- well, I am putting as much- more, I should note, given our previous and current sizes- flesh into the game as you." Augusta is clearly missing the absolute danger Faiza is trying to put across, and may be incapable of experiencing it.
"Now if you have further inquiries, I am happy to explain all that I know- a prodigious amount, I may add. The histories, natural philosophy, localities, and theorem arcanae regarding our quest I am ever willing to discuss."
|Faiza RPG Superstar 2010 Top 8|
"That won't be necessary--" Faiza interjects.
"It sounds as if you have things well at hand, and I trust you've done an admirable job planning our expedition. My concern arises solely out of regret that our last venture ended so poorly. I can't help but feel our misfortunes could have been avoided entirely had we shown a bit more caution and foresight. However, you've clearly done your research on the ruins of Xanthuun and know well what dangers we'll face there. I shall trust your expertise on the matter."
"Besides, as you say, you've got an awful lot of skin in the game..." Faiza says, grinning, "and with your track record on reincarnation, another death might leave you in the body of something truly horrible...say, a catfolk perhaps...and that's a fate I'm sure you'll do anything to avoid"
"So consider my questions answered, my fears allayed, and save your pedagogical digressions for our upcoming sea voyage, when such diversions will be a welcome distraction from the monotony of sea travel. For now, is there anything else you'd like to do while we're at port? Having already packed the majority of my equipment, I'm afraid I'm at a loss as to how to spend the day."