[IAWA] AP Session

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[IAWA] AP Session
« on: June 25, 2015, 01:25:48 AM »
As I mentioned in another thread, we recently started an In A Wicked Age game, deciding to cleave closely to the "sword & sorcery" genre by setting the game in R. E. Howard's "Hyborian Age" (in which the myriad Conan stories are set). It has already proved both awesome and hilarious, and the players have jumped into it with both feet. In our most recent session (which actually turned out to be a "prequel" to the first session), the oracle "God Kings of War" was chosen. The elements included were:

2D - A cask of honey wine, tribute to a fierce bandit-queen.
8D - An order of magician-monks who punish blasphemers.
9D - A much-decorated company of the enemy’s light cavalry.
JD - A vengeful and jealous god, displeased by the lapses of his followers, however scrupulously they observe.

Once again taking place in Stygia, the characters included:

Sorcha, the Cimmerian "bandit queen," who had recently taken over a settlement on the Stygian coast. Her best interests are to extend her control to new lands and plunder the riches of Stygia's palaces and temples.

Arroch, the Aquilonian mercenary, commander of Sorcha's fearsome cavalry scouts. His best interests are to seduce Sorcha, then to supplant Sorcha. Arroch is an NPC.

Teru, a Stygian magician-monk of Set, sent to the contested lands to return them to the faith. His best interests are to kill Sorcha and restore the worship of Set to the region.

Sekharoth, fellow monk and compatriot of Teru. It is in his best interest to make and example out of Sorcha and undermine Teru (i.e. take the credit for Sorcha's downfall). Sekharoth is an NPC.

And finally the jealous and vengeful god Set, who seeks to return the land to his worship by corrupting Sorcha to be his tool. Hilariously, the god is a player-character, whose far-reaching special strength turns out to be "possession."

I was so inspired by the players' characterizations and how the session unfolded that I decided to pay homage to the source material in another way - pulp fiction! What follows is an account of the story. So, without further ado, I give you:

Whispers of the Serpent God

Chroniclers on the Road
It was late afternoon. The Stygian sun shone down cruelly on the parched landscape, heat shimmers giving the tantalizing illusion of water where there was none. In the distance, distorted shapes could be seen, other travelers ahead on the road. At least that is what Teru hoped - now that Sorcha, the self-styled "Bandit Queen" had forcibly carved her principality out of this land, the roads were no longer safe. As yet another territory at the fringes of Stygian control was lost to the King of Luxor, yet another pack of jackals tearing a piece from the ancient and once-mighty empire.

A young magician-monk of Set, Teru and his traveling companion Sekharoth had come to this frontier land on a mission; return the land to the faith. An outlander barbarian, Sorcha had torn down the temples of Set, and it was said that just in the short time that she had held sway over the lands surrounding the port town of Gurbekhan, obeisance to other gods had become commonplace. This blasphemy could not be allowed to continue. It must be punished, and Sorcha must be destroyed. An example would be made of her, and her downfall would serve as a warning to any who thought to defy the power of Set.

To that end, Teru and Sekharoth made their way along this hot, dusty track to Gurbekhan. For weeks they had prepared for this endeavor, both men eschewing the clean-shaven skulls of their order. The stubble on Teru's head now looked less like priestly grooming and more like a sensible concession to the heat. Sekharoth had taken the extreme step of cultivating a goatee, a look which gave his large, imposing frame a brooding quality. Teru could not help but feel the import of their task, that the very eyes of Set were upon him and his companion. He could not have suspected just how close to the mark his feeling was...

As the incognito monks made their way along the road, they were eventually able to distinguish the form of a wagon, flanked by four riders. As the afternoon wore on, they drew closer, gaining ground against the slow-moving wagon. Eventually, one of the riders peeled off and approached them. As he drew closer, Teru was able to discern that he was a slender, flint-eyed man, bow-legged from a lifetime spent in the saddle. Though deeply tanned, the  Aquilonian cast to his features marked him as one of Sorcha's outlanders, a sell-sword adventurer serving the Bandit Queen in exchange for fame and booty. With a curved saber at his hip gleaming in the harsh sunlight, the rider reined up his mount sharply before the Stygians, his demand terse; "What is your business on this road?"

Teru gave voice to the carefully-contrived cover story to which he and Sekharoth had agreed before they set out; "My lord, we are chroniclers, keepers of the history of this land. Word has spread that a new chapter is to be written. We are come to bear witness to the words and deeds of the new queen."

The rider gave a sharp, humorless laugh. "Is that so? Well, then there is much work for you to do. But it is not just the deeds of Sorcha to which you must bear witness. Mark me well, for I am Arroch, commander of her majesty's vanguard, and it has been my riders who have conquered much of this land in her name."

"So shall it be written, Lord Arroch," Teru said without pause.

The rider eyed the Stygians - apart from the curved daggers any sensible man carried in this land, the two 'chroniclers' were unarmed, though he suspected the big one knew how to handle his walking stick. Still, they looked mostly harmless, and Arroch said as much. "Come, it is an hour yet to Gurbekhan and I will regale you with tales of our daring exploits to pass the otherwise tedious time."

"Just so, my lord." Teru smiled a toothy grin that did not reach his eyes, but Arroch took no notice, instead turning to signal his compatriots still accompanying the wagon.

As the men approached the conveyance, now pausing to wait for them, Teru and Sekharoth could see it held an enormous tun. As the wagon set off again, the two emaciated oxen struggled under its weight. Finding a brief pause in Arroch's constant, self-aggrandizing prattle, Teru shot in an inquiry; "And what is this wagon, so valuable that it requires an escort of such obvious importance?" From the buckboard the portly, one-eyed drover tersely spat a reply, "Honeyed wine, tribute to the new queen."

Arroch picked up seamlessly. "Just so. The people of the hinterland have seen fit to honor their new mistress, who has freed them from their Stygian bondage." The drover looked askance at the horseman, but wisely kept his mouth shut. Unaware, Arroch continued, "This, the fruit of their labors, is bound for the queen's own table."

Teru and Sekharoth exchanged a quick conspiratorial glance.

Procuring Poison
It was late evening by the time the little group reached the walls of Gurbekhan. They posted up at a wayhouse where Jamal the carter could water his oxen, clean himself up, and change into what little finery he had before delivering his tribute to the new queen. Teru and Sekharoth obtained a room, but not before Arroch promised to return. "Sharpen your quills, boys, I have more tales to tell! I am off to see the queen, but I will return anon to collect up yonder fat carter." And with that he was off.

As soon as Sekharoth could peek into the inn's cramped, darkened hallway to confirm the cavalryman was gone, he rounded on Teru. "I know a man. Here, in this very city. A black-marketeer by the name of Al-Q'ut. He will have poison, I am sure of it. If we act quickly, we can taint this wine. We shall slay this bandit 'queen' and half her entourage in one fell act!" For his part Teru was skeptical. He felt that a more public end, perhaps being burned at the stake or flayed alive or devoured by scarabs would be more fitting. But his companion seemed adamant, and at the very least they would come away from this with another tool that might come in handy. Slipping out of the wayhouse by a little-used side entrance, the two monks stole into the night.

The first thing that the two men noticed was that the streets were nearly deserted. It was unnaturally quiet, the calm disturbed only by the cool sea breeze. It was just after sunset, and in the desert lands of Stygia this time of night usually brought people out of their homes. The cool evening was a time for worship, socializing, or conducting business away from the uncomfortable heat of the day. But tonight there were few people outside. And no women whatsoever. The pair avoided the boisterous bands of soldiers - sell-swords - who were the only parties roaming the streets. The men approached a non-descript door in an unassuming house, upon which Sekharoth knocked quietly. Shortly, the door opened just a crack. A surprised voice from inside hissed, "You?!?" A bony arm reached out, grabbing Sekharoth by the cloak, jerking him inside. "Are you mad? Come in quickly! Quickly!" Teru followed.

In the dim, cluttered interior of the dwelling Teru got his first good look at Al-Q'ut. He was small, somewhat dirty, with slightly bulging eyes. He demanded to know just what Sekharoth thought he was doing, and whether the monk was, in fact, trying to get them all killed. Sekharoth explained the task that lay before the monks and of the opportunity presented by the tun of honeyed wine. Invoking the name of Set to instill faith (or fear) in the man, Sekharoth demanded the black-marketeer's aid in the form of poison. "I know you have it. Give it to us now and let us strike this blow for Father Night!"

Perhaps it was chance. Perhaps it was Sekharoth's invocation of the god's name. Perhaps it was the alignment of the stars. Whatever the cause, at that moment Set's gaze and attention was cast upon the tableau unfolding in the darkened dwelling. With a knowing available only to the divine, the god comprehended at an instant what these insignificant mortals were attempting in his name. For weeks the god had looked down upon this tiny settlement and seethed. His priests slaughtered, his temple defiled, idols to lesser gods erected in lands that were his by right. It angered him, and he had several times considered blowing forth a mighty sandstorm that would wipe the town and its heathen usurpers from the map. But retribution was a long game requiring patience. This barbarian "queen" must be dealt with, that much was true. But her fierceness was a tool, and how much sweeter would his vengeance be if she could be turned to his cause? And here came these "devout" monks, about to fail him while invoking his name! Simpletons! Though the serpent in him applauded the idea of using poison, Set had bigger plans. He had to act before these mortals did something foolish, as was always the way of mortals. Sending forth a tendril of his power, he slithered into the mind of Al-Q'ut, casting aside the man's will as one might shed a cloak. Or as a serpent might shed a skin.

Though he did not comprehend its source, Teru noted the sudden steel in the black-marketeer's voice, the sudden cold, hard, deep cast to his eyes. "No. You shall not have it. Be gone and do not return." Undeterred, Sekharoth brandished his stout walking stick. "Tell me where it is, cur, or I shall be forced to beat you soundly."

For his part, Teru invoked the name of Set himself. Ordinarily, the magician-monk could adopt the beguiling, hypnotic gaze of the cobra, shaping the opinions of the weak-willed. But the gaze returned by Al-Q'ut was flat. Void. Empty. Teru began to suspect something was very wrong indeed.

Seeing that his threats were having no effect, Sekharoth turned from Al-Q'ut in disgust. "Fine, I'll find it myself," he blustered, and began ransacking the cluttered abode. Boxes, casks, amphorae, and satchels of every shape, size, and description lay scattered about the place, each containing some article of variously worthless, valuable, legitimate, stolen, or contraband good. Calmly, Al-Q'ut strode to Sekharoth and laid a hand upon his arm. His grip was like iron. With a grunt, Sekharoth tore himself away. Seizing Al-Q'ut's wife (recently appeared to see what all of the commotion was about), the big monk grabbed the collar of her garment, forcing her to her knees and cruelly twisting to constrict her breathing. "Give me what I want, or you will become a widower this night."

Though most who dealt with him believed the weasely Al-Q'ut bore loyalty to no one but himself, the threat to the one person in the world he held most dear was enough to cause the man's will to reassert itself. Concentration suddenly rent asunder, the god's control over the mortal was broken, the backlash causing some portion of Set's energy to be spilled into the aether. A sudden peal of thunder was heard in the distance. As if waking from a hazy dream, the black-marketeer's eyes regained focus. "Of course! Yes, I'll give you the poison!" Retrieving a small, unlabeled cask from a cluttered shelf, he said, "Take it and go!"

Satisfied, Sekharoth took the cask and stepped back into the night without another word. Before leaving, Teru cast one last glance back at Al-Q'ut, now comforting his wife and once again showing no outward signs of what mystery had just transpired. Giving a shiver, Teru followed Sekharoth back out into the darkened streets.

Easy Come, Easy Go
If the monks thought to slip back to the wayhouse unseen, their plans were soon put awry. Hastily doubling back to avoid the sounds of an obvious scuffle ahead (undoubtedly the vicious pummeling of a local administered by Sorcha's thugs), the two men blundered into another group of bandit sell-swords. "Well, well, what have we here?" blustered a heavily-scarred Hyrkanian. The stink of alcohol clung about the mercenaries like a fog, and their Hyrkanian leader was visibly reeling on his feet. When his eyes managed to focus in the same direction, he eyed the small cask in Sekharoth's hands.

"Come, we don't want any trouble," said Teru. "We're just trying to get to our inn."

"If you don't want any trouble, what are you doing out at night like a pack of thieves? And what have you got there? Give it here!" The man made a drunken lunge for the cask of poison. Another made a grab for Teru, but managed only to get hold of his cloak. With a quickness surprising for his size, Sekharoth leapt back a pace - only to give Teru a sharp shove towards the drunken Hyrkanian, then turn to flee. "Not so fast, cur!" said one of the other bandits, leaping over the tangle of men and shoulder-checking Sekharoth into the wall of the alley. As the big monk fell, the poison dropped from his hands, the miniature barrel rolling and coming to a rest a few paces away.

While the monks did their best to scuttle away, what followed was a savage beating, albeit one administered by a pack of fumbling drunks. Sekharoth suffered the worst of it, probably because his bigger size meant more of the sell-swords devoted themselves to kicking him rather than Teru. One of the bandit mercenaries staggered aside to retrieve the cask, uncorked it, and took a swig. "Pfaugh! Is this what passes for fine spirits in this cursed land?!? This stuff is horrid! Here, taste this!"

"Blech! You idiot, that's awful!"

"I know! Is that not the worst thing you've ever tasted? Shadoch, come try this!"

Their energy and immediate appetite for violence spent, the bandits moved on in search of other prey. Despite the soreness in his now swollen lip, Teru couldn't help but smile, for he knew that at least some of Sorcha's men would be dead by morning.
« Last Edit: June 25, 2015, 01:37:25 AM by Munin »



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Re: [IAWA] AP Session
« Reply #1 on: June 25, 2015, 01:27:57 AM »
Brought Before the Bandit Queen
Finally making their way back to the inn empty-handed, the monks began tending to their scrapes and bruises as best they could. Sekharoth was despondent, opining that they had failed their god in this first, most important test. Teru was not so sure. But no sooner had the men washed the caked blood and dirt from their faces than a sharp pounding was heard at their door. Teru answered, opening the door a crack. Uninvited, Arroch pushed his way in, saying without preamble "Grab your quills and parchment, you...gods, what happened to you two?"

Teru dissembled, "A minor disagreement with some ruffians, my lord. Naught to concern yourself over."

Arroch did not seem overly concerned with the well-being of the 'chroniclers' in any event, whereupon he resumed his command. "Well get cleaned up, you're going to see the queen."

"My lord?"

"I told her in passing that two historian-scholars had arrived and she bade me bring you to her immediately. Who can say what transpires in the mind of a woman? So make yourselves presentable and meet me downstairs."

"You see?" said Teru to his companion after Arroch had gone, "Another opportunity presents itself. Be ready."

And so the two monks-in-disguise found themselves marched to Gurbekhan's small but imposing stone citadel, where "queen" Sorcha now held court. If the Stygians had any preconceived notions about what they might find in the court of a barbarian bandit queen, the scene that met them certainly did not disappoint. Warriors from uncounted nations intermingled here. Most were disreputably drunk, and the scene was one of unrestrained revelry and excess, fueled by the booty gained in the conquest of Gurbekhan and its surrounding hinterlands. The tun of honeyed wine was rolled in and opened, much to the cheer of Sorcha's men. At one end of the room on a raised dais sat Sorcha's "throne." In reality it was simply the largest chair that had been plundered from the town, and ornately carved wooden affair now draped and bedecked with furs to make it vaguely comfortable. Atop it sat Sorcha herself, a lithe, steely-eyed Cimmerian woman with flaming red hair, watching the revelry below her with a cool gaze.

Arroch brought Teru and Sekharoth before her and made them bow, though Teru noted that Arroch himself did not bow. "My queen, these are the scholars of which I spoke." Suddenly sitting forward with intense interest, the woman beckoned them forward. "Come."

Teru could see Sekharoth tense, as if gauging his chances of leaping at the woman and biting out her throat before he could be stopped. But Arroch and several of his men were very near at hand, besides which Teru suspected that Sorcha herself was a formidable opponent. The moment passed, and Sekharoth seemed to settle into a more patient approach. Good.

At first, Teru thought that this would be another example of an egotistical warrior wanting to tell tall tales of conquest and bloodshed. More surprising then was the fact that Sorcha mostly asked questions. About Gurbekhan, about its people, about its customs. And about its neighbors. She also asked about the temples of Set, of the tombs of its priests, and of the riches contained therein. She bade Sekharoth draw a map, which he did after being cuffed atop the head by one of Arroch's riders. Teru frowned inwardly - Sekharoth's map was disappointingly accurate.

Finally the queen pointed to a spot on the map. "Tell me of Nafri."

Teru said, "It is a market town, some distance to the east. It sits astride a crossroads between two trade routes."

"Who rules there?"

"Lord Rahar."

"How did he come to be its lord? By force? From whom did he take it?"

"From his father, and he took it by right after his father's death. Rahar is a Stygian lord in service to the King at Luxor."

"And how well is it defended?"

"It is nigh unto impregnable," Sekharoth blustered, clearly trying to head off Sorcha's ambitions. "You would be forced to besiege it for months, if not years!"

But Teru sensed an opportunity. If Sorcha could be tricked into doing something rash or foolish, if he could arrange her capture at the hands of young Lord Rahar, she could meet the grisly end which she so richly deserved, and her petty principality would be rolled back into the lands of the faithful. "It is as my friend says. But Nafri is not without weakness. While it is true that an army could dash itself to bits upon the rocks of Nafri's walls, there is another way into the city. A small group of hand-picked warriors could with luck make their way in unseen. But it would be difficult, not a task I would trust to just anyone. Only the bravest and most skilled could carry the day, my lady."

Seeing from afar the Cimmerian woman's ego begin to rise to Teru's bait, it was at this juncture that the god Set was once again forced to take an active hand in shaping the events of the mortal world. Working through mortals was taxing, but Set knew that if he could bring this self-styled queen to a consecrated place of his own power, his direct influence over her could be that much greater. He insinuated his consciousness once more into a mortal body, this time into Sorcha's cup-bearer, a young girl of no more than eight winters. Leaning close to the queen, she whispered with an unnaturally deep, sibilant hiss, "My queen, think of the riches pulled from this city's own temples. Surely the quickest way to wealth would be to plunder the tombs. And with those riches, you could hire sell-swords aplenty to expand your conquests, even unto Nafri itself."

Sorcha sat back, the scowl on her face the only outward sign of her deep cogitation. When she sat forward again, she pointed to a nearby tomb marked on Sekharoth's map. "Here. Arroch, make ready. We leave on the morrow."

Arroch turned, announcing loudly to the room, "Huzzah! Tomorrow we ride once more to plunder and riches!" This proclamation elicited a cheer from the warriors gathered in the great hall. And raising his cup, "to the queen!" Another cheer. After ushering the 'chroniclers' aside and settling a few preparatory details with his lieutenants, the wiry cavalryman snatched an entire flagon of honeyed wine from a passing servant slave and approached the queen. "My lady, celebrations are in order."

A bemused smile touched her lips but not her eyes. "Are we not already celebrating?"

"Of course. But who knows what infernal traps or eldritch dangers we might find in that tomb." He smoothly refilled her cup, never breaking eye-contact. "This might be our last night alive." He grinned wickedly as she drank. "It would be a shame to let it go to waste without tasting all of the passions that life has to offer."

Sorcha knew her subordinate was working his own angle, but flushed with drink herself she simply didn't have the energy to shut him down. Again. And he was dashing enough, to be sure, so why shouldn't she enjoy the perquisites of her new position?

"Just so," she said, rising to her feet. Taking Arroch by the hand, the queen led him towards the back of the great hall, where the stairway to her 'royal' chambers was situated. Just before exiting the room, Arroch tossed his flagon aside and raised his fist in the air in triumph, accompanied by the laughs and shouts of his riders still present in the hall.

Into the Tombs of Khafra
Two days had passed between the preparations, the travel, and the arrival of Sorcha's party at the tomb. A veritable army of diggers, most either prisoners or poor laborers rounded up and dragooned into service for the occasion, accompanied Sorcha's soldiers. As they waited for the diggers to break the seal of the tomb and remove the heavy stone blocking its entrance, she idly inquired of Teru, "What is the name of this place?"

"It is called Khafra, my lady."

"And who is buried here?"

"A powerful high-priest of Set, Amun-Rotakh, who held dominion over the temples of this region in the Third Age."

Her gaze on the horizon, Sorcha noted approach of the gathering sandstorm in the distance. "What will we find inside?"

"It is impossible to say, my lady." Just then the diggers gave a shout. The heavy stone cap covering the tomb's entrance fell outward with a crash. A blast of stale, fetid air burst forth.

Gesturing imperiously, Sorcha said, "Arroch, take some men and some diggers and see what you can find. And take this one with you," indicating Teru.

What followed was exactly what one might expect from delving into an ancient tomb guarded by clever traps, fiendish curses, and the power of the god of serpents. Several of Arroch's men and a not insignificant number of diggers met grisly fates, but in the end Teru and Arroch stood in the hall of treasures just outside the main burial chamber, in which Amun-Rotakh's sarcophagus lay. Retrieving an intricately-engraved golden ewer from the plinth where it had sat undisturbed for centuries, Teru gave it to Arroch. "Take this to your mistress, that she might see what treasures she has captured. And tell her that this is but the merest fraction." If the barbarian bandit-queen was as greedy as Teru suspected, that would be sure to bring her inside.

Back at the surface, the approach of the sandstorm was a topic of great concern. Men and beasts of burden alike could feel in their bones the oncoming maelstrom. The diggers, all natives to this land, were especially nervous, recognizing the unnatural speed with which the storm grew closer. Presented with the golden treasure and faced with weathering a blistering gale, Sorcha said, "Everyone into the tomb. Now!"

Deep in the darkest aetherial otherworld in which he made his lair, Set smiled; the trap had been sprung.

As Sorcha picked her way past the crushed, mangled, or otherwise deceased bodies of men who had succumbed to the tomb's defenses, she inquired of Sekharoth, "what riches are typical of this sort of tomb?"

To this the monk replied, "It does not matter. This place is cursed. Any who disturb it are fated to die." Seeing his opportunity at last, Sekharoth suddenly lurched sideways, knocking one of Sorcha's warriors into a pile of loose, fallen stone. As the man stumbled and went down, Sekharoth grabbed the hilt of the warrior's dagger, itself coming unsheathed as its owner fell away from it. Launching himself towards Sorcha, he screamed, "AS SHALL YOU!"

From afar, the god Set groaned. Why could he not trust his moronic followers to enact his will?

For his part, Sekharoth would not have believed that someone could bring a sword to hand as quickly as Sorcha did. In the blink of an eye she was away from the rubble-constricted section of the tomb's passageway, and in another she was pressing Sekharoth in return, her speed, skill, and the reach of her weapon conferring ample advantage. She opened a wicked cut on his arm and blood began to flow freely. Worse, one of the diggers bashed him across the back of the head with a shovel - again the unseen hand of Set working through mortals. Reeling from the blow to his head, Sekharoth's vision cleared just in time to see Sorcha step in close, thrust her sword into his abdomen, and spill his guts onto the dusty flagstones. For good measure she wheeled as she stepped away, cleanly parting the hand holding the purloined dagger from its arm. Wide-eyed, mouth open, Sekharoth collapsed first to his knees, then onto his face, moving no more.

Absently cleaning the gore from her blade as she entered the burial antechamber a few moments later, Sorcha addressed Teru. "I just had to kill your compatriot. I expect I will get no such trouble from you?"

"Ah...just so, my lady."

"Good." Casting her gaze around the room and taking in the gleaming baubles held within it, she said simply, "Start moving this lot towards the entrance. I don't want to spend more time here than is absolutely necessary."

In the frenetic shuffle that followed, with laborers and soldiers moving in and out shepherding the grave goods towards the surface, Teru was able to slip away unnoticed into a side-tunnel, which led to a chamber holding a ceremonial bath, the stepped sides of the chamber floor now long dry and dusty. Falling to his knees, Teru called on the power of Set, beseeching his god for guidance. For aid. For strength.

At last, thought Set to himself. Flooding the priest's mind with visions, Set made his will known, as best a god can to such an imperfect mortal vessel. Images danced before Teru's internal sight, images of Sorcha bedecked in Stygian raiment, holding the sceptre of lordly office. At her left and right stood two priests of Set, counseling her in whispers as she commanded a legion of Stygian soldiers forward against Set's enemies.

As quickly as they came, the visions ceased. This was it! Divine inspiration! But were these visions of the future yet to be? Or was this the goal towards which Teru must now devote himself, that he must shape and bring about for the glory of Father Night? Whatever the case, he knew that his god had plans for the barbarian woman, and that she must be shown the power and the majesty of the Great Serpent. Hastily composing himself, Teru made his way back to the burial antechamber, where the diggers were just now chipping their way through the last seal with heavy picks.



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Re: [IAWA] AP Session
« Reply #2 on: June 25, 2015, 01:30:42 AM »
Bearing the Mask
As the party entered Amun-Rotakh's burial chamber, torchlight played along the intricately carved and painted glyphs and sigils that covered every surface. "What does it say, chronicler?" asked Sorcha.

Teru peered at the walls a while before answering. "It tells of the bold life and mighty deeds of Amun-Rotakh." He pointed to a few notable excerpts; "His terrible wrath against the city of Qum. His ending of a great drought. His triumph over the crocodile demon Argush." By this time the gilded sarcophagus had been prised open. There in repose lay the earthly remains of Amun-Rotakh, still in his priestly finery. Though the fabric had long since decayed to tatters, much of his jewelry and items of holy office gleamed as brightly in the torchlight as they had the day they'd been interred. Included among these was his ornate ceremonial mask, still affixed to his skeletal face.

A plan formed in Teru's mind, no doubt inspired by his own recent connection to his god. Though now fallen into only occasional use, masks such as these were believed to better allow the priests to commune with Set, to ease the forging of a direct connection with the divine. Gently reaching into the sarcophagus to carefully lift the mask from Amun-Rotakh's skull, Teru extended the mask to Sorcha. "Is it not exquisite?"

Yes, thought Set.

Sorcha turned the mask over in her hands as Teru said, "Truly, is it not a visage fit for a queen?" She held it up, inspecting it closely.


"No," laughed Sorcha, grabbing Teru behind the neck and pressing the mask to his face. "You first."

Nooooooooo! Curses, what would it take to get these mortals to do as he desired? Did they not realize that he was a god? That the day and the night and the very elements themselves obeyed his commands? Still, perhaps this could be salvaged. Without further hesitation, a finger of Set's consciousness flooded into the poor magician-monk. Convulsing slightly, Teru rose and pulled away from Sorcha. The eyes that regarded her through the mask were cold, flat, and void, like looking into an abyss. The voice was Teru's, but deeper, more profound somehow.

"You see? Am I not resplendent?" He gestured to the other golden and bejeweled treasures in the sarcophagus. "Look upon the power and riches that could be yours."

Sorcha and Teru/Set locked eyes. Though not consciously aware of it, every other living man in the cramped burial chamber could somehow sense the struggle of wills taking place before them.

Teru veritably boomed, "Can you not see?"

Sorcha's eyes narrowed. "I..."

"Treasures. Glory."

Her brow furrowed. "Will."

"Fame beyond reckoning."

Her jaw tensed. "Not."

"Power. Over the lands and the lives of men."

Through clenched teeth; "Be."

"If you would but submit to the will of Set..."

Drawing herself up to her full height; "Cowed!"

The backlash was instantaneous. Teru sat roughly on the stone floor, the mask slipping from his face to land in his lap. The tendril of his consciousness violently cast back into the aether, Set reeled. A distant rumbling was heard, but who could say whether it came from the earth or the sky. Rebuked so completely after so much effort had been put into exerting his will through an imperfect vessel, the god's force was spent. Outside, as quickly as it had come, the sandstorm departed, giving way to a clear, starry night.

For his own part, Teru was suddenly bone-tired. He felt as though he'd just single-handedly built the Great Temple at Luxor, quarried and stacked every stone by himself with naught but his own two hands. He walked in a daze, simply following whomever happened to be closest as the group gathered Amun-Rotakh's burial goods and departed the tomb.

Once more on the surface, Sorcha was overseeing the loading of the pack animals, ensuring that none of the treasures were left behind. Already the night had grown cold, and a light rain fell from the clear sky. The Stygian laborers took this as a bad omen.

Already mounted, Arroch approached Sorcha, leaning down and extending a hand. "Come, my queen. Leave this work to the men. They are more than capable of it. Let us ride to Gurbekhan together." And with his most winning smile, "I will keep you warm, my lady. Of that you can be sure."

She hesitated for a moment. Perhaps her unknowing brush with the divine had taken something out of her, or perhaps she simply enjoyed the man's company, arrogance or no. Whatever the cause, she eventually grasped his hand and let him pull her up into the saddle in front of him, wrapping his arms around her. Smartly setting his boots to the rump of his horse, Arroch galloped away. The sound of thudding hooves and the sighing night wind filled her ears, blotting out the subtle warning she did not hear - her men, enthusiastically chanting Arroch's name. As they had chanted hers after every victorious conquest.

The Man Who Would Be King
Several days had passed. Still not fully recovered, Teru had none the less become a fixture at the citadel in Gurbekhan. Watching. Waiting. He did not know what it was he sought, but he recognized it as soon as it came in the form of a quiet conversation with Arroch while his queen was away enjoying a bath in her chambers. The cavalryman was once again boasting of his military prowess. When Arroch paused to draw a breath, Teru interrupted. "Truly, my lord, you are destined for greatness. Fortunate would be the people to call you their ruler."

"Indeed," said Arroch. "Alas, I am but a humble servant," he lied. "But my time will come."

Teru chanced a furtive glance to ensure no one could overhear. "Of course, my lord. But why wait?"

Arroch's eyes narrowed, showing clearly his instant suspicion. "What do you mean?"

"Why, only that you are more fit to rule than your queen. My lady Sorcha has rebuked the local customs, angered the populace by tearing down their houses of worship. But you have no such stubbornness. Were you to embrace their customs, the people would love you. As your men already love you. Willing to die for you, every one of them."

Arroch sat back, a bemused smile playing across his lips. "I suppose."

"Conquest is all well and fine, but you saw with your own eyes the riches in Amun-Rotakh's tomb. What dead conqueror was ever buried with such finery? And Amun-Rotakh was but one priest among many."


"Rebuild their houses of worship and you will not need to conquer - the people will bring their riches to you of their own free will. They will give gifts to you and love you for accepting them. This is Stygia, my lord; in this land it is better to be a priest than a king."

Sitting forward suddenly, Arroch drew his dagger, a long Aquilonian stiletto. For a moment, Teru thought he had overplayed his hand. Then with a deft flick of the wrist, Arroch spun the dagger, pressing its hilt into Teru's hand. "You are a clever man, Teru."

"If you say, my lord. Though I am but a humble scholar."

Arroch leaned in close. "Aid me in this and there is a place for you by my side. Every ruler can use a clever grand vizier."

Though his outward expression did not change, Teru smiled inwardly. "I live to serve, my lord."

Given his known intimate relationship with the queen, it was easy for Arroch to gain access to Sorcha's bathing chamber, ostensibly bringing the scholar with tales of some new cache of riches to be plundered. With the stiletto hidden beneath his robes, Teru was tense. Arroch had simply said, "Be ready. When the time comes, do not hesitate."

But Teru could not help himself. Stepping into the queen's bath chamber, he beheld her lithe, athletic form in all its naked glory. The clear, perfumed water hid nothing. Nor did she exhibit any timidity or shame. Instead she regarded the men with her hard grey eyes, as if daring them to look at her.

Arroch began making conversation, speaking of something of possible import he had learned from the scholar. Making as if absent-mindedly pacing, Teru walked to the balcony, looking out over the portside docks of Gurbekhan in the late evening sunset, answering with some prattle or other when prompted by Arroch. But his position put him beside and slightly behind the warrior-woman, and at some point he turned. Arroch met his gaze and nodded imperceptibly. With no other warning, the man drew his saber and made his thrust. Teru also leapt towards her, stiletto at the ready.

Here we go again, thought Set, still watching events from the black beyond. The god thought to perhaps send a scirocco, a sudden blast of wind to cause Teru to stumble. But with his temples in the city smashed, with the peoples' belief shaken, with the effort of moving so many mortals to his puppet strings, with the resounding blow of his broken attempt to possess the warrior woman's will, and with a thousand other events on this world and so many others impinging upon his divine consciousness, Set found himself in a weakened state. Instead of a mighty gale, all that transpired was a strong gust, enough to make the candles about the chamber flicker but no more. It would be until the inky darkness of the next new moon before Set's influence would be felt again in Gurbekhan.

Though it disappointed her, the attack in the bath came as no great surprise to Sorcha. And maybe it was his unwillingess to plunge a sword through her perfect breast, but Arroch's attack was just a heartbeat too slow. With a slippery-quick sidestep, Sorcha let the blade pass harmlessly by her, reached out to catch Arroch's outthrust sword-hand, and pulled. The force of his attack already putting his balance far forward, the wiry man pitched forward into the water. With a sickening crunch, his face made contact with the stone lip of the bath behind her, and blood began immediately pouring from his nose to stain the water. Keeping control of his sword-hand and smoothly mounting him from behind, Sorcha used her weight to carry him below the surface of the bath, wrapping her legs about him to pin him. With the other hand she slapped the stiletto from Teru's hand, calling "Guards! Seize him!" This they promptly did, and Teru had neither the heart nor the strength to resist. Sorcha remained astraddle Arroch until his dazed, barely conscious struggles subsided permanently.

It was several weeks before the chance to escape presented itself to Teru. Surprised that he was not immediately executed, Teru was instead left to languish in the dungeons beneath Gurbekhan's citadel. He marked the time by the ebb and flow of the tides, which brought brackish sea-water into his cell, the salty brine setting fire to his every cut and scrape, of which he had sustained many. Finally one afternoon he came face to face with a guard who entered the cell to ensure Teru was still alive. Mustering his strength, Teru looked upon the man with the beguiling gaze of the cobra. A short while later, clad in the guard's own cloak, Teru walked outward through the gates of Gurbekhan. On a spike set atop the gate tower high above him, the open-mouthed head of Arroch gazed down at him with dead eyes, watching sightlessly as Teru headed back into the desert from whence he had come.