The Eleven Baneful Gates, Pt. 1
After returning to Huzuz and recuperating, the Orphans were contacted by a messenger from the cleric Haroushin. The message described how the priest had very excitedly been researching the clay seal described by the heroes. His inquiries led him to the mosque of Zann in the city of Wasat, and he asked the Orphans to meet him there.
The Orphans secured sea travel to Wasat by hiring themselves to the merchant Barak al-Gani, a noted rival to the criminal merchant Yodfah. Taking pity on the situation the Orphans were in, he offered them better-than-usual rates to accompany his goods to the port of Wasat. He got his money’s worth: twice during the trip his vessel was attacked, by saughugin and merrow. Each time, the Orphans beat the creatures back, and so safely ended up in Wasat, the Middle City.
Once they were settled in, the young heroes decided to explore a bit of the city before meeting Haroushin the next morning. During this time, they interrupted a mugging in an alleyway where several ruffians were accosting two women; the women ended up being Tanya bint Perijan and Yasmi al-Datma, two of the Grand Caliph’s favoured wives! They thanked the young heroes for “rescuing” them (they were never in any real danger, considering Yasmi‘s magical prowess), explaining that they sometimes snuck out of the Golden Palace in Huzuz for some fun, teleporting back before sunup. Swearing to keep their secret, the Orphans retired for the evening.
The mosque of Learned Zann had assigned Haroushin guest quarters, and it is was there that they met. The older priest shared what he had been able to discover, which wasn’t much, but he was excited about it. There were virtually no references to a nine-spoked wheel in any of the texts, but he did find a picture of one in the background of a book detailing the ancient kingdom of Al-Anwahr, City of Lions. Researching into the lost city, he discovered the following legend:
In the distant past, when Fate passed her knowledge to the Loregiver, Al-Anwahr was a rich and proud city ruled by King Azaltin, an intelligent man well versed in poetry, astrology, and the ways of magic. As the Loregiver wandered Zakhara, teaching the laws of the divine to man and genie alike, she is said to have stopped in Al-Anwahr and been a guest of Azaltin for 11 days. Azaltin honored his guest daily with lavish celebrations and exquisite gifts of silks, gold, and perfumes. After each night of entertainment, the king would ask his guest the same question: “How can a man live forever?”
The Loregiver warned Azaltin about the danger of such knowledge, but in the end could hardly insult her gracious host by refusing to answer. Each night she told the king about the obstacles that prevent man from achieving immortality. Azaltin’s scribes labored furiously to capture the Loregiver’s parables and cryptic riddles, which were set down in a legendary scroll titled The Eleven Baneful Gates. According to legend, the Loregiver departed Al-Anwahr, leaving the equivocal scroll in Azaltin’s care. Azaltin pondered the scroll for a decade, ignoring his people while trying to unravel its secret.
After months of fasting and meditation, he abandoned the kingdom to his brother Amakim and left to ponder the scroll in the solitude of the wilderness.
Ancient legends say he returned a dozen years later, an undead creature of hideous appearance, to reclaim his kingdom. Before long, Amakim led a revolt to topple his monstrous brother. Some members of court remained loyal to their undead king, however, and a bloody battle ensued throughout the city. Ultimately, Amakim’s forces triumphed, but when they reached the king’s palace they found that Azaltin had vanished. Amakim and his forces departed Al-Anwahr and eventually founded the city of In’aash. Centuries past, the city was renamed Muluk, while Al-Anwahr and Azaltin passed into folklore.
If there was anything to be learned about the nine-spoked seal, it was within the ruins of Al-Anwahr. As such, the Orphans prepared for a mighty journey across the Haunted Lands.
The Shattered Statue
During their sojourn, the heroes were greeted on evening by a glowing, spectral horse. While somewhat sinister, it was not threatening, and eventually the heroes understood that it meant for them to follow it. Concerned that not doing so would be unwise, the Orphans followed the ghostly steed through the desert until they were confronted with a raging thunderstorm. Narrowly avoiding the lightning strikes and flaming hail, the heroes found shelter within the abandoned city of Sokkar.
The city was filled with a mind-numbing panorama of graves and mausoleums stretching for miles in all directions. The sepulchers increased in stature and apparent importance deeper into the city. At least six lofty pyramids rose above all other structures. The city was a veritable necropolis.
The horse led them to a particular tomb; the heroes understood the tomb to be for the horse itself! They learned that it was a prized steed named Edimu, and its tomb had been desecrated. The Orphans understood that the spirit of the steed could not rest until its tomb had been repaired. Setting out into the seemingly abandoned city, the adventurers encountered the lamia, Ophidia. Unlike most of her kin, she was kind and not aggressive. She explained the history of Sokkar to the adventurers:
At the dawn of time, giants ruled the jungles that engulfed the now-desolate terrain of the Land of Fate. These magnificent creatures founded the city of Sokkar. The giants governed wisely, and the city’s human citizens prospered. But all that is good must pass, for the Destroyer of Delights and Sunderer of Societies visits every giant, every man, every nation. With time, the female giants began to produce only male heirs, and the population of giants steadily dwindled until only a few males remained. Renouncing their rulership of Sokkar, the giants built massive cairns for themselves far outside the walls of the city and shut themselves up inside their necropolis.
Although many giants passed into eternity, the three most powerful and principled members of their race could not rest leaving their beloved city unguarded. Noq the Inspired, Arun the Ever-Vigilant, and Merodach the Deprived all ignored their own deaths. Animated by their forces of will, these giants became rom, the Undying.
After the giants’ exodus, humans continued to rule in Sokkar according to their ancient laws. New kings and queens deferred to the memory and traditions of their forbears. Each year, the rulers visited the necropolis to confer with the rom and hear their undying wisdom.
Before long, the rom were praised as noble heroes and worshiped as demigods in Sokkar. Citizens begged to be buried near their sacred cairns. The rom welcomed the expansion of their necropolis and encouraged a reverence for the dead. As the centuries passed, a vast city of tombs expanded around the giants. Funerary complex, until even their towering mausoleums were lost in the avenues of vaulted tombs and memorials. More time passed, and the city of the living dwindled. Wars came and devastated the population; the jungles and fields dried up as the climate changed; and the citizens neglected Sokkar’s fortifications, pouring all their wealth and resources into extravagant tombs. Eventually, the curse that had plagued the giants resurfaced, and Sokkar’s women began to produce only male heirs. Sokkar fell into ruin and was devoured by the rapidly encroaching desert.
With the death of Sokkar’s last citizen, the three Undying, Noq, Merodach, and Arun, summoned a great tempest to encircle their city, shielding it from view by the outside world. This maelstrom is generated by Al-Amzija, a Black Cloud of Vengeance bound to the city by the mysterious powers of the Undying. Al-Amzija cannot enter the necropolis, nor can it stray more than a few miles from its border. Enraged at its everlasting imprisonment, the malignant tempest fills the sky with a fury of sand and wind as it storms about its prison, searching for a means of escape.
The City of Eternity does not welcome visitors, Ophidia explained, but, having arrived, newcomers cannot safely depart without the express permission of the Undying. While the perimeter of the city is far too large for Al-Amzija to notice every being entering Sokkar, leaving is another matter. The sound of its own name attracts the cloud; it also senses when beings or objects that have spent a day and a night in the necropolis attempt to pass through the maelstrom. Countless adventurers, Ophidia warned, have gone fleeing through the stormy border with their plunder, only to be intercepted and destroyed by the Black Cloud. Only the Undying can call the Black Cloud away from its prey, she explained and they never bother to intercede on behalf of tomb robbers.
The Orphans explained their quest to Ophidia and she remarked that there was a pack of ghouls, led by a Great Ghul (an undead Jann) that haunted the city; the damage done to Edimu’s tomb looked like it had been done by ghoul claws. Tracking down the ghoul nest in the Pyramid of Kagemnemni, the heroes killed them and defeated the ghul sorcerer, Dashul. The latter warned them of an Underking who had been cursed by the rom before dying and was responsible for the animation of the ghouls. They tracked the undead lord down, destroyed him and his servitors, and returned to the surface. Dashur formally surrendered to them, wanting only to continue his research. In exchange, the ghul sorcerer provided them with the means to repair Edimu’s tomb. The spirit of the steed was finally at rest.
When the time came to leave Sokkar, Ophidia brought the Orphans before the Pyramids of the Undying. With thunderous voices, they gave the heroes permission to leave, since they took not a single coin from the necropolis. As well, they forgave Ophidia for her long-ago crime, and restored her to her human form. Wistfully saying good by to the warrior Guzman, she used her magic to leave. While still pursued by al-Amzija, the Orphans also managed to escape Sokkar without serious injury.
As they continued their way to Al-Anwahr, the Orphans were approached by a young blue dragon. Calling herself Ghish, the dragon warned the adventurers that they were trespassing in the territory of her older sister, Fakhira. She described that it was just a matter of time before the elder dragon detected them and destroyed them.
Ghish then offered the Orphans a deal: she would show them where Fakhira’s lair was, and if they killed her, would let them have all the treasure the elder dragon kept there. If they refused the offer, she said, she would simply leave and let Fakhira destroy them.
The Orphans agreed, and Ghish did indeed navigate them safely to Fakhira’s lair. Their attempt at an ambush went awry, however, having greatly underestimated the senses of the dragon. As the battle raged, Ghish revealed herself as the true source of her hated sister’s suffering, and joined in the attack. By the battle’s end, however, both Guzman and Chaka lay dead.
Without knowing what to do, and far from any city-state that could possibly raise their siblings, the Orphans bound up the bodies of their siblings and continued on to Al-Anwahr.
Eleven Baneful Gates, Pt. 2
As the adventurers came within bowshot of the ruins, they were met by several Jann. Known to be wild, unpredictable, and extremely dangerous, the two groups came to blows, with the Orphans defeating the genies. Unable to do anything other than press on, they did so, and eventually came to the encampment of the Jann within the ruins. Their leader was a wise sheik by the name of Sheyisha. After some severe negotiations, aided by the jann prisoner, Printz, the Orphans were able to secure accommodations. After sharing many of their stories of adventures, the jann took to the group, and offered to use their magics to restore the hama of their siblings to their bodies. After a long while, the process succeeded with Guzman, but ultimately, Chaka‘s spirit remained out of reach.
The Jann had a favoured prisoner, a rawun named Printz. He was permitted to join the Orphans as they searched the ruins of Al-Anwahr. They encountered a strange hermit by the name of Nerim. They had a fairly cryptic conversation with him, when he suddenly disappeared, leaving behind some magical items the Orphans would use later as they explored the ruined palace of Azaltin. When they entered the latter, they saw many murals that showed brave warriors combatting earth elementals, undead, and fiends from the lower planes. Within the palace itself, the heroes encountered such creatures, eventually discovering a sealed book and an ancient scroll, both penned in a language they couldn’t understand. Faruq‘s innate magic enabled him to understand the contents, however. The book was titled The Kingdom of Lions, and it was a concise history of Al-Anwahr right up until Amakim’s revolt. The scroll was a simple message that read:
Too late have I realized the Loregiver’s warnings. Immortality is a curse, not a treasure. No man or woman should bear this burden, which I shouldered only through youthful pride. Rest assured that The Eleven Baneful Gates has been destroyed. It can tempt mortals no further.
Deciding that this was the kind of artifact that Haroushin was looking for, the Orphans set out to return not to Wasat, to meet the priest, but home to Huzuz, to first bury their sister Chaka.
A Boasting Contest
As they traversed across the deserts of the Haunted Lands, the Orphans were suddenly put upon by a giant Efreet. Calling himself Achmed al-Zuli, the Magnificient, the genie demanded tribute as they were trespassing upon “his” territory. The Efreet challenged one among their number to a boasting contest, to be judged upon by the rest of the Orphans. Should Achmed win, he would take one of their magical items (and he had his eye on the scimitar, Cyclone of the Four Quarters); should the Orphans’ representative win, he would exchange on of his items with one from Achmed’s treasure chest, which contained many wonderful items.
The contest went poorly, however, with the Orphans antagonizing the sensitive genie; Achmed attacked them, beating the group badly. To spare their lives, the heroes gave up the genie-slaying scimitar and were allowed to go along their way.
Retrieval of a Prize Most Dear
The Orphans returned to Golden Huzuz uncertain how they were going to deal with their greatest challenge: consoling Auntie after the death of Chaka.
Devastated at the loss of her adopted daughter, Auntie demanded the remaining Orphans promise to cease their adventuring to pay off the debt. They all agreed…except for Faruq, who felt honour-bound to refuse and continue to do what he could to free Auntie from the impending slavery. He was, however, alone to do so…
The funeral was attended by many of Auntie’s former adoptees; three of them were congregating over coffee in the small garden of the house they grew up in: Roheen, a former Al-Badian desert rider who had been banished from the House of Hanif; Kal, a barbarian from the northern mountains; and Azizulah, a fire-wielding sorcerer matrud who never discussed how he came to be branded a criminal. The three men were discussing how they themselves would band together and finish the work the young heroes had begun. They noticed that Faruq had distanced himself from his siblings and deduced that the young sha’ir was determined to go on its own. They resolved to help him…and make sure Auntie would not face another death of one of hers. Faruq was extremely grateful for their promise of assistance.
Near the end of the funeral reception, there was a suspicious-looking, veiled woman who lingered behind, waiting to get a private audience with Faruq. Suspicious, the older adventurers joined him. When she was certain that they could not be overheard, the woman revealed herself to be Yasmi al-Datma, wife of the Grand Caliph. Faruq recognized her right away from his encounter with her and Princess Tanya bint Perijan back in the city of Wasat. Once she ascertained that the newcomers could also be trusted, she explained why she was there.
During one of their secret excursions, this time to the dangerous city of Kadarasto, they ran afoul of the strong criminal element of the city. Separated from each other, the women found themselves fighting for their lives. Yasmi had not prepared a great many combat spells, and decided to use her magic to flee and gather reinforcements to come back and rescue Tanya.
She explained to the group that, having already discovered of their illicit excursions, Yasmi decided upon the Orphans to be her rescue team. She also emphasized that, to spare embarrassment to the Golden Throne, the entire mission must be kept a secret. She demanded that the heroes be ready to leave the next day; while she was reasonably certain that the criminal gang did not realize exactly who they held hostage, she knew it was only a matter of time.
The next day, the group teleported with Yasmi to a circle she had secretly placed in a shop in Kadarasto, near where the abduction had taken place. The Caliph’s wife remarked that she had many such circles in cities around Zakhara, making her excursions with Tanya as varied as possible. Venturing into the city, they eventually came across the criminals who had kidnapped the Grand Caliph’s Favoured Wife. In the chaos that ensued, Yasmi escaped with Tanya, leaving the adventurers to find shelter in the city. Faruq opened the package that Yasmi had given him; within was a note apologizing for how things went, and a promise to retrieve them as soon as possible. As well, there were 4 vials of liquid that were to be ingested if the heroes decided to flee into the Grey Jungle as she suggested; they were to help ward off the Grey Fever that explorers often faced when traversing within the area.
Eventually, the heroes were discovered by a rival gang to the one they had initially encountered. Securing from them (through the use of magic) a promise to find and return a specific relic from the Old Empires to them, the criminals smuggled the heroes out of Kadarasto.
Wandering in the Grey Jungle for days, the heroes started succumbing to the Grey Fever, Yasmi‘s efforts notwithstanding. Fate smiled upon them, however, in the form of a beautiful couatl named Taj who healed them of their wounds and cured them of the fever. In return, Taj asked them to accompany him to the one he served, King Sharaman. Feeling indebted to the couatl, they agreed.
Taj led them through the jungle, where they had several encounters, including one with warrior-wights they would later learn had escaped from the Necromancers of Ysawis. Eventually, Taj brought them to the Doors of Shajar, where a damn used to force the Abdo river into a reservoir of a now-lost city. Today, only two gargantuan statues of Shajar remained, a hint of what the ancient empire was like. About a mile past the imposing ruins, Taj led them to a cave, warning off the giant snakes that served as guardians. His task done, Taj asked the heroes to enter the cave and attend to King Sharaman.
The King, it turned out, was a benevolent Serpent Lord; a snake with the head of a kindly old man atop the body of a large snake. Atop his forehead was a brilliant stone, shining like a diamond. The Serpent Lord explained how he was dying, and that he needed the stone atop his head (which contained all the memories of his life) to be touched to the headstone in the Temple of the Serpentine Empress, deep in the heart of the jungle. Additionally, he asked that his brain be removed and brought, along with a gallon of holy water, to his daughter and successor Sharamaz. The heroes accepted to perform this pilgrimage for King Sharaman.
The Serpent Lord died soon afterwards, and the heroes fled the scene, fearing the wrath of all the serpents mad with grief. Now immune to the Grey Fever, they travelled weeks through the jungle to reach their destination, the Temple of the Serpentine Empress. It was not what they expected; it had been defiled beyond description by the Cult of Ragarra. Inside, a priestess of the cult, Anaiz, was tearing the remains of the temple apart, searching for its magical treasure. She was served by many seggeran; crocodile-headed humanoids who used to be humans but became perverted through the magic of the cult. After a pitched battle, the heroes defeated their foes, killing Anaiz in the process.
After the dust of the battle had settled, they touched the stone from King Sharaman to its counterpart on a huge serpent lord statue in the main hall. Several miraculous things happened next: The temple and surrounding land was immediately cleansed and reconsecrated. Secondly, a huge monument rose from the earth in the outer courtyard, bearing King Sharaman’s name and epitaph, to join the others that represented previous serpent lords of the temple. Finally, a secret compartment in the statue (now revealed to be solid gold) opened, providing the group with the treasure of the temple.
The group took their rest for a day within the confines of the temple. Dozens of snakes of all sizes began to congregate around them; through Kal‘s primal magic, they were able to understand that the serpents meant them no harm, were exceedingly grateful for what they had done, and wished them luck on the last part of their journey. Now that the well provided holy water again, the heroes drew some to go with Sharaman’s brain to bring to his daughter.
As they journeyed to the location of Sharamaaz, a place called ‘The Leaning Towers,’ the group had to cross the mighty Nogaro river. As they tried to do so, they were beset by three giant crocodiles; the beasts had a fiendish intelligence and a woman’s voice could be heard from their mouths, demanding vengeance. The heroes would prevail, however, and eventually reached their destination.
‘The Leaning Towers’ seemed appropriately named: Nine massive towers, once tall and majestic, now cracked and corroded by the merciless humidity. Many seemed like they would topple over at the slightest touch. The whole area was basically swallowed up by the jungle. However, beneath the ruins in cavernous cellars was Sharamaaz. Attended by several snake servants, she greeted the heroes graciously, thanking them for undertaking her father’s pilgrimage. She then asked for her father’s talisman to be touched to her own, the dim light from the former transferring to the latter. Caught up in the reverie, Sharamaaz did not regain her awareness for a full day.
While they were waiting, the heroes did some evaluation of their surroundings, trying to ascertain the origins of the Leaning Towers. Using magic and Faruq‘s ability to read all languages, they discovered some magical runes and a prophetic riddle, written in Kadari:
Our proud lions vanquished here,
Sorrow for our fallen friends.
Eight of Nine we’ll never fear,
Buried where the walls descend.
Our proud lions come once more,
Sorrow for their fallen friends.
Ninth of Nine will fear restore,
When in Tadabbur descend.