Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Nightmares Underneath: Review

My interest was piqued when +B. Portly flashed an image of a mysterious gorgeous tome on G+. Given the fact that I've been running a campaign set in the dreamlands for more than a year now, when I heard that this book was an OSR supplement about the nightmare realm bleeding through into reality, I felt I had to take a look. Unlike many other names in the OSR whose work I know well, I'm not familiar with +Johnstone Metzger 's ouevre. I bought his module Evil Wizards in a Cave a ways back, and it did not make much of an impression on me. So I wasn't sure what I'd be getting. I was delighted to discover that this book is very, very good--good along an unusual number of dimensions.

The book is aesthetically attractive as a physical artifact. You can order it as a hardcover from Lulu with a dust jacket that makes it look like an antique gilded tome. (Buyers beware, Lulu dust jackets have a tendency to curl a bit.) Within the text is laid out in an effective manner with baroque embellishments that don't interfere with the presentation of the material. The generous illustrations are mainly collages of heavily altered public domain images, including paintings. Some are (probably) original pieces drawn by Metzger. The alterations fit the setting and feel of the book. It does a wonderful job as I hope these images convey.

The setting of the book is distinctive and evocative. It is a world of high islamic civilization. The forces of law and reason have conquered the forces of chaos, including the idolatry of the pagans. It is less the wild world of the Arabian Nights, than the orderly civilization of the Abbasid Caliphate and the Ottoman Empire. Here the scholarly interpretation of the law and scripture reigns supreme, and there is great respect for art, science, and technology.

But beneath the bright sunlight of faith and reason, a dark inverted world grows. In cramped and claustrophobic spaces, incursions from the realm of nightmares spring. They are inhabited by horrors, that often draw in their wake strange and numinous creatures from the astral deep or the inhuman realms of faerie. They corrupt surrounding human settlements, feeding on their traumas, their obsessions, their sins, and their fears.

The players are the rare individuals who are drawn to these incursions, and who, for reasons unknown, are immune to their corrupting influence that destroys or bends ordinary people to its purposes. The party is a band of pariahs, perhaps murder hobos, self-seeking adventurers, who operate outside the normal social structures. Society tolerates them and makes space for them, not because it approves of them, but because they are its only defense against the darkness below. This is a pleasing and original take on a cluster of concepts from early D&D including the original opposition of law vs. chaos, as well as the assumption that the party will be a bunch of self-seeking treasure hunters operating outside of the bounds of ordinary social life.

These nightmare incursions tend to appear in wild and remote places, near enough to a human settlement to feed on its fears and desires, although they can also pop up in the middle of civilization. All possess an anchor, an object that is associated with great emotion, a human  heirloom, often quite valuable. The anchor is what ties the nightmare realm to the waking world--removing it causes the incursion to collapse. Each incursion is the seat of a Crown, a single type of nightmare embodying the theme of the incursion, a theme connected to its location and its anchor. The idea, which warms my heart, is that each incursion will be conceptually tight dungeon with mechanics, aesthetics, and foes suited to its theme.

For example, a nightmare incursion might exists in the ruins of a city decimated by the famine of a great siege. It has grown in the tunnels that the desperate residents clawed in their final attempts to escape the city. Among the few survivors, a corrupted cult has arisen, worshipping the nightmares that have extended the cramped tunnels into a strange inner space. In return for their sacrifices, the cultists are blessed with an insatiably hunger and the rich bounties of endless feasting. The mechanics of the dungeon would all be about desperate resource depletion, and the Crown would be some horror with a distended belly somehow representing the union of imagined gluttony and desperate hunger.

These incursions appear in inter-related clusters. The (level 1) incursions connect to the waking world, and most resemble it. But as one travels deeper in to further levels closer to the nightmare realm, one leaves the trappings of our reality further behind. For example, perhaps a great collector has gone missing. His heirs have noticed that several of his prize possessions are missing. In their search for these rare treasures they discover a strange and impossible tunnel in the back of one of his curiosity cabinets. They fear the worst. And they are right: the tunnel leads to a series of interconnected nightmare incursions, each representing the history of the relevant artifact, overlaid with the obsessive jealousy of the collector. The collector himself now resides in the deepest incursion as a host to the Crown of this level. His incursion is a glittering dungeon of intricate and impossible puzzle pieces arranged with the loving care of his possessions. It's strange traps and jeweled Escher spaces have attracted alien entities from the astral depths.

While I don't think it would be easy to crank out dungeons like this, the section on creating a nightmare incursion provides a lot of tools to help. Best of all, the bestiary contains a wonderful trove of Crowns that serve as excellent examples. The bestiary is really freaky and wonderful. The entities from the Astral Deeps and Fairie are just as good.

My favorite Crown from the bestiary, Wound Men.
This book is not a campaign setting. It is an entire game, complete with its own rule set intended to support play in this setting. (In this, it resembles the incredibly tight OD&D variant rules recently put out by +Gus L tailored closely to his Apollyon campaign setting.) Sure, I can come up with rules for hexcrawling in a verticle jungle if I have to, but the truth is that I'm not a rules guy--at the end of the day it's hard for me to get very excited about rules. I use the AD&D lite rules (LL AEC) because they're comfortable, and don't require me to keep track of very many things. But I enjoyed Metzger's rules. My impression is that like his pictures, they are a collage of existing rules from a variety of sources, artfully manipulated and altered for his purposes. I can really only scratch the surface here for you. Let me end by telling you about some of the rules.

Stats are renamed versions of the list we all know and love, 3d6 in order. The classes are flavorful and, although corresponding mostly to AD&D classes, are quite different in their execution. Every class can cast spells drawn from a single list, although not necessarily very well. Each also has a few mechanically elegant abilities. Clerics are replaced by cultists. They do not have a separate spell list, although they can turn the hated foes of their cult, drawn from a small list of the entities found in the setting (including mankind!).

When it comes to combat, variable weapon damage is used, but it's determined by the hit die of your class instead of the type of weapon. This is an elegant solution to the aesthetic ickiness of weapon restrictions. Although fighters (along with thieves) are worse spellcasters than other classes, they automatically do damage in combat. If they hit they do damage twice. Combat also uses a version of +Logan Knight 's Grit and Flesh, to track the difference between temporary damage and real lasting wounds.

The skill system is elegant. If you are trained in something that would actually require training to do, and have the proper tools at hand, then you must roll the relevant attribute or lower on a d20. If you either are untrained or lack the proper tools, then you must roll equal to or under one half the relevant attribute. There is no official list of skills, although the classes all come with a general description of what they are skilled in. The player is also encouraged to come up with a background for her character on creation. She is trained in whatever it makes sense for her to be trained in. This avoids the cumbersome non-weapon proficiency lists (or, heaven forbid, the skill system of 3x.) and keeps things nice and loose. It also encourages players to think about who their character is a bit before play.

Now this skill system might seem to put a lot of weight on attribute scores, especially in a 3d6 in order system. But every time you go up a level you get a chance to raise two attribute scores, one of which must be one of the two prime attribute scores of your class. If you roll higher than the attribute it goes up one or two points depending on how low it is. As characters advance in level, they have a decent chance to bring any low stats up to a reasonable level, and a fair chance to get a prime attribute up to a reasonably high level. I find the interaction of the skill system with the attribute increases a nice synergy. I haven't tried it, but I bet it would work pretty well in play.

Probably my favorite rules innovation in this game is a nice early domain game of institution building. As PC's begin spending money in town, they build up the institutions where their coin flows, whether it's a tea house, druggist, university, court, or a necromancer's guild. As the institution grows in stature, the player acquire contacts and gains more favorable interactions with them. There's also a chance that the institution eventually acquires the alignment of the character who funds it. I think this would be a lot of fun, and lead organically to intrigue and engagement with a richly developed setting outside the dungeon. There are also some fun rules for inflation and building resentment to the players.

In short, you should buy this book. It's beautiful. The setting is evocative. The core conceit of the dungeon as nightmare incursion is fun. The bestiary is nuts. And the rules are interesting.

You can find links here to a free version of the PDF (no art), or to buy the full version of the PDF, as well print copies in hard and softcover. Metzger has also released a free (PWYW) pdf of a sample module which can also be purchased in print. You can get find links to both here.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Zyan Above

Zyan Above. Sidney Sime
The great city of Zyan soars over the dreamlands on a fixed orbit. It rests on a rock of reddish hue, seven miles east to west, and four miles north to south. From the bottom of the rock springs the White Jungle, an immense riot of fungal blooms, teeming with life tailored to this inverted phantasmagoria. On its topside, the terrain of the rock has many changes of elevation, with sheer cliffs, hills and hollows. Off the western edge, a small separate island keeps time with its larger sibling. It is connected to the main body by a soaring bridge, on which an honor guard always stands in white lacquered armor, secured by chains against the howling wind.

Bridge to the Sunset Palace. Svetoslav Petrov
The Sunset Palace. Sidney Sime
On this island a palace rises, majestic and elegant, with domes piled upon domes, and towers climbing into the sky. This is the Sunset Palace. Its towers are cleverly fashioned to form narrow channels, where clouds, snared by the inexorable gait of Zyan, roll down towards a central dome, pouring like a heavenly river through the great arched windows of the courtier's ballroom. On the palace's western face a glorious stained window reaches six stories high, rich with the iconography of the royal line of Zyan. Through its colored panes, a council chamber can be glimpsed. At the head of a great table, a monstrous orchid springs through the floor, its petals dangling over a jeweled ivory throne. Ever since the malaise came upon Zyan, this orchid has drooped and lost its lustrous sheen. It is as old as the city, and it is said that when it dies, so too will the hope of Zyan.

Chimes. Dulac
Moving eastward, across the bridge from the Sunset Palace, one crosses onto the raised western plateau of the main island. The neighborhood set atop this great cliff is called Chimes. The buildings here were once bright and elegant; now they have a falling down charm. Between woody hills nestle cozy manses with sunken courtyards and jangling chimes. At the center of the plateau, a great hollow descends gently to mossy woods, through which a sparkling stream runs. Its once manicured paths were stocked with splendid peacocks from which the hollow takes its name. Its paths are now wild and overgrown, and the peacocks have, through generations of haphazard rutting, grown surly and garish.

Along the northern edge of Chimes stands the Stable of the Guides, a clean building with soaring columns, and fine martial statues of bronze. Piers extend from darkened holes out over the Endless Azure Sea. There the Guides once housed their mounts, the great kestrels that soared on the screaming winds that cut across Zyan. The art is all but lost; now only two ancient kestrels, the last of their line, keep the blind stable master company.

A Great Kestral Returns to The Stables. Moebius
Further east, down the cliff that sets the western plateau apart, seven sets of narrow steps run into the three neighborhoods below: Volish Hill, Pentacle, and Cusp. Along the stairs that descend into Pentacle is set the Vertical Market, a series of arcades carved directly into the living rock. Under bright silk pavilions, the merchants hawk their wares. Here spices spill from open tins, beneath dainty candies hanging form colored stings; there lie piles of ancient books, cast off casually from a noble clan's library, their faded titles inscribed in languages no longer read. At last, one comes upon the little cages of jeweled serpents, opulent singing birds, and capering yellow monkeys of the White Jungle below.

Observatory of the Horoscops. Phillipe Druillet
Of the neighborhoods at the base of the cliffs, Volish HIll is the most uneven, with steep stairs that climb past buildings, clinging improbably to the hillsides. Numerous antique footbridges connect high points, sometimes passing over one another. Atop the largest hill, a tower rises like a crooked finger. This is the observatory of the Horoscops, the guild of soothsayers and calendar keepers. From its top, a great telescope, extending from the painted dome, is trained on the heavens above. Copper pipes run from the observatory south, passing from building to building until they snake down the sheer cliff of the rock of Zyan. These are the periscopes trained on the heavens below, relaying crucial astrological information about the movements of the astronomical bodies below.

The wall of Cusp. Ian Miller
In Cusp, the most northerly of the three neighborhoods, the city begins to spill down a great incline to the north that eventually becomes too steep for homes. A wall has been set here, running between tightly packed houses that lean together against the harsh boreal winds. In a plaza in this tilted neighborhood, there is an amphitheater with a festival air about it, with several stages, bleachers, and raised platforms, with ringing bells, and instruments for performers. Leading onto one end of the central stage from an adjoining building are a pair of great doors, fifty feet high, painted in gaudy colors. This is the Theatre of Justice, where the Inquisitors Guild metes out its spectacles of punishment, the most gruesome and anticipated of which involve their cruel puppets.

Inquisitors Puppet (15' tall). Sha Sha Higby
Beyond the walls here, where the rocks spill steeply down to the edge of the island, narrow ledges jut, supporting lonely twisted trees that cling in the harsh wind to barren rock. Here one may find among the stones--if one know where to look--an ancient stair leading down to tunnels. On the northern side of the island, the cliff face is riddled with baroque gates with blowing grotesques, facing the Endless Azure Sea. Past the gates the tunnels can be seen, with aquamarine tiles, and strange statuary. These are the Catacombs of the North Wind, built when the Zyanese still nurtered the hope that they might propitiate--and perhaps control--the demon winds that blow across the Endless Azure Sea. Bitter experience taught them the futility and danger of such hopes.

Floating Islands. Roger Dean
Past the shore of the main island here, several small islands float, making a broken and irregular barrier against the biting North Wind. Here fantastical birds nest by icy pools of turquoise water. The last island is long and thin, ending in a jutting spire of rock. From this isle dangle cages that hang from chains, spinning over the depths of the Endless Azure Sea. This is the Farthest Isle, where traitors were made to hang until their flesh, cut and frozen, gave up the semblance of life.

As one moves east, past the strange neighborhood of Pentacle with its obscure shrines and eerie mirrors, the neighborhoods become seedier and more dilapidated. In Gutter, the crowded buildings and narrow streets, with their networks of tautly stretched clotheslines, give way to sudden hollows, where silver grasses grow, and groves of forlorn trees stand. An especially steep hollow cuts through the neighborhood like a gash, with a dark narrow wood winding along its base. Nearby a building rises above the shabby dwellings, with outdoor altars of an evil aspect, dangling censors, and elaborate drains that empty into the massive sewer grates below. This is the Abattoir of the Fleischguild. In porcelain chambers, the carvers here sacrifice a constant stream of beasts and men to propitiate the endless hunger of the unrelenting archons.

Abattoir of The Fleischguild. Alan Lee

At the eastern end of the island, one finds Turnabout, most wretched of the neighborhoods of Zyan. Here the dwellings are crumbling and overtaken by nature. The cats of Zyan swarm here most of all, holding their secret councils beneath rotting floorboards, where the rats are plentiful. Among the of half reclaimed buildings of Turnabout sits a large monastery, imposing in its modesty. Within its courtyards massive dinner tables stand at which the abject receive dialy sustenance. Over them presides a statue with a fat belly, its swollen limbs contorted in strange and painful poses. Through other windows one can glimpse rows of hospital beds, and penitents cells filled with instruments of self-torture. This is the Monastery of the Benefactors, who see in the neediness of Turnabout an opportunity to injure themselves through the giving of charity. It is said that the madhouses and leper colonies they maintain beneath the monastery are places to be avoided at all costs.

The Lotus Dens of Turnabout. John Blanche
The denizens of Turnabout cannot afford to maintain the trappings of decency, and so wear masks of paint, often cracked and running. Having lost their fruitless ambition, what coin they can scrounge buys reveries on the rotting cushions of the lotus dens. Strange cults flourish propounding heretical eschatologies and bizarre practices. It is whispered that even dolorous Golumex, the shunned archon, finds his adherents here. The population of Turnabout has already lost all hope. Perhaps this is why the rest of Zyan Above has turned its back on their need. For they see in their painted faces the future of Zyan and are ashamed.

A Heretic Praises Golumex. John Blanche


Sunday, September 25, 2016

In the Light of Other Moons

Lady Shirishanu, rare concubine to Lathanon, the last of the Incadescent Kings, was known to have been composing a book of verse in her final years. The work is said to have been unfinished at the time of her death. It is thought that she extracted a promise from the King to destroy it, since it was not ready for the world. Some say that when she died Lathanon burned it, others that he carried it with him when he went to the heavens below. But some say that he could not bear to destroy it, and, breaking his oath, had it bound and placed within her cenotaph. What it contains, even its title, is unknown. From time to time a false copy turns up in Zyan above, but it has always been seen for what it is, an “unfinished” poem by a second rate hack. The sole copy is, as some have surmised, to be found in the cenotaph of Lady Shirishanu (see area 9).

The Book

The book is bound in boards covered in the pearlescent leather of some antique beast. The heavy pages are stitched with lustrous silver thread. Opening the boards, the frontispiece is a dense illumination of an impossibly intricate mechanical device.

Next to it, the title page reads in :

In the Light of Other Moons 

by Settari Shirishanu
Lady of the Venerable Clan of Revealers
Intrepidess of the Third Order in the Guild of Explorers

The text of the poem is written in an elegant looping script, in dark yellow ink that has aged to a burnt orange in places. The poem appears to be incomplete, judging from two features. The first are the spaces left, presumably for illustrations to be inserted at a later time. The second is the fact that the story of the poem appears to break off before its end. Curiously, a number of blank pages have been bound into the end of the book after the poem breaks off.

Those who read the book find themselves forever changed, for it is imbued with the potent fancy of Shirishanu. Strange thoughts and images bubble up. The poetry and hidden delight of ordinary things becomes manifest. Those who formerly bent to calculating profit, or thought always about how to satisfy the next requirements of their station, now find their thoughts drawn to secret places of their own invention. At serious meetings they laugh to themselves at impertinent thoughts and incongruous juxtapositions. The material effects on the reader are these:
  • The character must choose a suitable art at which she will henceforth excel in a distinctive and personal style. From this time forward, she must create or she will wither like a songbird shut in a lightless box. If she is unable to practice her art for 1 month she will fall into despair, receiving -2 on all rolls.
  • The character raises her charisma by 1 permanently for the striking impression that her heightened fancy has on others. 
  • At 8th level her fancy becomes so potent that she may cast 1 1st level illusionist spell per day, to be chosen at the start of the day from the entire list; at 11th level she may cast 1 2nd level spell; at 14th level she may cast 1 3rd level spell. These are direct manifestations of her heightened fancy, and not spells in the academic sense. 
  • However, this heightened fancy leaves her vulnerable to mind affecting spells and illusions. Starting at 8th level she permanently saves against them at -4. 
If the book is transcribed, although still a recognizable work of great genius, the poem will not produce this effect on readers. For it is the physical text that is a vessel of the Lady's fancy.

The Poem

The protagonist of the poem is Holaxes, a rogue and lover. The poem begins with his murder at the hands of a romantic rival, and follows him to the hinterlands, a purgatory at the border of the lands of the living and the dead.

Holaxes (art by Olga Dugina)

 It tells how Holaxes dwelt for one night there, wandering alone in a reverie through leafless woods, under the strange light of the necromantic moon. This gibbering moon of the dead is said in the poem to cast a light of a hue unknown to the living, and to whisper secret songs heard only by those who have lost all hope irrevocably. Just as the moon is setting, and the thin light of wretched dawn first breaks over the bleak woods of the hinterlands, Holaxes is snatched back to life through the powerful sorcery of the lover who inspired his murder.

The poem tells us that Holaxes found himself ever after with a strange hunger to lay his living eyes once again on the light of that moon of the dead. Try what he might, the promptings of this appetite would not be denied. The poem follows his attempt to penetrate a dread prison called the Abyssal Dungeon, where a portion of the necromantic moon shines in the world of the living, sapping the life and vigor of any who would penetrate the terrible cell it illuminates. 

To seek the necessary implements for his doomed quest, Holaxes travels to the White Jungle. During this jungle interlude, he steals by cunning the effulgent sapphire of Marikozazz, one of the Sultans of the air. From the were-panthers, he acquires a mutable tool called the Flexible Vistrum, a living golden fiber that inhabits the inner substance of his body. Holaxes wins his steadfast companion too, the shapeshifter Inithi, in a game of dice with the panther priests. Having acquired the needed aid, Holaxes travels to the dungeon.

Inithi (art by Liz Danforth)

In order to enter the Abyssal Dungeon, Holaxes must unlock a series of seven locks, each more difficult than the last.The greater portion of the poem consists in a description of the seven locks, and Holaxes' struggles against them. These descriptions are unspeakably beautiful. Each is more abstract and metaphysical than the last. The locks are somehow parables, and morality tales, at once an urgent warning, and a profound commentary on the human condition. In prosaic summary, bereft of all Shirishanu's art, the seven locks are these:

The Sordid Latch
The first is a simple lock, unadorned, and rusted, set in a common looking tarnished metal door, as one might find covering a cellar door in a back alley abattoir or whorehouse of Zyan. Its smell is unpleasant, reeking of petty desperation and forgotten squalor. The lock, although difficult to open owing to decay of the mechanism, is by no means a challenge for Holaxes' experienced hands. But it is only the first of many. 

The Gleaming Seal
Behind this first unassuming door stands a second of polished dark wood inlaid with lapis lazuli. It is the door one might have found to the once gleaming pleasure towers of Zyan, behind which topaz fountains sparkled and peacocks strutted. The lock on this door is magnificent and complex, as though to say smugly, "The world that lies behind this door is not for such as you."

The Hydraulic Portal

Behind this gilded door lies a great machine, into the aperture of which Holaxes must enter physically, twisting through claustrophobic spaces to spring the massive tumblers and rotate the bewildering interlocking gears that roll and mash together alarmingly. The poem suggests something inhuman in the ingenuity of this mechanical portal. It as though it lays the knowledge of man before one in graphic and monumental form, but shows it thereby to be indifferent to man's purposes and inimical to his welfare.

The Optick Prison

Beyond the Hydraulic Portal, the fourth lock is visible only through an intricate series of prisms and mirrors. This disorienting prison is sprung not by physical contact, but through the clever manipulation of reflections. Here the poem itself becomes refracted into mirrored reflecting pieces, the whole revealed in the part and the part in the whole, like a series of nesting and echoing surfaces, each containing illusory depth. 

The Penumbral Knot

Beyond the disorienting surfaces of the Optick Prison, lies an empty room. Drawing on the inner sight of the panther priests, Inithi reveals to Holaxes that the fifth lock is not in the room, but on the astral plane in the corresponding location. Employing an ancient ritual learned from his captors, Inithi transports them there. The Penumbral Knot appears in the form of entangled silver skeins. Holaxes must separate them to reveal the mercurial sphincter that leads beyond. These skeins are the densely intertwined fates of the eldest scions of the twelve noble houses of Zyan. Holaxes untangles the silver cords while Inithi defends him from the soul-eaters that stalk that misty void. The masterful overlapping narrations of the entwined fates of the scions is interspersed with scenes from this desperate battle.     

The Cloven Barrier

Through the mercurial sphincter, Holaxes arrives at a fragment of a green door that is sealed with only half of a lock. As Holaxes has heard from his sorcerer lover, one half of the Cloven Barrier was frozen at the time of its creation, and has remained three centuries in the past, while the other half has traveled forward through time to the present. Holaxes must span his time and the year of the the founding of Zyan to spring the Cloven Barrier entire. For this purpose he employs the potent refractions of the effulgent sapphire of Marikazzaz that separates its owner into temporal parts. The portions of the poem that take place in the past are written in the archaic language of the early epic poets. 

The Cancerous Portal (art by Greg Dunn)

Beyond the united halves of the Cloven Barrier, lies a simple room with only a small jeweled box resting on a pedestal. This box contains a virulent speck encased in a translucent lozenge. The only way to open this final seal is to ingest the lozenge and release the cancerous puzzle that spreads throughout ones organism. In his greatest and daring feat, Holaxes must unlock this final portal by employing the Flexible Vistrim to turn the inner springs of his own organism into tools to solve this fatal puzzle. As this metamorphic cypher spreads through his body, the poem breaks off suddenly. 

It is not known whether what the poem describes exists in reality. If it does, those who have read the poem know that there are two possible explanations for this. Sober minds will naturally conclude that Shirishanu learned of whatever element of truth the poem contains through her voracious reading in the legendary library of the Summer Palace, supplemented perhaps by her daring experiences in the White Jungle and beyond. But, those who have absorbed into their soul a piece of the great spirit animating this work, will know instinctively that a less sober possibility is no less likely: that reality has bent its knee to the might of her potent fancy, so that it might finally assume the form of living poetry.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Cenotaph of Shirishanu

Kai Nielsen
From the pagodas of the hanging merchants, follow the bridge that descends through the black chasm, winding between the trunks of the massive trees. At the bottom, you will see a footpath of handholds and little bridges leads into the dense interconnected thickets of brambles that spring from the massive trunks. Travel through the thickets northwest, and in a day's time you will reach Mount Vanothoe. Its red slopes descend from the rock of Zyan above into the depths of the jungle below. Circle Mount Vanothoe for another day, and on its far side, you will eventually come to an ancient funerary shrine to Lady Shirishanu, the remarkable concubine to Lathanon, last of the Incandescent Kings.

Arthur Rackham
The shrine was erected in the twilight of the Incandescent Kings, in the last of the halcyon days before the two crowns were separated, and Zyan began its descent into ruin. When the Lady Shirishanu died, they say the grief of the king was all consuming. He would have erected a fitting cenotaph to her graceful personage in the sunny gardens of the Summer Palace that dangles in the lush bowers of the jungle below. But the queen would not hear of it. In her jealousy, she forced him to build it in the rank and lightless precincts of the brambles above. Shirishanu's corpse is not to be found there; as befit a noblewoman, it plummeted through the endless Azure Sea to its resting place in the heavens below. But Lathanon is said to have filled the shrine with lavish tomb decorations, and Shirishanu's singular possessions. Guarding it with fierce magics, he left it a fitting monument to her memory.

Should you have troubled to ask among the hanging merchants, they will have told you that the tomb is likely unspoiled by the hands of man. For the bold travelers in the latter days were all members of the Guild of Explorers, and Lady Shirishanu is sacred to them, being venerated in one of their more prominent hero cults. And within a generation, all exploration of the white jungle ceased.


Master Map
The cenotaph is carved directly into the living rock of Mount Vanothoe. The brambles end some 20’ from the rock-face here. The ropes supporting a once elegant wooden bridge have rotted through. The bridge dangles down from the natural rock ledge of the entrance. A series of steps leading up to an entryway are carved into the living rock. At the top, past four elaborately carved columns, a white marble archway enters into the darkness. On the floor of the arch, rotting flower petals are scattered. The rock-face to the right and left of the entrance is completely covered in snaky vines that obscure the mountainside beneath it, descending from ledges high above. 

These, along with an illusion, conceal an alternative cave entrance to the east, (see area 15) 30’ up the cliff side. The climb is difficult, the vines are brittle and provide no support. Only someone climbing up the eastern face will find the hidden entrance.

Note that beyond the arch, within cenotaph, there are no wandering monster checks. Everything within the cenotaph is unnaturally still and quiet.


The Flower Arch and Beyond

1. The Arch of Flowers

Beyond the pillars, an 8’ high and 12’ wide carved marble arch extends 5’ into a passageway that leads deeper in. The arch is white with golden veins and is covered in marble work depicting curling vines and blossoming flowers. On the ground is scattered a pile of rotting flower petals, once white and red, now mostly brown. Beyond the arch the passageway opens quickly into a small room, with another arch leading out the opposite way. Some sort of stone figure is set back to the left. A thief who searches for traps here successfully without entering the arch will get a bad feeling about the heads of the carved flowers.

If anything passes through the arch, it will trigger the heads of flowers to flip, revealing transparent crystals. Beams of sunlight will stream from them, striking anything that passes through. Those struck must save vs. spells or be transformed irrevocably into a pile of flower petals that swirls elegantly in the wind before settling into a pile on the floor of the arch. Those running through the arch may roll 4d6 below their dex to avoid the beams. Furthermore, there is a slight beat between beam firings as the mechanism resets. Those triggering the trap and availing themselves of this delay, may subtract one die, rolling 3d6 below their dex. Magical darkness will deactivate the trap for the duration of the spell. Dispel magic will deactivate the turn for 1d6 turns. The crystals and arch are impervious to ordinary blows. 

2. Mural Room

The western wall is taken up by a mural of a youthful female figure. One hand is on her chest, and her head is pointing upwards, the mouth open as if in song. In her other hand she holds an elaborately carved staff, form which rays of light extend. Beyond the light, at the edges of the carving, frightening figures seem to press in to the edge of the light with a terrible hunger and rage. Beneath an inscription reads:

Lady Shirishanu, although your body rests in the heavens below, may your name be preserved in the song of the Sibilant Maiden, which holds at bay the devourers, until its last note is sung.

3. Shrine to Lady Shirishanu

This spacious nave leads up to a statue of a woman, carved from the purest marble. She rests reclining on a divan and looks up at the viewer with a sad and knowing expression. One hand rests languorously on the hilt of a long and elegant sword, also carved of marble. Its scabbard is decorated with swirling forms, and its hand-guard looks like the petals of a great flower. The craftsmanship of the statue is astounding; so graceful is this woman’s form, and so noble her countenance that the viewer will find tears coming to his eyes in the still sadness of this room, and find himself aching to see her move and to speak with her.

Behind the statue, the high curved wall is decorated from floor to ceiling with a mural of a garden. Rising up behind her is a golden multi-tiered fountain carved with pleasing grotesques, in the glistening spray of which little green monkeys play mischievously, while high above the spray, fish with rainbow fins seem to swim placidly through the air. To her right a great tree rises up nearly to the ceiling. Its branches droop like a willow, at the ends of which fruits dangle that have the shape of stars, moons and other heavenly bodies. Next to the tree is a bank of flowers of the most varied and alien beauty, growing almost wild over a hillock. To her left a nearly hidden path leads back into the recesses into a lush bower, of which you have only a mysterious and inviting glimpse. Behind all of this, at the top of the wall a tall grey glittering wall rising to the base of a bulb or onion dome high above, giving the impression that this is an enclosed garden. (The base of the fountain in the mural, which bears the face of a grotesque sun, opens a secret door to area 11.)

Other furniture, divans, couches, chairs made of fine a dark wood like cherry, with sumptuous cushions, are arrayed around the statue of the woman, as though inviting you to join her in her sojourn in the garden. The furniture is valuable (1000 GP total, but very heavy). One smaller chair (150 GP) and two especially fine cushions (50 GP each) are easily moveable.


Altar Room & Beast Tombs
4. Altar Room

There is a smell of decay and death in this room. A large altar composed of a smooth gray material that glitters in torchlight lies against the west wall. A huge rent runs through the floor coming from the northwest corner of the room, passing just in front of the altar. Somehow torchlight does nothing to illuminate its black recesses. The northern end of the altar, near the chasm, has been bored through, revealing a hollow interior where a cache of six translucent eggs rests. Braziers (75 GP each) stand at each corner of the altar. The ceiling is covered in a mural depicting the heavens below. 

The dark chasm is the lair of an insectile horror that oozes a metaphysical darkness. It infiltrated the tomb when the shifting of Mount Vanothoe opened the rent in the floor. There is a 50% chance it is in the fissure springing out at an opportune moment and surprising on 1-4. For each turn the PCs are in areas 4, 5, or 6, there is a cumulative 25% chance that the Carver will return to the fissure.

Rupert Lees

In combat, the Carver will center its darkness on itself to bewilder opponents and then emerge to drag them one by one into the fissure. (It will always focus its attacks on a single victim at a time.) If the darkness is magically dispelled, it will reveal itself as a hideous white insect, with a twisting thorax and numerous bladed appendages. HD4 (24) AC3 MR:6 Att:3 Slices 1d6/1d6/1d6 if it strikes with two blades it can drag an opponent (4d6 under strength) or darkness 15’ radius (2x per day).

Its lair is a cramped natural cave 15' in from the rent in the floor. The half devoured corpses of strange jungle beasts litter the floor. There is an opening to a claustrophobic series of natural caves that lead to the root maze at the bottom of Mount Vanothoe, where it hunts. 

5. Tomb of the Faceless Lion


This small room is almost complete taken up by a plain 7’ by 3’ box composed of the same gray glittering material as the altar. The lid is surprising light for what looks like stone. Within the box is a wooden sarcophagus with handles, painted with the likeness of some kind of leonine figure, the face of which seems to be smudged out with white. To open the sarcophagus one must unhook a latch that has a poison trap, save or die with purple blisters bubbling up and bursting within minutes. Within is the perfectly preserved body of the Faceless Lion that served as lady Shirishanu’s pet. It wears a golden collar studded with tiny opals (250 GP). Its hide reeks of preservant, but nonetheless will fetch a considerable sum (500 GP).

6. Tomb of the Cyclops Snake

Gary Chalk

This small room is almost complete taken up by a plain 7’ by 3’ box composed of the same grey glittering material as the altar. The lid is surprising light for what looks like stone. Underneath the lid, a pair scythed blades are coiled on springs, and will sweep out in a circular motion if the lid is lifted doing 1d12 damage to all with a 5’ radius. Within there is a sarcophagus painted with the image of a one-eyed snake. Opening the sarcophagus reveals the corpse of the Cyclops Snake that was lady Shirishanu’s companion. Its single jeweled eye is worth 500 GP for alchemical purposes, and its skin will fetch an additional 250 GP.


The Lady's Possessions & A Secret Chamber

7. Reading Nook

On the north side of this room, there is a faux fireplace, richly carved. On the south side there is a reading nook, with a comfortable (and heavy) chair. On a small plain table several books of antique poetry with gilt spines, favorites of the Lady, are stacked. They are The Song of Ilagesh (100 GP), Meanderings in the Jade Garden (100 GP), and the now quite rare Impossible Verses (200 GP).

8. Mural Room

The north wall is a dazzling mural depicting the Lady with her head on the shoulder of Lathanon, the last of the Incandescent Kings. The tall and delicate Metaphysical Crown rests upon his brow, and the two seem at peace. The south wall depicts the Lady Shirishanu in a tomb wielding a long and elegant sword with a petal hand guard. Behind her a smaller second woman whose face bears tattoos holds a lantern up in the darkness. At the side of the lady a faceless lion strikes with a sharp claws, and a serpent with a huge single eye coils, its fangs bared. The three of them battle rotting tomb creatures. (The southern wall conceals a secret door. The mechanism is sprung by pressing the handle of her sword.)

9. Her Favorite Things

This large circular room has a domed ceiling, coming to an apex 20’ up. It is decorated with an image of the heavens above. Constellations unknown to the waking world can be seen, as well as the bright moon that emits a silvery glow. 

Glass cases stand to the north and south on marble columns at chest height. To the east there is a similar case on a raised dias, with four steps leading up to it. The case to the north is a bell jar that unfolds like the flowers of a petal when touched. It containing a long lock of the of white hair, resting on an illuminated parchment with an inscription in silver ink, “When we met you gave me a lock of your lustrous hair. Take mine as proof positive that I will join you when my time comes to travel to the heavens below.” The case to the south is a large glass box that evaporates when touched. With rests a gorgeous instrument carved of a strange white wood, with silver strings, long and sinuous (1000 GP).

The pedestal on the dias is bathed in a circle of moonlight that streams down from the inner moon. On it rests a heavy glass box that opens with an intricate latch. Within, resting on a cushion embroidered with silver thread (150GP)  is a book, bound in pearlescent leather. The pages show a beautiful looping script in a golden ink. It is the unfinished book of poetry that Lady Shirishanu was composing at the time of her death, In the Light of Other Moons. (It is a potent artifact, and is described at length here.)

The circle of moonlight that bathes the pedestal is a magical trap. Any ordinary item that enters the circle will be stained a silvery white. Anyone stepping within the circle of moonlight, or touching one of these infected items, must save vs. spells or become a tentacled white beast for 24 hours hungers ravenously for flesh and will attack living creatures relentlessly. The light may be occluded if something is extended upwards to block the beam, but anything that touches the beam will turn a silvery white in one round. On the second round, the contagion will flow 10' down the object towards the hands that are holding it. When objects are removed from the light they will return to normal. Moon Beast: HD6 AC3 Att: Tentacles/Tentacle 1d12 Morale:12 MV12.

10. The Petal Blade

As soon as anyone enters this room, lanterns with colored glass set into the walls ignite illuminating the space in a warm yellow glow. Across the room, a four-poster bed strewn with luxurious cushions is built into the wall. In the center of the room stands a raised pedestal, on top of which a sword rests on a velvet cushion. The sword is long and thin. Its hand-guard is fashioned in the shape of the petals of a flower, painted in white enamel with a warm inner glow. It is sheathed in a white scabbard embossed with abstract flowing designs, chased in platinum. There is something deadly and elegant about it. (This is the Petal Blade. It is described at the end of this post.)

As soon as the PCs step into the room, a form will suddenly appear on the divan, rising to address them. She has the white hair of the Zyanese and piercing golden eyes. Her cheeks are tattooed with faces from scalp to chin so that it appears almost as though she wears a three-faced mask.   She will introduce herself as Laluria, the Handmaiden to Lady Shirishanu. She will inform the party that she bound herself to guard even in death the Lady’s most precious possession from falling into unworthy hands. She will issue a challenge to the group to choose their most able fighter to face her in a duel to the death. Should she slay their champion, they must leave the Petal Blade at once and never return. Should they triumph, she will return finally to pass through the gates of Ushanpoor, the Brass City of the Dead, having fulfilled her oath. She is a member of the Guild of Horoscops, a sixth level monk who fights with weirding ways.

Laloria Monk 6 S10 D15 C16 I12 W13 Ch10 HP25 AC4 Att:1d12. She gets 3 attacks every 2 rounds MR:12 MV:180 If she hits by more than 5 she stuns her opponents for 1d6 rounds and has a % chance of instantly killing him equal to his (descending) AC.

If she is attacked, or subjected to hostile spells, by anyone other than the party's selected champion, she will spring an identical double to face each new assailant. This effect holds for the doubles as well, should they be attacked by a new assailant. Note, however, that only one double can be produced for each additional assailant. So if a member of the party has already produced a double, he may attack any or all of the doubles without additional effect. (There can be at most as many Lalorias as there are members of the party.) Laloria will not pursue someone who fights honorably but then flees, although she will taunt them. However, should she be caused to double, or should someone steal the Petal Blade while she fights, then she will pursue the tomb robbers throughout the Cenotaph.  


11. Empty Room

This 30x30 room has decorative columns in the corner. The molding is decorated with the heraldry of Saint Garanax, a white rose with a golden stem, and the flashing lightning over a lake—paint and goldleaf over plaster. There is a pit trap on the third and fourth stair—an illusion covers a 20’ drop into enormous razors set into the floor roll 5d6 under dex or take 3d6 damage.  

12. Shrine to Sir Garanax

This square room is of worked stone, with carved arches depicting jungle scenes. The room is dominated by a large alcove on its north wall, in which a marble statue stands. He is a knight, wearing platemail of the waking world. His massive shield, dented and worn, is held as though warding off a blow, while his other powerful arm holds a great warhammer. It is raised in the air at that apex of its ascent, as though about to come crashing down on a foe. He wears no helm. His face is handsome but weathered by many seasons on the battlefield. Although his jaw is clenched, his eyes are bright and almost joyful. Those PCs from Rastingdrung in the waking world, will immediately recognize the statue as one of Saint Garanax, champion of the Chatelaine of Storms, and founder of the fearsome Stormriders. (One hundred years ago, Garanax brought a mated pair of the giant war crows from Zyan to earth that serve to this day as the Stormriders' mounts.)

John Blanche

An inscription under the statue reads, “Sir Garanax, loyal knight of the Lady Shirishanu, who protected her from her enemies in the darkest hour of her need.” Five feet in front of the statue, two grooves have been carved into the floor, accompanied by the following inscription, “If you think yourself worthy of Garanax’s blessing, kneel before him here.”

Should someone kneel in the grooves, a blue light will begin to crackle around Garanax. Should the person remain kneeling, the light will coalesce around the hammer, arcing out into a lightning bolt that springs towards the kneeler. At this point, he has the option of throwing himself to the side, saving vs. breath weapon for ½ damage, or to remain in place and take the full damage of the ensuing lightning bolt (8d6). If the kneeler takes the lightning bolt full force and lives, then a voice will ring out saying:

“Well met. Find now a saddle on the likeness of Vyanir beyond the arch that faces me. The saddle is the twin of my own. They were fashioned from the hide of the Sanguine Worm, whom I slew in mighty battle. The wonderous craftsmen of Zyan made from them a pair of saddles fit for the breaking of wild crows. May the one you choose serve you as well as Vyanir served me.” The saddle provides significant advantages in attempts to break a wild crows. (This item is also to be detailed in a later post.)

13. TRAP!

This 100’ long natural tunnel has an unusually smooth floor and walls that glistens in torchlight as though polished. In the center of the passageway, there is a 20’ pressure plate that is triggered by 30 Lbs or more weight. When it is depressed, a pair of blade springs from the floor, sweeping the corridor on tracks running at 2 ft and 4ft heights, beginning at the northern end and disappearing into the floor at the southern end end. They do 6d6 damage if they strike, save vs. breath weapon for half. (Those crawling on their bellies avoid them.) The next round after the blades run by, nozzles in the ceiling will descend, spraying acid over the length of the corridor to clear it of any remains. Those still in the corridor must roll 4d6 under dex to clear the space before the spray begins. Those caught within take 3d6 damage. If not immediately scraped from the person, it does an additional 1d6 per round for 3 rounds.

Careful examination of the floor or walls will show it to be covered in some kind of impervious resin. The tracks, although cleverly concealed, will be visible to anyone meticulously examining the walls of the passage. The nozzles above will only be visible if the 12' ceiling is examined closely with a light source.

Accurate representation of the SPIRIT of this trap

14. Statue of Vyanir, War Crow

The cave entrance opens into a small natural cavern. It is dominated by a statue on the western side of an enormous crow. Seven feet tall, it is carved of black rock. Its wings, painted with red streaks, are spread, and its beak is open as if in a cry. On its back there is a carved an ornately worked saddle, which has been painted a lustrous green. From its center an enormous, great orange eye rises up from the harness in a setting up to where a riders chest would be. The whole thing is wonderously fashioned. (Should the blessing of Garanax have been received in area 12, the harness will have materialized from the stone, and will be detachable. I will discuss the Twin of Vyanir's Saddle in a subsequent post.)

15. Secret Entrance

The entrance here is 70’ east and 30’ up. It is concealed, both by the hanging vines and by an illusion that makes it appear as natural rock. 


The Petal Blade

Lathanon, last of the Incandescent Kings, had the Petal Blade forged for Lady Shirishanu. Against the advice of his sages, he had his sorcerers pluck a blazing comet from its path in the heavens above to supply its substance. With this mercurial metal, his alchemical smiths mixed the living essence of the massive orchid that has grown from beneath the stones in the council chamber of the visible king since Zyan’s founding. (This orchid now is, sadly, dying. Many say that the hopes of Zyan will die with it.)  

The Petal Blade is a long and thin sword. It sits in a white metal scabbard bearing flowing abstract designs chased in platinum. The hand guard of the sword is shaped as the petals of a flower, painted in white enamel with a warm inner glow. When the sword is drawn from its scabbard, the sound is of wind rustling reeds in late summer. The blade shines like polished silver, but is hard and sharp. It does not hack or batter, but slips past armor, seeking out the recesses, the hidden vulnerabilities, where the blood can be released from the soft flesh that conceals it. It is an intelligent weapon driven by a romantic sense of honor and whimsical humor. It hates emissaries of the Hidden King and seeks crafty vengeance against them. Although desires and emotions flow from it into its wielder, it rarely asserts its will in a direct fashion.

The Petal Blade is +2/+4 vs. agents of the Hidden King. Its intelligence is 16 and ego is 12.