Wednesday, November 22, 2017

[Pathfinder] Wrath of the Righteous, part 22: The Desecrated Chapel

Recap: The Crusader army from Kenabres had set out for the demon-controlled city of Drezen in an effort to recover the banner known as the Sword of Valor at the behest of Queen Galfrey of Mendev. On route they rescued a group of Crusader survivors and overcome a morale problem caused by a veteran who had lost his faith. After battling through various demonic enemies, they suffered a late-night infiltration by an incubus who caused many of the paladins to desert their posts and seriously wounded Asami.

Player-Characters (character level 6th, mythic tier - 1st):
Aegronius - male half-elf slayer
Asami - female elf wizard from Tian-Xia
  - Kirara - Asami's familiar, a white cat
Jiro - male human shaman from Tian-Xia
  - Bohgong/Uncle - Jiro's spirit animal, a white monkey inhabited by the spirit of Jiro's ancestor
Runa - female half-orc warpriest of Iomedae
Zosta - female human barbarian brawler

Major NPCs:
Anevia Tirabade - female human archer, spouse of Irabeth
Irabeth Tirabade - female half-orc paladin of Iomedae, spouse of Anevia
Aravashnial - male elf wizard Runewarden
Aron Kir - male human human low templar
Sosiel Vaenic - male human cleric of Shelyn 
Horgus Gwerm - male human noble from Kenabres
Nurah Dendiwhar - female halfling bard

Following the nighttime attack on the Crusaders' encampment, several members of the leadership group noticed Nurah shooting daggers with her eyes at Runa. The presence of small size footprints outside the camp had led Runa to initially assume that Nurah had somehow betrayed her companions, and Nurah was clearly unhappy about the accusation Runa had made against her.

To prevent their enemies from attacking again, Irabeth tripled the number of men on sentry duty. A group of paladins used their divine healing ability to heal the injuries suffered by their leaders, especially Asami, who had been most sorely wounded. Afterward those men were not placed on duty in order to allow them to replenish their magic with rest and prayer. The rest of the group decided it would be wisest to rest as much as they could and restore their own magic rather than leaving after dawn to continue their journey toward Drezen.

Sosiel had told them that it was possible the ruined chapel at the top of the cliff might have a hidden store of goods they could use, and once everyone was rested and replenished they decided that it would be worthwhile to visit the chapel. Irabeth and Sosiel planned not only to search for the stash Sosiel mentioned but to clear and try to re-consecrate the chapel. Aron explained that in the aftermath of the First Crusade the area around Drezen had been dotted with chapels and shrines to various gods, all of them now fallen into disrepair and demonic infestation.

The atmosphere surrounding the party when they set off in the early afternoon was still unpleasant as they made their way to the staircase carved into the cliff face. The sky overhead was dark and tinted red. Asami and Jiro both found it particularly oppressive due to their affinity for the natural world. Kirara had not even peeked her head out of Asami's pack since being returned to the camp after her unwilling nighttime excursion. The rest of the army would not accompany the group to the chapel, instead going ahead to wait for them. Only Aron, Sosiel, Irabeth, and Nurah would accompany the five companions up to the chapel. Aron led the way to the stairs, which like the chapel had fallen into disrepair due to disuse. These narrow stairs ascended 90 feet up the cliff. Before the group started to climb, Asami surrounded herself with magical armor and Jiro cast a spell that would allow him to heal some of any injury to his companions. The steps proved challenging for some of the companions, especially to Asami, who slipped once and had to be hauled up on a rope by Zosta and then carried the rest of the way up by Runa. Even having Jiro grant her the counsel of his ancestors didn't help to make the climb less arduous for her.

At the top of the cliff they found the chapel surrounded by a courtyard full of rubble from broken statues, though surprisingly the stained glass windows were still intact. A stable stood off to their left, which Runa suggested they investigate first in case any demonic creatures had taken up residence in it. Bohgong picked up a piece of bone from the ground that appeared to be of non-humanoid origin. Jiro examined it and determined that it had been gnawed by some creature within the past few days, confirming Runa's worry that something still lived in or near the chapel. Jiro readied his morningstar. As he scanned the statues that lined the eaves of the chapel, he noticed something peculiar about some of them. Five or six of them didn't appear to belong there, their iconography incorrect for the deities they portrayed. When he pointed this out to his comrades, Runa loaded her heavy crossbow and fired at one statue that Jiro pointed out as wrong. The bolt bounced off the statue, but Runa observed that the 'statue' next to it flinched.

Zosta took a few steps back, preparing to make a running leap at the chapel roof, just as three of the statues transformed into gargoyles and swooped down from the rooftop, diving toward Jiro, Runa, and Asami. The gargoyle that aimed at Asami pounced on her with its muzzle and claws, biting and slashing. Zosta redirected her leap to land on the gargoyle, grappling it with her arms and legs and bashing it with her bladed gauntlets. Asami stepped away from the gargoyle and hurled her wooden spear at it but the spear went wide. She felt Jiro's energy heal some of the wounds the gargoyle had dealt her. Irabeth stepped up to attack the gargoyle nearest to Runa, while Runa cast a strengthening spell on herself and exchanged her crossbow for her sword. Nurah began to sing an encouraging song to bolster her companions. Aron and Sosiel joined Zosta in focusing on the gargoyle that had attacked Asami. Seeing that all three of them were fighting that gargoyle, Asami turned and threw her spear at the gargoyle that threatened Jiro, though once again it couldn't penetrate the gargoyle's stony hide. Jiro re-positioned himself so that he, Irabeth, and Runa could flank the creature.

At that moment another creature flew into the area and approached Jiro. This creature was nothing like the gargoyles. Instead it presented itself as a severed head, trailing entrails behind it as it floated along. These dangling organs wrapped themselves around Jiro's neck and began attempting to force their way into his mouth! Runa immediately tried to strike this monstrosity with her sword, but it was difficult to see and when she slashed at where she thought the head was her blade met only air. While Jiro struggled with the strangling entrails, the gargoyle also attacked him. Asami drew out a wand and fired three tiny missiles of force at the head, but to her shock the monster's tongue reached out and lapped them up like tasty morsels.

The combined might of Aron, Sosiel, and Zosta had eliminated the gargoyle they fought, and they now all moved to attack the other two gargoyles. Zosta told the two men to help Asami and ran to pummel the gargoyle behind Runa. Asami directed her missiles at one of the gargoyles, while the foul monster continued forcing its disgusting appendages down Jiro's throat. He had by this time realized that this creature was not native to Mendev or the Worldwound - it was a monster more likely to be found near his homeland in Tian-Xia, a creature called a penanngalan that would attempt to take control of his body if it could. But with its entrails in his mouth he was unable to communicate any of this to his friends.

Aron and Sosiel pounded the gargoyle beside Runa into a heap of stony dust. Irabeth attempted to smite the penanngalan with divine power, but its blurred appearance prevented her blade from connecting with it. At the same time, the monster appeared to become more robust, as if it had absorbed her divine magic to strengthen itself. Nurah tried to help Jiro free himself by casting a spell on him to cause his body to become covered in grease. Asami shouted to Aron that he should keep the remaining gargoyle away so she could help Jiro. She then ran toward him. Irabeth swung her blade at the penanngalan again and this time struck its flesh, but those closest to her saw it again absorb her magic and grow stronger. Jiro's face had grown pale at the same time, his eyes rolling back and his flesh appearing emaciated. Nurah moved closer to him, casting a spell that removed some of the harm the thing had done him. Asami attempted to dispel the effect that made the monster so difficult to hit, but failed. Bohgong began pulling on the penanngalan's entrails, trying to remove them from Jiro. Irabeth struck it again and it grew stronger. Runa moved closer and cast a spell on Jiro to give him greater endurance so he could better resist it. Then Jiro used the end of his lamp pole, which he still held, to write in the dirt beside him that the creature was susceptible to cold. He wrote in the characters used in Tian-Xia, so only Asami could read it, but she quickly shared the information with her companions. She had only one spell prepared that could do cold damage, so she sent a ray of frost-coated leaves at the thing, but its magical protection caused her spell to fail to find a target. Then Jiro mimed at her and wrote in the dirt that someone should use a spell to cause his body to transform into a gas. Asami had no such spell prepared though she knew of it. Using the divine inspiration of Iomedae, she was able to recall the spell and cast it on Jiro. But to her horror, both Jiro and the penanngalan became gaseous!

The penanngalan began to float away. Jiro, now free of its grasp, thanked Asami. The rest of the group all began to attack the monster before it could escape. Asami dismissed her spell, causing Jiro and the creature to assume their solid forms, and Jiro summoned a tetsubo of energy. As it attacked, the penanngalan tried to grab at Jiro with her tongue but missed him while his weapon struck her. The monster then released the three missiles she had been holding in her mouth at Asami, all of them striking her unerringly. Then the monster floated away, ascending too high for any of the group to hit her and disappearing from sight before Runa could reload her crossbow.

When the creature had gone, Jiro was able to recall more about it. He realized that this was not a typical penanngalan, but one of a special variety that was not an undead creature and was also capable of creating more of its kind. When he explained this to his companions they all shuddered in revulsion at the thought of such a hideous creature on the loose. They could only hope that it would not return to trouble them again.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

[Movie Review] Thor: Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Starring: Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner/Hulk), Cate Blanchett (Hela), Anthony Hopkins (Odin), Tessa Thompson (Valkyrie), Jeff Goldblum (Grandmaster), Idris Elba (Heimdall), Karl Urban (Skurge), Taika Waititi (Korg)
Directed by: Taika Waititi

Thor: Ragnarok is the 3rd film starring Thor as its main protagonist, and the 16th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Chronologically it follows Doctor Strange in the sequence of films. It's also the funniest film in a series of films that have all included humor as part of the mix. But Thor: Ragnarok goes all-in for the humor, though it manages not to focus on humor at the expense of everything else. It also manages to include a lot of a much-admired comic series, Planet Hulk, and gives us a nice Marvel Universe version of Norse mythology to boot.

If you've seen all of the trailers Marvel released for this film, you could be forgiven for thinking they'd given away the entire plot. But you would be wrong. As it turns out, many of the scenes in the trailers don't appear in the movie at all. Between the release of the first trailer and the final cut of the film, some creative decisions were made that caused director Taika Waititi to discard some of those scenes. Sometimes it was to maintain the movie's humorous tone. Other times it was to keep the focus on Thor. Waititi is best known for a couple of independent comedy films, What We Do In the Shadows and The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, but he seems perfectly comfortable with taking on a big special-effects extravaganza like this and stepping into the massive entertainment machine that is the Marvel/Disney partnership. I give much respect to Marvel for being willing to try different directors with different backgrounds.

The film takes Thor on a journey of self-discovery. He finds out some things about himself that his father Odin had kept hidden from him until the time was right, as well as things about Odin and the history of Asgard that put a different spin on the place of Asgard as the protector of the Nine Realms. But before Thor makes those discoveries, he has to figure out how to escape the Grandmaster's gladiatorial arena on the planet Sakaar, as well as how to get the Hulk to turn back into Bruce Banner and how to persuade Valkyrie to remember her roots as one of the legendary warriors of Asgard. He also has to decide what to do about Loki, who since the end of Thor: The Dark World has been masquerading as the missing Odin and living a life of self-indulgence.

Although Loki isn't the focus of the story, he has an arc of self-discovery too, as he realizes that his whole purpose has been to get Thor's attention, and Thor no longer cares what Loki does so Loki will have to seek out a different motivation for his actions. Defining this situation involves a couple of very amusing scenes between Thor and Loki, including one in which Thor literally uses Loki as a weapon, throwing him at several foes (this is not a spoiler if you've seen the trailers). This new relationship between the brothers may make Loki a less effective villain for the MCU, but I'm expecting that Loki is going to switch sides, at least temporarily, when confronted by Thanos in the next Avengers film.

The Hulk/Bruce Banner and Valkyrie both have small arcs of their own as well. By the time Thor finds Hulk on Sakaar starring in Grandmaster's games, he hasn't returned to his Banner form for a very long time, and he's started to develop beyond the non-verbal destruction machine of the previous films. The interaction between Thor and the newly verbal Hulk is pretty entertaining. Hulk is like a child in an enormously powerful body, and he's enjoying his success as the champion of the gladiatorial games. Banner's confusion when he finally returns and finds himself on an alien planet is also pretty amusing. Valkyrie is initially just one of Grandmaster's flunkies, bringing him new candidates for the games. But Thor finally convinces her to return to her original role as a defender of Asgard, after which she reveals that while she may not be a goddess, she's definitely a badass. Unfortunately, because this is a movie about Thor, not about Valkyrie, there isn't an opportunity to explore that she is older than Thor and knows a lot of history that he was never told. Hopefully that will be remedied a little in one of the upcoming films, if there's time.

The movie even manages to give a small character arc to the new character Skurge, a minor Asgardian warrior who finds himself seconded by Hela and has to choose whether to go on being a nobody and staying alive, or be willing to fight for something bigger than himself.

One of the things I liked best about Thor: Ragnarok, besides the humor, is the fight scene between Thor and Hulk. They've fought before in The Avengers, but this time Thor's power seems to have ramped up even without his trusty hammer Mjolnir, and he's more than a match for the big green rage machine. It's fun to see him shown as a consummate warrior who's capable of taking down the Hulk.

If I had to complain about anything in this film, it's that the characters and the audience don't get time to grieve for the lost characters. SPOILER ALERT: Odin and the Warriors Three, Thor's comrades-in-arms, all die in this movie, but there's no time to take a moment and feel the sorrow. As soon as Odin's gone, Hela shows up and the main action starts, depriving Thor and Loki of any opportunity to react to Odin's demise. I've read that the Warriors Three were slain to show just how ruthless Hela is, but I would have liked to see Thor learning of their deaths and showing a moment of grief for them. Even at the end of the film, there's no time for grief; as soon as Thor accepts his new role as leader of the Asgardian refugees, he's confronted with another enemy (probably Thanos) and doesn't have time to suggest a moment of silence or some type of ceremony to commemorate all the lives lost.

I also have to complain that although I was delighted by the cameo appearance from Doctor Strange (the same scene that was teased by the mid-credits sequence in Doctor Strange), I would really have liked to have a dialogue scene between Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston. But I guess I'll just have to wait for one of the upcoming Infinity War films to see that (I hope).

Today I discovered a really insightful review of Thor: Ragnarok online, which I would highly recommend to anyone looking for an in-depth examination of the theme of this movie. You can find it here on Wisecrack. While it's subtle about it, Thor: Ragnarok has a lot to say about issues that are very prominent in our current political situation, where certain people have concluded, like Hela, that reverting society back to a prior state will make our country great again.

Despite the film glossing over the death toll, I found it highly entertaining and felt that the humor didn't detract from either the character development or the dramatic tension. It isn't just a loud, funny, mindless blockbuster. It has a point to make, and it manages to still make it even while it pokes fun at itself. Thor: Ragnarok is well worth seeing.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

[Movie Review] Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange (2016)

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch (Stephen Strange), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Mordo), Tilda Swinton (The Ancient One), Benedict Wong (Wong), Mads Mikkesen (Kaecilius), Rachel McAdams (Dr. Christine Palmer), Michael Stuhlbarg (Dr. Nicodemus West), Benjamin Bratt (Jonathan Pangborn)
Directed by: Scott Derrickson

I don't know why I didn't review Doctor Strange after I initially saw it in theaters, but I'm making up for that oversight now, having just re-watched the film (it literally finished 5 minutes ago).

I've read some other reviews of this film that accuse it of being a re-hash of Iron Man. That claim isn't entirely without merit. Both films tell the story of a brilliant but arrogant man who nearly dies, which gives him a new view of life. Each man then finds a way to give himself power and becomes a hero to defend the people. But the paths these two characters take to their heroic destinies are quite different.

Dr. Stephen Strange is a brilliant neurosurgeon who treats medicine as an opportunity to display his brilliance. The movie never shows him interacting with one of his patients. I'm pretty sure he does that as little as possible. Once he's done his work, people don't interest him anymore. He's full of pride, and he refuses to accept patients whose problems aren't treatable or won't bring him acclaim and admiration from his peers. But so much of his sense of personal worth is invested in his ability to perform surgery that when a serious car accident deprives him of the effective use of his hands, he feels like his life is over. He sacrifices every dime he has, every relationship, in an effort to find a medical cure, before a patient he once rejected leads him to a mystical option. Even then he's so arrogantly certain of his knowledge that he almost rejects the option he's worked so hard to find.

Once Strange has finally accepted that there are things beyond his scientific knowledge, he's still determined to pursue only his goal of recovering his ability to perform surgery. It takes a terrible threat to humanity to convince him that there's a another way for him to make a difference. But first he has to learn how to stop being afraid of failure, and be reminded that he is a doctor and he took an oath to do no harm.

I think that last detail is the biggest difference between Doctor Strange and Iron Man. Strange was a doctor before he became Sorcerer Supreme (though he doesn't gain that title during this movie). I feel like the Marvel creative team are going to focus on that idea that Strange is a doctor, trying to heal or act as prevention rather than being a more aggressive protector like Iron Man and the Avengers. What prompts him to accept his new role is a desire to protect, while Tony Stark's initial motivation for becoming Iron Man is to save himself and gain revenge. Tony Stark is also somewhat self-aggrandizing about his heroic role; he reveals to the world that he's Iron Man and seeks out publicity and attention. I suspect that Doctor Strange will keep his role out of the public eye and maintain a low profile. But I suppose we'll have to wait for the next Doctor Strange film to find out.

There are a lot of things to like about Doctor Strange. It doesn't shy away from the psychedelic qualities of the Steve Ditko-illustrated comics it's inspired by. It isn't afraid of its mystical roots; they don't try to come up with a detailed scientific explanation of how magic works. Benedict Cumberbatch exudes his usual charm in the role, though I wish they'd let him speak in his natural accent instead of a forced "generic American" accent, that occasionally weakens a bit when he pushes it too hard. Mads Mikkelsen is his usual brilliant self as the villain Kaecilius, and he's a nice foil for Strange as he believes that what he's doing is for the good of the people of Earth. Chiwetel Ejiofor is also excellent as Mordo, and the film does a good job of setting him up to become a future villain as he is in the comics.

The Ancient One, Strange's teacher and mentor and the Sorcerer Supreme of Earth for the duration of the film, is a problematic character. In the comics the character is a stereotypical Asian mystic, written without sensitivity to ethnicity or history. The Marvel film execs wanted to get away from that, so they decided to make the Ancient One female. I'm a big fan of Tilda Swinton, so I'm naturally disposed to enjoy her in the part. But at the same time, I wish they had kept the character Asian. I would have liked to see Michelle Yeoh as the Ancient One, or perhaps some Asian actress I don't know as well. I'm sure many other people could have done as well as  Swinton. Maybe since they decided to place Kamar-taj in Nepal, they could have chosen an actor from that part of the world. That would have been a nice change from the predominantly white Marvel films.

Despite my misgivings about casting a white actor in the role, Swinton has one of my favorite scenes in the film, when she and Strange carry out a conversation about life and mortality while in astral form. Swinton has always had a fey quality about her, and that works well in the role of an ancient, ageless master sorcerer with the ability to see through time and into other dimensions.

Other things I like about this movie: the way they set up Strange's personality without spending too much time giving the audience exposition; several later call-backs to the introductory scene of Strange and his obsession with music; the magic effects; the fact they actually went to Nepal to film some of the Kamar-taj scenes for versimilitude; the astral form combat between Strange and one of Kaecilius' followers, and Strange's later dismay at having used his magic to take a human life; and the clever way that Strange uses his magical powers to overcome the uber-villain Dormammu without actually fighting him. Oh, and of course the mid-credits scene tying Strange into the larger Marvel cinematic universe by introducing him to Thor. I'm really looking forward to seeing more of Doctor Strange in other Marvel films. I think they've done well by this character.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

[Pathfinder] Mummy's Mask, part 21: Quest for a Queen

Character level: 9th

After parting from the scorpion-woman and the disturbing monument she guarded, the Ruby Scarabs spent the next three days searching the badlands of the Parched Dunes. On the third day they glimpsed a roughly hexagonal-shaped structure ahead, which curiously seemed organic in nature. This structure stood perhaps a hundred feet wide and twenty to thirty feet tall. Though the rest of the Scarabs thought they ought to bypass it since it couldn't be the tomb they sought, Uto argued that they should take a closer look as Chisisek's tomb might be hidden behind or beneath it.

As the party approached the strange structure, they heard a buzzing sound and then saw six creatures flying toward them. Two of these creatures proved to be giant bees, while the other four were winged women whose anatomy was a mixture of humanoid and bee. These arrivals immediately appeared hostile, three of the bee-women wielding longbows and the fourth carrying a glaive. One of the women fired on Azzaria. Uto began to fly and cast a spell in an attempt to parley with the attackers but his magic seemed to have no effect on them. The woman with the glaive swallowed a potion and began to perform a kind of flying dance, which seemed to bolster the morale of her comrades. Meanwhile the two giant bees moved to attack Igby and Nyema. Nyema was stung and let out a snarl of pain. Sula called fire to her hands and hurled it at the bee, while Nyema snapped and clawed at it. Kaa joined Uto in flight, sweeping an arrow aside with his hand as the bee-women fired on him.

Sula and Nyema slew the giant bee and one of the bee-women flew toward them to attack. Nyema leaped up on a rocky outcrop and pounced at the woman, catching hold of her leg and raking her victim with her claws. One of the other bee-women had moved toward Uto, who had been absorbing injuries from his companions and had taken refuge behind a rock to heal himself. Sula hurled a handful of flames at the bee-woman. The woman with the glaive unsuccessfully attempted to cast a spell on Kaa and an enraged Azzaria to make them stop fighting. Uto cast a spell on one of the bee-women, causing her belly to distend and her jaws to grow protruding teeth. She started to turn toward the woman with the glaive, an expression of insatiable hunger on her face, but before she could do more Azzaria vaulted at her from a rock outcrop and sliced her in two with her sword. Kaa meanwhile blasted the spellcasting bee-woman with electricity, followed by a stream of acid. Uto subjected his nearest attacker to a spell that burned her with both fire and acid, and Nyema's opponent stopped struggling and fell to the ground. The woman with the glaive had just fallen to Kaa's magic, and this last surviving warrior abandoned the fight and began to fly back toward the hexagonal structure.

Uto handed a wand to Sula so she could heal the injuries suffered by Nyema and Kaa. He himself drank a potion, while Kaa and Azzaria searched the bodies of the bee-women, taking the glaive and three powerful longbows. Igby claimed one of the bows. Then the group moved forward to the structure. They had to climb up seventy-five feet to the entrance. The interior was divided into hexagonal shapes like a honeycomb, but parts of the waxy interior had clearly been damaged by fire and the Scarabs saw several arrows embedded in the walls. Beyond a thin barrier they could see something that appeared to be a humanoid creature wearing a shiny mask that seemed very familiar.

They were not alone in the hive. A bee-woman carrying a uraeus staff stood there, glaring angrily at the Scarabs. She was accompanied by several other bee-women whose appearance was more insect-like than hers. The woman demanded to know if the Scarabs had come to finish what they had done. After some conversation, Uto managed to convince her that they were not associated with the people who had attacked the thriae hive and were in fact enemies of those people. The thriae woman, who explained that she was the seer of her people, told the Scarabs that the Forgotten Pharaoh cultists had carried of the queen larva from the thriae hive, and that they could use the larva to start a thriae hive of their own under their control. The Scarabs immediately offered to go and rescue the larva. The seer, Zerah, told them that her prophetic visions had told her the cultists had taken the larva to a valley in the north. She also agreed to have one of the workers remove the cultist's corpse from storage, where it was being kept to feed other larvae, so the Scarabs could examine if for information about the cultists' plans. Azzaria searched the body, finding a still-intact pouch containing a potion and four spell scrolls. The corpse also wore a magical cloak, and was carrying a note which read, "Take men south to meet Jamirah and return her to the sphinx."

Zerah then gave the Scarabs two gourds filled with a substance called merope, which they could give to the queen larva to keep it healthy. After promising to return the queen larva if they could, the Ruby Scarabs set out to the north to find the cultists. As they made their way across the sands the following day, the ground suddenly exploded and then collapsed beneath Igby and Azzaria. Azzaria managed to catch herself to avoid plunging into the ensuing pit, but Igby wasn't so fortunate. From the bottom of the pit emerged a many-legged large creature with toothy insectoid jaws, a creature called a shalkeshka.

The shalkeshka grabbed Azzaria and she began to rage. Kaa scorched it with his flames. Sula ordered Nyema to attack the creature, but before the lioness could leap into the pit, a second pit opened up as a second shalkeshka emerged, and Sula fell into the second depression. The second shalkeshka bit Nyema and grasped hold of her. Wanting to get out of the pit, Sula transformed herself into a large eagle. Nyema snapped and clawed at the beast. Uto summoned two ancestral guardians to attack the shalkeshka that held Azzaria. Igby joined in attacking it and it collapsed. The second shalkeshka suddenly released Nyema and burrowed through the wall between the two pits to attack the slayers of what was presumably its mate. Before it could disappear Nyema pounced on it, biting and clawing, then slid off its back and fell on her side as it leaped out from under her. Kaa also scorched it with his flames before it could slip through to the other pit. 

Azzara stopped raging as Uto used his divine magic to heal her. Kaa sent fire at the shalkeshka again and the second one collapsed beside its mate. When both creatures were dead, the Scarabs found that the shalkeshas had slain other people in the past, and the remains of their possessions were buried in the sand at the bottom of the creatures' nest. The Scarabs recovered potions, scrolls, coins and gems.

Once they had recovered from their wounds, the Scarabs found tracks in the desert. They soon approached a narrow canyon with very high walls. It would have made a good site for an ambush. Sula encouraged her companions to let her fly over the canyon in eagle form to scout it out. They waited near the mouth of the canyon as she carried out her reconnaissance.

The canyon led her to an area so narrow that Nyema would have difficulty passing through it. She saw no cultists sanding guard before that point, but beyond it she spotted a giant standing guard. She also saw a two-story structure flanked by large statues, and positioned on a ledge between the top of the walls and the floor of the canyon stood a pyramid. Two extremely narrow unsupported stone bridges extended from the opposite canyon walls to the pyramid's location. There was an opening in one wall of the pyramid, with rubble beneath it that implied it hadn't been part of the pyramid's original structure. Sula perched for a little while above the pyramid, watching cultists going about their activities below. After observing this, Sula returned to her comrades to report what she had found. The Ruby Scarabs then decided to camp for the night and approach the pyramid the next day when they could be prepared with magic to face the cultists and their allies.

[Pathfinder] Mummy's Mask, part 20: Slavers and Scorpions

When Uto had completed the ritual to begin his new life path, he returned to his companions and the sphinx bid them farewell. The Ruby Scarabs then spent a little time examining the items they had found in the Jackal Pharaoh’s tomb. In addition to a magical headband, they had also found an enchanted rope that would carry an extraordinary amount of weight and could be commanded to anchor or release itself.

The Scarabs then set off once again on their search for the burial place of Chisisek, following the dwindling stream that led away from the ruined pharaonic tomb. Only half a day had passed when at midday they spotted smoke from a campfire rising over a rocky outcrop ahead. As they drew nearer to the location they could see several gnolls in an encampment, and hyenas on watch. Kaa crept closer and spotted a group of a dozen or so people who all appeared to be tied together with ropes. Clearly the gnolls were slavers transporting their captives.

The other members of the Scarabs had wanted to approach the gnoll camp openly and assume no unfriendly intent, but when Kaa went forward they abandoned that plan. Sula brought Nyema out and transformed herself into a lioness, and the two of them trotted toward the largest rock outcrop where the slaves were gathered. Uto began to fly toward the camp. The hyenas on watch howled and yelped at the appearance of the Scarabs. Kaa emerged from behind a rock and sent a blast of draconic breath at one of the hyenas. Azzaria drew on her furious rage to give her speed and make her difficult to perceive, then rushed another hyena. A third hyena had begun to run forward toward the intruders, but retreated when it saw Sula and Nyema approaching.

A gnoll emerged from a tent and began to make spellcasting gestures. One of the other gnolls who had already been visible did the same. Two gnolls moved toward Kaa and Uto. Uto used his hair to grab one of the gnolls and then rose higher into the air, hovering seven times his own height above the ground as he struggled with the gnoll, who wielded a scimitar and kept trying to attack Uto with it despite being suspended so far above the sand.

The gnolls all had whips in addition to their scimitars, and one of them attempted to use his whip to trip Kaa, but Kaa deftly avoided the maneuver. Sula and Nyema climbed over the rocks seeking gnolls standing guard over the captives, but found that all of the gnolls had moved away from their prisoners to engage the Scarabs. The two lionesses then moved to join Azzaria against one of the gnolls near the tent, combining their attacks to bring down the slaver. Kaa pummeled his opponent until the gnoll dropped, and Uto finished the battle by dropping his foe, who didn’t move again after plummeting to the earth.

The freed slaves were all weak from their journey across the desert, and the Scarabs didn’t feel comfortable sending them off on their own to face the hazards of the Parched Dunes. The scarabs decided that after they had looted the bodies of the fallen gnolls they would escort the former captives to the nearest town of Ipeq. From the gnolls they acquired bottles of magical sand, chain shirts, scimitars, whips, a shortbow, and manacles. They then spent the next four days trekking to Ipeq with the freed prisoners. On arriving in Ipeq, Uto asked the city leaders and the temples to help the travelers. The Scarabs also gave five gold pieces to each person to help them return to their homes. While they were in Ipeq, Uto also sold the magical page of spell knowledge they had found in one of the libraries in Tephu, which had proved to be of no use to any of the Scarabs. Once this item and some of the loot from the gnolls had been sold, each of the Scarabs received a portion of gold. Sula also claimed one of the gnoll scimitars, which was of good quality.

Once the ex-slaves had been taken care of the Ruby Scarabs returned to the Parched Dunes and resumed their quest. As they were traveling through a rocky area they saw a rock that at first appeared to have been shaped by something other than natural forces, but closer examination proved that it was still a natural formation. Then they observed a large creature flying overhead, which Sula thought might be a roc.

As they entered an area of badlands, a tall spire of stone caught their attention. On the pinnacle of the spire was a shape that looked like a ship. This was so curious that the Scarabs decided to approach it for a better look. The spire appeared to be natural, but the object at its peak was in fact a genuine ship! The explorers couldn’t resist a closer look at a ship that had somehow landed in the desert on such a high perch. Kaa scampered up the spire like a monkey climbing a palm tree, while Sula transformed into a large eagle and flew up. Uto began to levitate up, grasping Azzaria with his hair to carry her.

Kaa reached the ship first, and found that the hulk of the ship was full of trees and other rubbish. All of this appeared to form a nest for an egg that had a shell large enough for a tall man to climb inside it. Kaa let the egg be and searched the ship for anything of use, finding a single glove and a brass lamp full of an unusually warm liquid. Assuming the glove to be magical, the tengu put it on. While he was searching, Sula spotted the roc approaching its nest. She swooped at it in an attempt to distract it from her companions, as Uto and Azzaria had also reached the ship by this point. The roc ignored her and headed straight for Azzaria, who was the most obvious of the Scarabs in the ship. Kaa breathed a blast of fire at the enormous bird, which it responded to by grasping him in one of its talons. Azzaria tried to intimidate the roc by threatening its egg with her weapons. Kaa pounded the bird with his fists while Uto grabbed Kaa’s foot with his hair in an effort to pull him free of the roc’s grip. The roc swooped over the nest, swinging Uto behind it in a wide arc by his prehensile hair, and at the same time it released Kaa and dove for Azzaria. Uto used the momentum of the roc’s swing to drop toward the ship. The bird’s attack on Azzaria was defeated when she created multiple images of herself to surround her. Kaa then breathed electricity at the bird. Sula continued diving at the roc in her eagle form, but she now sheathed her claws in electricity. Uto released his hair from Kaa, who had manifested his wings and begun to fly. Kaa then attempted to trigger the magic he believed the found glove held, but nothing happened. Azzaria and Sula both attacked the roc again, and Kaa gave up on the glove and sent a blast of flames at the bird. Azzaria was knocked off the ship in the midst of this, but Uto dove after her to catch her.

The combined attacks finally sent the roc plunging to the base of the spire in a heap. When it was gone the Scarabs decided to search the ship again, discovering a rod of dwarven craftsmanship, a fine silk shawl, a bejeweled fly whisk, and a sack containing a moderate amount of platinum and gold coins. Sula determined that the brass lamp and the glove were magical, but unfortunately for Kaa the glove needed its mate to function and the second glove was nowhere to be found. The rod was also magical but Sula was unable to determine what it did. When they had found everything of value in the ship the Scarabs harvested some meat from the dead roc, which Nyema found more than satisfactory.

Though the Scarabs knew that the roc egg was valuable, they had neither the desire to transport it to town to sell it nor any wish to make the fledgling roc into someone’s pet. They briefly considered hatching and raising it themselves but decided that would be too much effort. Then Uto proposed summoning a creature from one of the other planes to take it to some place where it could be hatched and released when it was fledged. Though Kaa still wanted to sell it, the rest of the group decided that they liked Uto’s suggestion. The following day he summoned a janni from Elysium and bargained with it to take care of the roc egg. The janni introduced itself as Mountain Wind. As Mountain Wind was about to depart it asked if the Scarabs would like to name the unhatched roc. Kaa then suggested it be called Sirocco.

When the roc egg was taken care of, the Scarabs used the high vantage of the nest to scout the area before setting off once again. As they were traveling, several members of the group noticed something odd: many scorpions were keeping pace with them, always remaining about the same distance away. Concerned by the presence of so many scorpions, Uto brought out some anti-vermin repellent he had brought. Then the Scarabs heard a feminine voice say, “This place is not for you.” When the Scarabs replied, the voice added that it guarded an ancient place. Uto then explained why they were in the desert, but there was no response from the voice. Instead the scorpions formed two parallel lines, as if delineating a path for the travelers to follow.

As the Scarabs passed an odd rock formation, they saw a flickering light ahead. They emerged into a sheltered area and saw before them an ancient obelisk carved in the style of the most ancient pharaohs of Osirion. Around this obelisk burned five different colored flames, four of which appeared to symbolize the four elements. Uto theorized that the fifth flame might represent life, or death, or both. Inside the circle of flames, against the base of the obelisk, was a heap of skulls. The skulls had been there so long and were so many that those on the bottom of the heap had been crushed to dust by the other skulls piled atop them.

Uto took out his magical tablet to interpret the ancient hieroglyphics inscribed on the obelisk. As he did this, a woman emerged over the rise of a low hill lying on the opposite side of the strange monument. She appeared almost human but her features were unusually angular. As the Scarabs watched the rest of the woman’s figure came over the rise and they saw that below the waist her body was that of a scorpion as large as a horse. Uto and Azzaria began to explain that the Scarabs were searching for Chisisek’s tomb and Uto even told the scorpion-woman about the mask he wore. When he finished, she scornfully remarked that creatures such as the Ruby Scarabs were too short-lived to be responsible for such a powerful artifact, and demanded that Uto hand the mask over to her for safekeeping.

When Uto replied that he wasn’t willing to give her the mask, she began to chant a spell, which Sula recognized would summon something. Sula called out a warning to her companions. Azzaria then became enraged and charged at the scorpion-woman. As she passed the obelisk she felt a sense of doom emanating from it, but her fury prevented it from affecting her. Her charge disrupted the scorpion-woman’s spell. The small scorpions that had escorted the Scarabs into this place had all vanished, replaced by two giant scorpions as large as the woman but lacking her human-like features. Sula conjured two balls of lightning and sent them at one of the giant scorpions. One scorpion moved to attack Uto, who transformed into a living statue of stone and flew toward the woman.

Kaa tumbled past one of the giant scorpions and aimed a blast of electricity at both of them. Both scorpions crumpled, their limbs drawing up and stingers falling limp on the sand. Sula moved toward the woman, directing her spheres of lightning toward the same target. Through the mask, Uto could see that Azzaria’s attacks and the effects of the lightning were doing her considerable harm. He told her that she should stop, that she didn’t have to die, but she retorted that his words did not match his actions and continued to fight Azzaria with the spear she wielded. Sula directed Nyema to move to the woman’s opposite side, flanking her. Uto again urged the woman to surrender, telling her that he didn’t want to destroy another guardian, but she refused and aimed her spear, claw, and stinger at him. He fell, and at the same moment two talismans he wore shattered. Kaa then rushed in and dealt the woman a blow that stunned her.

Uto rose to his feet again and channeled the healing power of the gods both for himself and for the scorpion-woman. She seemed surprised that the Scarabs hadn’t slain her, but she warned Uto that their rashness would not help them. Uto took a moment to look at the obelisk and realized that it might be a seal, sealing away something very evil, possibly even one of the evil gods that had long ago vanished from knowledge. The Scarabs heard the sound of drums from a distance. The woman had called out several times in a strange language none of them understood, and they suspected she had called for reinforcements. They decided to leave the same way that they had come before her reinforcements could arrive. As they departed from the obelisk, Uto channeled more divine energy into himself, and the scorpion-woman called out to him in warning, “Take care in the ancient places.”

Next: part 21, Quest for a Queen

Monday, October 2, 2017

[Pathfinder] Mummy's Mask, part 19: Tomb of the Jackal Pharaoh

(Previous session retconned to include Igby on the barge.)

The Ruby Scarabs spent more than a week in the company of Azzaria's adopted tribe, learning of the dangers and mysteries to be found among the Parched Dunes. When they reached the point at which they must part from the hospitable nomads, the Scarabs followed a stream toward their ultimate destination. Uto fortified them for their journey by summoning a bountiful banquet for them to dine on each morning, while Sula cast spells to relieve them of some of the effects of desert heat and hide their tracks from pursuing cultists.

The Scarabs hadn't been following the stream long when they heard singing and a shadow passed overhead. When they looked up they realized the shadow was that of a sphinx, this one of the female variety rather than a male like the sphinx that had aided the cultists in their attack on the Golden Ibis. The singing sphinx circled them, then flew off toward the east and appeared to land. Uto was eager to follow her, so the Scarabs headed to the east.

When they reached the spot where the sphinx had landed, they were surprised to find an ancient structure standing in the middle of the marshy stream bed, its wooden doors long rotted away. The sphinx had perched on the roof of this decaying building, which by its style and decoration appeared to a be tomb. Kaa recognized the architectural details as those of a very long-ago period, more than 7,000 years prior to the current date. In front of the door stood two frames made of bone with fox or jackal hides stretched over them. Uto identified these as fetishes to ward off evil, and Sula determined that they hadn't been there long. Azzaria respectfully greeted the sphinx, who had continued to sing while the Scarabs approached. The sphinx then spoke in her native tongue, which only Kaa and Uto could understand. Uto then asked for her help to achieve his goal of becoming a tomb guardian, while Kaa translated for the others. The sphinx gave a reply that Uto took to mean he must go into the ancient tomb and perhaps get something or complete some task on the sphinx's behalf. Azzaria asked her if she was the sphinx that had sent Azzaria's tribe to the river, to which she responded she had been tasked to "bring two together who had been parted." When Kaa asked her by whom she had been tasked she declined to answer, saying, "You are not ready to know."

When this conversation had concluded, the Scarabs approached the open door of the tomb. It led into a short hallway, which opened into a wide gallery. A set of intact double doors with no visible means of opening stood at the opposite side. The walls were carved in relief, but the water flowing into the tomb had caused mold to grow, hiding the designs. The Scarabs could barely make out an image of a jackal-headed man wielding two kukris, who was apparently being worshipped by a group of men and gnolls.  Though the gallery floor was covered by water, Kaa was able to make out something in the center that he suspected was a pit trap. One side of the gallery had also been occupied by a mound of soggy vegetation that appeared to be home to a group of half a dozen shocker lizards. Sula suggested that if the Scarabs left the lizards alone they would be no threat, but Azzaria was concerned that the lizards would attack and tried to soothe them.

Suddenly, as Azzaria moved a little closer to pacify the lizards, the mound of soggy vegetation rose up and reached tendrils toward her. Sula realized that the mound was really a plant creature. Sula spoke to the creature in the language of natural things and told it to leave them be and it would go unharmed. Kaa shouted to his comrades to lure it toward the pit trap in the center of the gallery, but Sula told him that the shambling creature was perfectly capable of understanding his words. She moved toward the creature to attack it and it grabbed her with a tendril, pinning her so she couldn't use her spear and squeezing her in its crushing grasp.

Azzaria became enraged, her body blurred and her movements incredibly fast. She began to attack the plant creature with a weapon in each hand. Kaa meanwhile was distracted by noticing that a small alabaster statue was propping open the door. He moved to look at it while Uto approached the plant creature and cast a healing spell on Sula. Igby also attacked the creature. Kaa opened the door, observing a descending staircase beyond it. The open doors allowed the water in the gallery to rush down the steps, and Kaa spotted an opening in the stairs that appeared to reveal another pit beneath them.

Sula transformed herself into a large snake to get free of the creature. But just as she did so, Azzaria landed a fatal blow and the creature collapsed in a heap of vegetation and the remains of its last meal. To Azzaria's disgust, the lizards began to consume the food remnants. Sula slithered away from it and Uto cast another healing spell on her. After confirming that he'd been correct about the pit trap in the center of the gallery, Kaa moved to check on the chamber at the opposite end from the mound's lair. There he saw a frieze of the jackal-headed man now in a chariot surrounded by gnolls and jackals. A second room revealed shelves containing nineteen alabaster statues of jackal-headed figures, like the one that had propped open the doors. In the statue room was an inscription about a Dog Pharaoh and his conflict with the Illuminated Pharaoh. The inscription told that the two opposing pharaohs worshipped opposing deities as well, the Dog Pharaoh following the snake god Apep while the Illuminated Pharaoh followed Ra, the sun god. Some of the inscription was written in the language of the Abyss, describing the Dog Pharaoh's armies of gnolls, were-jackals and some sort of unknown demon.

Kaa examined the pit in the gallery and observed that it was indeed a spiked pit as he had surmised. He also saw evidence that there was a hallway leading to it below the gallery. Uto levitated himself over the descending staircase to look at the opening there, and saw another pit trap beneath the stairs, one which appeared to have taken the life of a potential tomb robber at some time in the past. He lowered himself down to examine the corpse and made a fetish to remember the soul of the unburied victim. After he returned to join the rest of the Scarabs, they went on into another room on the first level.This room contained paintings depicting the Dog Pharaoh's wealth. The room also contained some curious heiroglyphics on the wall and a grate in the floor. While the others began looking at the symbols, Uto used his prehensile hair to open the grate, causing water to drain out of the room. The Scarabs who were able to read the hieroglyphs because convinced that they represented mathematical equations rather than words. At the same time, Uto noticed that when the water was gone, a set of doors was revealed and in front of them ten depressions could be found in the floor below the symbols. Kaa examined these and realized that the tiles in the depressions could be pressed to activate something. Using the equations, Kaa worked out the correct sequence in which to press the tiles, and the doors opened. Sula, who had remained in snake form as the Scarabs continued their exploration, rested while her companions studied the symbols that were incomprehensible to her.

Once the doors were open the Scarabs entered a room containing two bas relief figures on the walls. On the west side stood a man holding an ankh and a khopesh, while to the east was the now-familiar jackal-headed man, with a kukri in each hand. Beyond this chamber was a T-shaped corridor with a locked door at the end. Kaa opened the lock easily, revealing a room filled with glittering treasure surrounding a sarcophagus. Everything in the room was coated in mold due to the moisture. The Scarabs were immediately doubtful of the treasure, as their previous experiences exploring tombs told them they had reached this treasure chamber too easily. It took them only a few moments to see that the treasure was all false, made up of materials that would have been worth only a few hundred gold pieces rather than thousands. Uto cautiously examined the sarcophagus through the Forgotten Pharaoh's mask and could detect no undead creature there, but was unsure if that was because there was no undead in the burial chamber or because it was too thick for the mask's magic to penetrate. Then Kaa noticed that some of the mold on one wall had grown in an oddly geometric shape, a rectangle. He examined this more closely and realized that the mold had picked out the borders of a secret door.

The door was not trapped and Kaa opened it without effort. Beyond it lay a narrow corridor containing three sarcophagi. The sarcophagi and the walls and floor were all covered in a fuzzy brown mold. The corridor was unnaturally cold. Sula realized that this type of mold lived by drawing heat, thus explaining the chill in the narrow space. She warned her friends against using fire and told them that the mold was vulnerable to cold. Kaa breathed his cold breath into the chamber to destroy the mold. At that moment all three sarcophagi burst open, disgorging animated mummies that immediately moved to attack the group of people standing just outside the secret door.

The first mummy's aura paralyzed Azzaria with fear as it rushed through the opening, but none of the others were affected. Kaa shouted, "Igby, stay back!" Igby cast a spell that paralyzed two of the mummies temporarily. Kaa breathed cold upon them, though he was unable to direct his breath at the mummies without also affecting Uto. The mold covering the mummies was destroyed but the mummies were not stopped by the cold. Sula transformed away from her snake shape and summoned two balls of lightning to attack two of the mummies. Uto destroyed one mummy, and a moment later a recovered Azzaria brought down a second one. Sula's lightning dispatched the third. With the mummies gone, the Scarabs used one of the sarcophagus lids that was still covered in frost to destroy the rest of the brown mold in the chamber. The three mummies proved to have been individuals of wealth and power, each one wearing jewelry worth perhaps 500 gold pieces. One of them had an ornate ankh symbol amid the wrappings, and another had a headband that proved to be magic.

The tomb's final chamber at the opposite end of the T-passage proved to have been the pharaoh's burial chamber, but it had been looted long ago and what little was left had been destroyed by water. A crevice in the outer wall showed how the looters had accessed the burial. Inscriptions showed that most of the items in the room had been cursed. The Scarabs found evidence that someone had tried to destroy the cursed items and the objects had exploded. Some items had apparently reformed after being smashed, but because they were cursed their value was limited. The chamber also showed signs of having been used as a den by lizardfolk, though not recently. After searching the burial room thoroughly, the Scarabs returned the way they had come to meet the sphinx outside. Along the way they discussed how the inscriptions in the tomb had sometimes referred to the Dog Pharaoh and other times to the Jackal Pharaoh, and they realized that the Jackal Pharaoh had been defeated by his rival the Illuminated Pharaoh, who had changed the references to call his enemy a dog.

When the Ruby Scarabs returned to the Sphinx, she spoke a riddle to Uto, asking him, "Who are two sisters, each giving birth to the other?" Uto recalled that inside the tomb there had been many references to the battle between Ra and Apep, the struggle between light and darkness. He answered, "The Moon and the Sun." Pleased, the sphinx agreed to perform the ritual that would allow him to become a living monolith as he desired. While he and the sphinx performed the ritual, the other Scarabs waited beside the ruined tomb. When Uto returned to them at the completion of the ritual, a ruby stone in the shape of a scarab beetle had been embedded in his forehead as a sign of his oath to the gods.

Next: part 20, Slavers and Scorpions

[Pathfinder] Mummy's Mask, part 18: The Voyage of the Golden Ibis

As the Ruby Scarabs prepared to make the journey to the Parched Dunes in search of Chisisek’s tomb, they made a few additional purchases of supplies and discussed whether they should acquire a camel. Uto convinced Sula that it would be worthwhile for her to purchase an enchanted rod that could extend the duration of her spells, and he even loaned her gold for the purchase when she realized that she didn’t have enough left after buying a magic headband for herself and an amulet for Nyema.

In the end the Scarabs concluded that a camel would be an extra complication that they didn’t need. Uto’s magical accouterments would allow him to carry enough water and food, and what he couldn’t carry Sula could find. Sula now had an enchanted ring that would allow her to go without food or water, so she would only need meat for Nyema, and if game was too hard to find she could transform Nyema into a figurine to reduce the lioness’s need for food. Uto could also use his magic to create food and water, removing the necessity to carry more than emergency supplies. When this decision had been made, the other four Scarabs said farewell to their comrade Igby, who had elected not to join them in the desert, and took passage aboard a barge travelling down the River Sphinx to where it met the Crook River, much closer to the Parched Dunes.

The barge was called the Golden Ibis, and much to their surprise it was drawn by two giant ibises walking along the riverbank, while a second team of the huge birds rested in a nest at the rear of the vessel. The Golden Ibis had three levels of decks, with a common area for passengers on the upper deck and passenger cabins below, above the cargo deck. The upper deck also played home to passengers who didn’t want to pay 12 gold pieces per night for a cabin, and various livestock. Azzaria, Sula, and Uto elected to spread their bedrolls on the upper deck, while Kaa chose to pay extra for a cabin. Sula had learned from their trip on the ferry to Tephu that lions were not welcome on boats, and she transformed Nyema and carried her companion in her belt pouch for the journey.

Their voyage was interrupted on the first night after departing from Tephu. The Scarabs were awakened by cries of alarm and the smell of smoke. Those sleeping on the upper deck also heard something flying overhead. As soon as they were awake they could see multiple golden-masked figures climbing over the sides of the barge. One of these figures immediately cast a spell that enveloped a large section of the upper deck in frigid cold. Kaa climbed up out of the passenger deck to find himself facing two of the cultists not far from the flames that were already spreading from the stern. A third cultists appeared nearby. Sula had run out from under the cover over the deck to see a large creature that resembled a cross between a lion and a falcon hovering overhead. This creature flew toward the bow of the barge and emitted a piercing scream that left her deafened. Without a ranged weapon to fire on it, she elected to turn and attack the nearest cultist. Azzaria engaged with two more cultists near the prow of the barge, while Uto contended with the spellcaster who had created the cold.

Uto donned the Forgotten Pharaoh’s mask and its eyes glowed red as he directed its magic toward the cultist mage. But the magic didn’t appear to affect the mage, who vanished, then reappeared an instant later in a different spot closer to where Uto stood. Azzaria slew one of her foes with her mace, and when he fell the man suddenly burst into flames and exploded, turning to ash in a moment.

Realizing that the mask’s power seemed to have little effect on the spellcaster, Uto moved toward another cultist near the center of the upper deck and directed the mask at him. The flying creature, which Azzaria recognized as a type of sphinx, flew toward the bow and let out another screech, panicking the ibises. The boat rocked as the birds tried to flee, forcing their handler to set them loose else their struggles might overturn the vessel. Passengers began to leap overboard to escape. The cultist wizard aimed a bolt of lightning at Uto. Azzaria had dispatched both of her opponents and now ran down the steps from the bow to the deck, shouting at the passengers to help get other passengers from the lower deck. One of Kaa’s two foes fell and exploded as had Azzaria’s oppnents. Sula continued to thrust her spear at the cultist who stood before her.

Without the ibises to keep it on course, the Golden Ibis began to spin in the middle of the river channel. Uto backed away from the mage, who kept flickering in and out of sight, and cast a spell on himself to heal the injuries he had been absorbing from his fellow Ruby Scarabs. The cultist mage called another lighting bolt at Uto and Azzaria. Azzaria killed another cultist and headed toward the sphinx, which had landed on the deck. The wizard shouted for his fellow cultists to get the mask from Uto, and Sula’s foe ran toward where Uto stood, giving her an opportunity to slash at him again as he moved away. Sula ran after the cultists when she saw that he was heading for Uto. When Azzaria approached the sphinx, it spoke to her, saying, “I am not here for you, chosen one, but you will not stand in my way.” Of her comrades only Kaa overheard this strange remark.

Now that there were no cultists attacking him, Kaa demonstrated a new ability by directing a blast of ice-cold breath at the fire in an effort to suppress it. To have a moment to further heal himself and escape his pursuers, Uto took flight and left the deck of the barge. Azzaria shouted, “You chose the wrong side!” at the sphinx as she attacked him. The cultist mage tried to send lightning at Uto and Sula, but the effect that caused him to flicker in and out of sight caused the lightning spell to flicker as well, thus missing his targets. The sphinx fell to Azzaria’s blows and she moved to attack another cultist, while some of the passengers struggled with two more of the masked figures and Kaa continued to try to put out the fire with his icy breath. The Golden Ibis had begun to list alarmingly. Kaa called out, “I think the ship is sinking!”

“Out of the way, fools!” the cultist wizard shouted as he directed a burst of flames toward Azzaria and Sula. Sula shrugged off part of the damage, for her ancestry included creatures of flame. Azzaria turned another cultist into pile of ash, leaving behind only his clothing and equipment. One of the remaining cultists ran toward Uto, who was now flickering like the mage. Uto then went over the side of the barge and out of sight. Azzaria avoided another blast of lightning from the mage and moved closer to him so she could ply her flail against him. Sula decided to summon lightning of her own and direct it at another cultist and the mage, but her bolt missed the disappearing and reappearing mage. Uto reappeared, his flight ability exhausted for the day, and the cultist went after him again, but then began to retch and flee in panic after the mask’s glowing red eyes turned on him. In his desperation to get away from Uto he jumped overboard. Kaa moved to where the rest of the Scarabs were, and he and Azzaria together struck out at the wizard, who exploded into ash like the other cultist.

With all of the cultists gone, the Scarabs quickly searched the barge for survivors and got every person or animal they could into the river. Sula also picked up the things the mage and several of the cultists had left behind when they died, hoping to find some clue to the cult’s goal. When the Scarabs had assured themselves that everyone had escaped, they too jumped into the river, Sula transforming herself into a crocodile to swim to shore and Kaa using his wings to fly over the water. Azzaria was startled to find when she hit the water that she could stand on its surface, though there was no rock or tree stump or sand bar beneath her. She also saw a green glow at her feet, and when she looked around in bewilderment she noticed a similar glow among the reeds along the riverbank not far away. Somehow she knew that the glowing spot was a place of safety.

The Scarabs helped all of the people from the barge to get to shore, even carrying their animals for them, though the passengers rejected Sula’s aid when she came to them in the shape of a crocodile and spoke to them. Uto used his prehensile hair to lift some passengers out of the water. When the Scarabs had made sure that all of the passengers and livestock were safely on the bank, Azzaria suggested that perhaps they should leave. Sula agreed, fearing they would soon be blamed for the disaster once the other passengers realized that the masked men had only been attacking the Ruby Scarabs and no one else. Though it was still night, some of the passengers were already starting to walk back to Tephu along the riverbank.

The Scarabs crept away, and Azzaria showed her friends to the place among the reeds. None of them could perceive the green glow she saw. Within the reeds they found a circular mat where the reeds had been bent over, and in that place was a small camp, with a fire burning inside a clay pot. Azzaria was delighted to realize that it was her tribe, the nomads who had adopted her as an infant. An elder who introduced himself as Walaji greeted Azzaria as “Daughter of the Sphinx,” and welcomed her friends. The nomads were not troubled when Sula brought out her figurine and returned Nyema to her natural shape. Walaji explained that a sphinx had told the tribe to go to this location, but the sphinx they had spoken to was not the one from the attack on the barge. Uto was very interested in meeting this sphinx, though Walaji couldn’t tell him where to find her as she had found the tribe rather than them finding her.

The Scarabs remained with Azzaria’s tribe for a dozen days as they traveled along the river to the point where the barge would have dropped them off. During the journey Walaji and his people told them of the dangers to look out for in the Parched Dunes, such as various creatures that would lurk under the sand waiting for unwary prey to pass. He also told them of a possible oasis, and of the merchants and slavers who would cross the Dunes to get to the river. Sula recognized that it would be wise for them to cover their tracks to avoid having the cultists follow them, and that being able to hide their camp from view would also be helpful. She began to prepare for spells to hide them from unwanted notice and to keep her comrades more comfortable in the desert heat. The Parched Dunes were much more like the environment she was familiar with than cities like Wati and Tephu, and she looked forward to being able to assume lion form and hunt with Nyema among the dunes after dark.

Next: part 19, Tomb of the Jackal Pharaoh