Another adventure from Beasts of the Dominions – “The Whispered”.
Quickly growing bored with hunting spiders of decreasing size in Vadokara, the party takes its leave of their new friend, governor Temar Nhir, who gives them a letter of recommendation explaining to whom it may concern that they are competent and trustworthy.
They hike north through the jungle to the Sword River, intending to head for Kenaton and the bright city lights, and seek a likely berthing place where river traffic will come ashore for the night (as is the common practice), concealing themselves at the edge of the forest out of habit more than anything. Shortly, they notice a small but luxurious vessel pulling ashore, and seeing the occupants are a sage, a young nobleman, a couple of bodyguards, a few serving girls and what appears to be a merchant crew, they step forward and announce themselves, noting the crew erecting a whipping frame without much enthusiasm.
U’whaz introduces himself to the sage, one Pema the Elder, and they discover they are both alumni of the Great Library in Syranthia. Having established their bona fides, Pema feels able to confide that he and his pupil Salathar (the young noble) are travelling to the nearby city of Chalat to pay their respects to the governor, a relative on Salathar’s mother’s side.
Meanwhile Salathar is marching about demanding a whipping, and the two bodyguards drag forward a pretty slave girl, with expressions denoting that they have to do this, but they don’t much like it. Ash, who has a weakness for a well-turned ankle, decides this is inappropriate and steps in, volunteering to take on the task of whipping the girl. This is a ruse, as he explains to her under the guise of checking the knots; he contrives to use red riverside dust and skillful handling of the whip to make it seem he is lashing her within an inch of her life, while actually doing very little damage, after which he takes her away to bandage her up using his alleged healing skills. (He will later claim to have used his last healing potion on her to explain the lack of deep, bleeding gashes in her back.)
The party infers that Salathar has either done something embarrassing, or is under threat of assassination, or possibly both. When pressed, Pema the Elder admits that Salathar is travelling to Chalat “for health reasons”.
Our heroes parlay their letter of recommendation into free passage with Pema and Salathar, Pema agreeing that the group forms an excellent educational opportunity for the young gentleman. The party splits up to gather intelligence at this point, with U’wahz, Dorjee Pema and Zosimus joining the captain, Pema, Salathar, and the bodyguards for a genteel supper, while the others choose to sit with the crew for a less refined, but more filling, meal.
From their own knowledge and skilful questioning of their new companions, the party discover the following.
- Chalat is a busy port along the Gold Route, near the jungle but surrounded by well-tended fields. It is known as the City of Snakes, and its emblem is a snake.
- Snakes are a common feature of architecture and diet in Chalat, and some species are considered sacred.
- Salathar is arrogant, cruel and easily bored. When bored, he likes to be amused by watching someone else in pain.
- The bodyguards (who take a great liking to Zosimus) are expecting an assassination attempt orchestrated by Master Merchant Ramith, an enemy of Salathar’s family who has agents up and down the Sword River.
- Chalat will soon celebrate the Days of the Open Doors, during which any man can enter the Temple of Etu to “commune” with one of the priestesses. The rowers agree that it is worth putting in a bit of extra effort to ensure they arrive on time, as for most of them it’s the only chance they’re going to get this year at a spot of tea, crumpets and polite conversation with gorgeous priestesses.
The night passes uneventfully, and the following afternoon the ship reaches Chalat, which is very crowded. While the group is disembarking, a crate swinging overhead on a crane drops, threatening to crush Salathar. The only person in a position to save him is the stark naked Monk, who decides instead to let fate choose whether the aristocrat lives or dies, and so steps aside to let the crate fall on him. There is a thump, a scream and several cracking noises, at least one of which will later turn out to be Salathar’s leg. It is at this point that the heroes realise the jars were full of live, poisonous snakes, and leap to the conclusion that this is the expected assassination attempt, then react by looking for the backup team – clearly the whole snakes in a crate thing is merely Plan A, although it does seem to be going rather well so far.
Zosimus darts in to grab the boy, who has been perforated by several serpents, while the bodyguards kick over a huge jar of wine to wash away the snakes, which stratagem more or less succeeds. Max uses his dagger to dispose of the one snake which has managed to stay attached to the boy. Dorjee Pema attempts to ingratiate himself with Salathar’s family by using potions and healing skills to save the boy, who is by now convulsing and foaming at the mouth, and appears to succeed. Ash runs to the winch controls to interrogate the operators, but curiously they have disappeared. The party decides this means nothing, as even if they were innocent, they would have fled.
The Monk, meanwhile, is sitting cross-legged on a bollard, just out of snake reach, watching to see what fate decides.
Totally ignoring Dorjee’s contribution, the crowd heaves Salathar onto their shoulders, yelling about him being blessed because he has survived the snake bites; they bear him off towards the palace, with the rest of the group following in their wake. Salathar laps it up, as any arrogant 16-year-old would. It merely reaffirms his view of his own importance.
At the palace, the governor apologises profusely to his kinsman (although it isn’t entirely clear why), and orders a feast in honour of the Chosen One (although given how fat he is, that’s probably a nightly occurrence). The excitement around the now-blessed Salathar is such that nobody is checking invitations, and the party sweeps into the palace, taken for part of Salathar’s entourage – free food is all the incentive they need to follow along, even if most of it does turn out to be snakes.
At the end of the dinner, High Priestess Yantara arrives by palanquin from the Temple of Etu, keen to meet the Blessed Salathar. She brings entertainment: A dusky young priestess called Marah, who dances for Salathar to his immense interest. The dance concluded, Salathar leads Marah away to his quarters, while Yantara departs with a smile, having given Marah leave to spend the night away from the temple. Ash offers to escort Yanatara home, but she declines graciously, saying that her own years of service in the Days of the Open Doors are long past. Ash infers that one of the benefits of being a high priestess is the ability to be a bit more picky about what you do on those days – and who you do it with.
Salathar, meanwhile, has been followed to his room by the two bodyguards and Zosimus, whom he instructs not to enter the room under any circumstances, whatever they might hear. The three warriors concur that this must be the first step in another assassination attempt, but the little snot has it coming, and they can always say they were obeying orders. Privately, Zosimus doesn’t think this will help them much. However, the only noises coming out of the boudoir are what one might expect from a young, healthy couple neither of whom is encumbered by inhibitions.
The Monk stays back to find out what happens to the leftovers; it turns out that the servants eat as much of those as they can, then sell the rest to passersby at the door. The Monk is disappointed that the remaining food is not given away to the needy – after all, that’s what he did with his loincloth – and tries to persuade the servants to do that. Unable to decide whether he is a holy fool or just a fool, they settle for throwing him out without beating him up first.
While Max falls asleep on one of the couches, Dorjee and U’wahz settle in for an evening of intellectual conversation with Pema the Elder. Around one AM, that group breaks up to go to bed, but Pema decides to look in on Salathar first. The guards note that while they are forbidden to enter, no orders were given about Pema, so they let him in.
Pema calls them in and points out that both Salathar and Marah are missing. The rest of the heroes are awakened and summoned to the bedroom. Using the immense powers of observation and deduction Hulian grants to sages such as he, U’wahz points out that there is no sign of a struggle, that the secret passage he found clearly hasn’t been used in years, and in his opinion the pair eloped using the improvised bedsheet rope hanging over the balcony and left the palace through the garden gate he can see open on the other side of the lawn.
Pema asks the party for help, reasoning that he doesn’t know the background or motives of anyone in Chalat, but the heroes had a better opportunity to kill Salathar earlier if they wanted to, so are probably not involved. Besides, this is clearly a subtle plot, and it’s also clear that this particular group of adventurers isn’t optimised for subtlety.
Pausing only to acquire a tracker dog from the governor’s kennels and give it Salathar’s scent, the group races across the lawn and through the gate, finding a short alley leading to a shack where a drunken beggar lies asleep. Having picked him up to check for trapdoors beneath him, they rouse him, and for the price of a few coins learn that a palanquin fitting the description of Yantara’s picked up the young couple a short while ago, and headed off towards the Temple of Etu. This is also the direction their bloodhound wants to go as it strains at the leash, so the party follow it to the temple, where they can see the palanquin parked in the yard and a steady stream of men flowing in and out of the temple.
Shunning the main entrance, the heroes make their way round to the back, avoid the not-terribly-alert guard dozing as he makes his rounds, and sneak into the inner sanctum of the temple, which is laid out much like the last one they desecrated. Inside is a statue of Etu, in the form of a pregnant woman carrying a snake. Is it a trick of the light, or is the statue eyeing Ash up suspiciously?
After some experimentation the heroes are pleased to note that the statue is hollow and can be rolled aside in the traditional manner to reveal a staircase leading down to an ornate door. Ash easily discerns the trap and how to disarm it, and the party breezes through into a short corridor flanked by rows of open cells, from which the sounds of people moaning in drugged pleasure can be heard. Shrugging and moving on, the group next comes to a room where a priestess is administering drugs to the faithful; their blandishments are somewhat less than efficacious, and a brief but fierce melee erupts, at the end of which five cultists are dead or incapacitated, and the priestess is heavily drugged with whatever she was dispensing, while our heroes are unscathed. They pause to strip the cultists and put on the fashionable red robes.
Next in line is an obvious treasure room, full of loot – but the group leave it alone because Ash tells them it is trapped. Pressing on, they come to a flight of steps leading down into the main altar room where the bulk of the cult is being led in prayer to an idol of a three-eyed cobra by none other than Yantara. U’wahz recognises the language as a Valk dialect and therefore probably demon-related, and thanks to his knowledge of legends and lore, recognises the idol as the demon Ulasha, the Snake That Devours The World. Marah and Salathar enter, and Yantara gives a little speech about welcoming the boy to his true heritage, then transforms into a snake-woman hybrid. Who, the party notices, is pretty damned hot for a snake.
Zosimus isn’t standing for this, and hurls a javelin at her with all the strength his mighty thews and an atlatl can lend it, inflicting what must surely be a fatal wound; but the abomination pulls the javelin from its body and turns to stare at him. Deciding that locking eyes with the serpent is a bad move, Zosimus ducks back around the corner, trying to shake the eerie, repulsive beauty of the creature from his mind.
Now, everyone is dressed in cultists’ robes, so Yantara can’t tell who is with her and who is not; she makes an error, and decides that Zosimus is acting alone. “You on the stairs,” she calls, “Stop that man and bring him to me! I must know how much he knows!” Unfortunately, this is a second error, as she has picked Max. Max gleefully darts after Zosimus, and soon the noise of a struggle is heard from the treasure room as they fake brutal combat. The rest of the party, so far unrecognised, move closer to the idol and the priestess – except for U’wahz, who has a good vantage point at the head of the stairs and is taking copious notes and verbatim records of the dialogue.
“Now then, where was I? Oh yes,” Yantara continues, praising Marah for her contribution and biting her, injecting a venom which reduces the young priestess to a writhing ball of pleasurable sensations. At this point, Max re-emerges leading an apparently beaten and sullen Zosimus towards the priestess, which the pair of them have agreed is perfect as they are both close-combat specialists. Yantara now bites Salathar, who begins to transform into a giant snake, and the heroes decide enough is enough. Dorjee Pema throws the Yellow Lotus of the Nightmarish Visions into the group by the idol and succeeds in scaring off the temple guards and Marah, all of whom flee to corners of the room, sobbing in panic – unfortunately he can’t cover off the bulk of the cultists and the High Priestess and Salathar appear unaffected.
To provide cover and protection for the party members now closing to engage the priestess, Dorjee hurls his Lotus reserve, the ever-popular Red Lotus of the Phoenix Fire, which forms a flaming barrier surrounding and obscuring the principal actors in this little drama: Zosimus, the Monk, Salathar, and Yantara. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite cover enough ground to obscure the left flank, so Max moves to hold that and buy some time.
While Ash sneaks round the right flank and closes to attack, Zosimus stabs the snake priestess hard – but his blade slides off her scales. Max, meanwhile, has been attacked by a group of half-a-dozen cultists, but kills one and wades through the rest like a bull through terriers. The Monk, who has been moving forward as if to get a better view, is on the wrong side of the flame barrier. Yantara turns to Zosimus and explains that there is no need for them to be at odds, surely they can come to some arrangement? Consider the benefits of being the snake-priestess’ consort and right-hand man. Zosimus does, and considering that for a snake she’s pretty damned hot, decides to change sides. However, he reasons, this makes Salathar his rival for Yantara’s affections, and consequently a legitimate target; so he stabs Salathar, who falls, seriously injured and unconscious. Ash approaches Yantara from the other side to stab her, and she turns her gaze on him, asking him to consider what he desires. Intense pleasure? Wealth beyond the dreams of avarice? She offers him these things if he will join her. Ash ruminates that he has seen evidence of both the intense pleasure and the enormous wealth, and also changes sides. Zosimus sends him a hostile look, and Ash says “No no! You can have her! I want Marah!” – so that’s settled.
Just as it begins to look as if the party will have to change its name to Pawns of the Serpent Priestess, the unimaginative Max steps around the end of the flame barrier and incapacitates Yantara with a mighty blow of his axe.
The heroes stand, breathing heavily, realising they still have a couple of dozen armed and fanatical cultists to deal with; but as the flame barrier dies down, revealing the scene of death and carnage, the surviving cultists take in the scene, and then with a mass wail of sorrow and panic, kill themselves with their own daggers (except Marah, who is still incapacitated by a curious state composed in equal measure of blind panic and orgiastic pleasure). The heroes are confused, but decide they will accept this twist of fate. The one thing they cannot accept, however, is witnesses, so they spend a little while making sure there are none left alive – not even Marah, cute though she is – and coming up with a plan.
They decide that the governor must be in on this, and there are probably more snake priestesses where this one came from; so they need to get out of town while they still can. Once dead, Salathar and Yantara reverted to human form, so the best the group can hope for if they stay is a short and not very fair trial for murder, followed by execution. They agree that they will all grab whatever they can carry from the treasure room on the way out, brief the two bodyguards and Pema the Elder on the situation, and then leave the city on the first available ship, regardless of destination. The Monk carries out his share, but only so he can give it to those they have warned, thus funding their escape if that’s their choice. Is it a trick of the light, or does the statue of Etu smile and nod at Ash as he passes it on his way out?
As the hue and cry rises in the city behind them, the heroes agree it’s the perfect end to a perfect night, and settle down to assess their loot on the deck of a ship bound who knows where.
This was another highly enjoyable little adventure from Umberto Pignatelli, which flowed so naturally that the players seemed to follow the railway tracks without ever noticing they were there.
As usual, I left out a number of encounters to fit the scenario into the time available. A pattern is developing which works well for these players; a largely narrative adventure with almost no skill rolls for about 75% of the session, and then a big, tactical combat to round off the evening before we close.
My principle mistake was using the same statblocks for both male and female snake people; in reality, the male is a much, much stronger opponent, but I can rationalise that by saying that the only male present was being a snake man for the first time, and thus not really used to it and operating below par.
The serpent people’s charm abilities are extremely dangerous, and I was one good soak roll away from dominating enough of them to make them Yantara’s henchmen. That would be an entirely different, but thoroughly entertaining, campaign – I’m tempted to give the snake people another chance at that.