Seeing the PCs make no response to its oratory, the figure appeared to grow angry. Turning to address its followers, it began to speak to them, gesturing furiously towards where the PCs crouched on their makeshift barricade. Alarmed by the awful sounds spilling out of the darkness, the rest of the PCs begged Hash to do something about the situation - so he drew back his bow, and loosed an arrow right into the orator's body. Stumbling back, the robed figure howled a curse and gestured at Circe, but her deranged faith in the Frog God defended her from its magic: and with a shot that only an elf could possibly have made successfully, Hash's second arrow sliced through the darkness and silenced him forever.
|Lizard Man, by GutsBerserk. No matter how mysterious you look, you'll still drop to an arrow in the eye...|
As their leader dropped, the naga-kin went berserk, charging out of the temple to assault the barricade from all sides. Unable to see what was happening outside their narrow circle of lamplight, the PCs hurled more acid bombs and gas grenades at the naga-kin surging through the floodwater towards them, horribly aware that more were clambering up onto other parts of their makeshift wall as they did so; then, as more of the mutant beasts came rushing at them along the top of the barricade, they unleashed a storm of spells and arrows at them, while Circe held down the button on her looted snakeman pain-wand and blazed away with it for all she was worth, sending naga-kin tumbling down in agony on every side. Subjected to this withering bombardment, the creatures broke and ran, howling, into the night; and once the sounds had faded into the distance, the PCs descended, cautiously, to explore what lay within the temple itself.
Within lay a disturbing scene. Circles of bloated, mutated children, their skin discouloured by long immersion in river-water, knelt in silent circles around a central pit, in which had been heaped all the wealth that the naga-kin had looted from this once-rich trading town: skeins of torn and filthy silk, sodden books, ink-run calligraphic scrolls, and once-beautiful painted screens all lay heaped in the floodwater, slimy and ruined and foul. Here and there, however, gold still glittered in the PCs lantern-light - and seeing that the children merely watched them silently as they advanced, Skadi's criminal instincts rose to the fore, and she pushed forwards and began probing the pile with a stick. When this brought no immediate retribution, she succumbed to greed and started stuffing items of jewellery into her pockets.
The effect was dramatic. The items heaped in the pit pulsed, heaved, and then burst upwards in a shower of sodden finery, as an immense creature hurtled upwards: a gigantic snake with four heads, each face resembling a human woman with fanged mouths and long, long trailing waterfalls of hair. The naga hurled itself upon Skadi, tearing bloody chunks out of her body with its four mouths, while her companions rained attacks upon it: the space acid they hurled at it burned ragged holes in its body, while Hash used a Light spell to blind one of its heads and Hogarth cast a Choke spell to throttle a second. Finally Skadi shoved her shock baton into one of the holes burned into the creature's flank and electrocuted it from the inside, killing it: and as it crashed down its body dissolved into a wave of venomous river-water, rushing rapidly out and killing the naga-kin children where they knelt. The PCs fled for the tower steps, with variable success: but such was Skadi's hardihood that she fought off the mingling venoms burning in her bloodstream and staggered onwards, bearing wounds upon her body which would have killed any four normal men.
(Skadi passed three saves vs poison in succession, any one of which would have killed her. She really earned that treasure!)
|It was a bit like this, but much less heroic. Art from Kenneth Hite's Qelong, naturally.|
Searching the body of the fallen priest revealed only a strange jewelled dagger, which Circe swiftly incorporated into her growing Evil Dagger Collection; so once the PCs had finished taking all the remaining unspoiled valuables from the heap of offerings, they headed off to inform the townsfolk of their victory. The next morning, the people headed out to the temple, where they gathered up the bloated, mutated remains of the people who had once been their friends, relatives, and, most heartbreakingly, children: but the surviving naga-kin seemed to have fled for good, restoring a measure of safety to the ragged survivors who remained. About half of them decided to take the opportunity to attempt the long, hazardous overland journey to the coast, while the rest opted to maintain their barricades and try to wait things out until the troubles finally ended. The PCs stayed with this latter group for a few days, recovering from their injuries; then, promising to check up on them during their return journey, they headed further upriver, towards the source of the Qelong's woes. By this stage Sophie was starting to feel a little strange, so they decided not to eat or drink anything which they hadn't cast Purify Food and Water on first.
Their journeys soon brought them to a fork in the river. Uncertain which way to proceed, they decided to make camp: each day they would catch one fish from each fork of the river, and Circe would use Speak to Animals to question them about what they had seen upriver, in the hope of deducing which fork would lead them closer to the fleet beacon. (For some reason, they opted to stay for exactly five days, on the grounds that their experiment wouldn't be 'scientific' unless they questioned five fish from each branch.) On the fourth day, they spotted a band of starving refugees stumbling out of the hills, several of whom were missing their hands: and in exchange for a few castings of Purify Food and Water the refugees told their miserable tale, explaining that the mutilated individuals were the victims of a curse which seemed to have befallen these lands, the power of which gathered in their hands until they had to be amputated in order to avoid afflicting everyone they touched. They also told the PCs that the east fork of the river would take them past the famous Temple of the Golden Lotus, the holiest site in all of Qelong, although what state it was in now they couldn't say. As Circe's fish-interrogations had strongly suggested that the east fork was the more seriously afflicted of the two, the PCs heard this news with considerable interest; and the next day, after questioning one more fish from each branch of the river, they headed down the fork to the south-east.
Once again they found themselves moving through abandoned villages, but with a difference: everywhere, in abandoned pools and overgrown gardens, they found swathes of gold-coloured lotus flowers. Detect Evil and Detect Magic spells revealed that these flowers were exempt from the air of evil and magic which hung over everything else in this blighted land: so, reasoning that they might be of use in warding away the curse the refugees had spoken of, they gathered the flowers and experimented with mashing them into a soup, which they then mixed with boiling water and fed to Sophie. Sophie experienced trippy visions of wheeling geometric shapes expanding in endless fractals, and spent the next few hours with blank eyes and a big, stupid smile on her face; but upon coming down from her trip, she reported that she was definitely feeling a bit less odd than she had been before.
(I was rather proud of the fact that the PCs worked out both the need to use Purify Food and Water spells on everything they ate and drank, and the potential value of the lotuses as anti-curse medication, entirely on their own, without the need for any hints or dice rolls...)
That evening they came to the temple: a towering stupa surrounded by formal gardens laid out on geometric lines, in which the ubiquitous lotus flowers grew in great profusion. Here and there, serene, golden-robed monks and nuns could be seen tending the grounds, in striking contrast to the desolation which surrounded the stupa on every side. Hailing them, the PCs received a friendly greeting, and one of the monks went off to fetch a middle-aged nun from the stupa, who welcomed them in their own language. She invited them to stay at the temple, but insisted that the holy laws of their order would permit them to accept them as guests only for one day and one night, no more. Incredulous, the PCs pointed out that the land outside their temple was now a monster-filled wasteland of death and chaos, but the nun politely but firmly insisted that however regrettable the circumstances, they could not permit guests to remain with them for longer than twenty-four hours. Grumbling, the PCs then asked how the temple had been able to preserve itself from the horrors which had depopulated the rest of the region. The nun explained that they had been able to keep the ravages of the curse at bay through the rigorous maintenance of spiritual purity and the consumption of a special tea made from golden lotus petals, which she gave Circe a quick lesson in how to brew.
After a humble supper of plain rice and vegetable broth, the PCs were packed off to the guest dormitory, where they discovered that the temple had another guest that night: a man named Sovan, with a slightly wild, traumatised look about him. Sovan (who also happened to speak their language) explained that his village had turned to indiscriminate golden lotus consumption when the curse struck: many of them simply abandoned themselves to the lotus-visions and starved to death, but after overdosing on lotus blossoms he had experienced some kind of transcendent visionary experience from which he had emerged with miracle-working powers. Held captive for months by a cannibal clan in the hills, who found his healing abilities useful, he had finally escaped and fled to the temple for shelter and guidance - only to be told, to his disbelief, that even he would only be permitted to remain for one day and one night. Upon learning that the PCs were searching for the source of the evil which had befallen Qelong, he eagerly agreed to join their band.
By this point the party were intensely suspicious of their hosts, especially as Sovan confirmed that giving charity to the poor and desperate was meant to be one of their key functions: throwing people like him back out into the wilds went against everything they were supposed to believe in. Their suspicions were intensified by the fact that the number of monks in the temple was obviously far smaller than the number it was intended to house, and deepened even further when they found that they had been locked into their dormitory for the night. Deciding that something very odd was happening here, Skadi picked the lock and the PCs crept out to explore the temple: they took some food and lotus petals from the kitchens, and stole a bag of random scrolls from the library, where Hash also sketched a copy of a huge map of Qelong which hung on the library wall, illustrating the positions of all its many stupas. (Fully two-thirds of these had markers pinned next to them bearing sylised gold lotus designs, which made the party even more nervous.) Sneaking up the stairs behind the main prayer-hall they found a room above it, with two monks standing guard while two more meditated silently nearby; so, reasoning that something important was probably inside, they sent Sophie up to try to bypass the guards with Charm Person spells.
Unfortunately, everything went wrong. The spells didn't work, and Sophie was promptly jumped on and restrained by four weirdly-calm monks, who pinned her down on the floor. The rest of the PCs, hearing her cries, decided they needed to get out of there, and sneaked back to their room, lay down, and pretended to have been asleep the whole time. Through the guarded door came the head monk, who looked entirely normal apart from the trippy golden mandalas in his eyes, and who gently requested that Sophie explain her presence at on doorstep. She claimed to have just been sleepwalking, but he was unconvinced, and gave orders for her to be locked in one of the storerooms beneath the temple. Shortly afterwards, the PCs were 'woken' by the same woman they'd spoken to before, who knocked on their door and explained that their comrade had been apprehended trespassing in the temple. Hash stealthily cast Charm Person on her, and begged her to intercede on Sophie's behalf: but she returned an hour later, visibly agitated, saying that there was no question of Sophie being released before she had been thoroughly interrogated, and the rest of them would still have to leave, without her, the following day. When asked if she could at least promise that their friend would not be tortured, all she could say was that if she was truly innocent, she would surely be released unharmed in due course.
After she left, the PCs agreed that they had to stage a jailbreak and rescue Sophie immediately. Being able to see in the dark, Hash sneaked out and began searching the complex, soon spotting the two guards posted outside a seemingly-normal kitchen storeroom; he returned for the others, and Sovan cast Hold Person to try to immobilise the guards, but they both shrugged off the effect and leaped forwards, yelling for reinforcements. Skadi shouldered her way to the front to take up her role as 'designated meatshield', flailing uselessly at the monks with her shock baton as they dodged and wove, pummeling her with nerve strikes which would have felled a weaker warrior: Circe's Command spell temporarily dropped one of them, but the other simply dodged or resisted everything they threw at him, yelling for help the whole time. But aid came from an unexpected source when Sophie, realising from the commotion outside that her friends had come to rescue her, charged at the door of her cell - and proved that all her weight training had paid off by smashing it clean off its hinges. Snatching up the falling door, she whacked one monk with it from behind, while trampling the other underfoot; Princess then pinned the still-mobile monk to the wall, her robot body impervious to his nerve strikes, while the rest of the party flooded forwards to pummel him into submission. Their rescue effected, they then fled for their lives, taking the unconscious monk (and the storeroom door) with them.
Pursuit was not long in coming. Seeing lantern-bearing monks running towards them across the gardens, the PCs ran for the perimeter wall, with Sophie propping her stolen door up against it to use as a gangplank. Hash ran straight up it to the top of the wall, and started pulling the others over; but the stompy metal feet of Princess crashed straight through the boards, and Skadi yelled that it was time for the robot to be abandoned to her fate. Circe, Sophie, and Sovan refused to leave her, throwing down ropes and hauling her up one bicep-straining foot at a time, until finally she crashed over the top and toppled down onto the other side; and with Hash's darkvision to guide them they fled away into the night, with Sovan advising them of little-known drover's trails that carried them deeper and deeper into the depopulated countryside to the east.
Just what are these gold-robed monks doing in their temple? Why are they so calm all the time? What do the markers on the map mean? What is up with that guy's eyes? Watch Circe and her