Our story opened on a party of four adventurers having gathered in the Explorers’ Guild of Tulesa for a briefing on a rather special mission they had just accepted. The party included a human paladin named Khida, a goblin kineticist named Mud, a human inquisitor named Zakiya, and an odd-looking human kensai named Blade. The four waited in the dining hall of the Explorers’ Guild for the guild master to make his appearance, which came soon enough. Before long, Rufus Blackwell entered the room and addressed the group, indicating they should follow him to a private briefing chamber off the main hall. Following him in, the group took their seats where Rufus indicated that they should sit. He began the briefing for the mission that they had selected, explaining their total payment from the guild would be 3000 gold pieces: half now for equipment and half on completion of the work. They would also each be allotted 100 gold pieces per day for expenses, and they would get the standard deal from the guild that allowed them to keep any loot they found that was not a mission objective. Rufus explained that their work would take them to the now abandoned city of Latpasa, near the desert edge. There, they would be tasked with locating and exterminating the remaining shamblers that infested the city so that people could return. The mission was straightforward but exceedingly dangerous. To get them on task quickly, the leadership of Tulesa had made available for them the desert trimaran Plainsrunner, captained by Zedin Alasan, one of the settlements most gifted pilots. The Plainsrunner would be ready to depart as night fell that evening, and the group would have until then together what supplies they needed and meet the ship at the docks near the base of the hill.
After an afternoon of buying supplies and food for a long journey into the desert, the group met and boarded Plainsrunner at the docks. Following some brief introductions with the crew, the ship departed for the deep desert. The transit for the next three days was relatively uneventful, with Plainsrunner taking up an easterly patrol route from the settlement before a slow turn to the north. At 6 AM on the third day, the ship slowed and began preparing the experimental new deployment sled for the party. The sled would allow the party and their gear to safely depart the ship without the ship stopping, by stepping onto a platform that would be extended from the back of the ship as a line paid out. The party loaded their gear, stepped onto the platform, and were soon dumped unceremoniously off the back of the ship and onto the white sand. The ride was a bit bumpier than they were expecting, but soon enough they came to a stop on a sled with a long rope attached to it that had been dropped from the back of the ship, now slowly disappearing into the distance.
They would have the next 27 days in Latpasa to complete their mission, at which point Plainsrunner would return to pick them up. If they were not ready to leave by that point, they would be assumed dead. Another ship retracing Plainsrunner’s patrol route would be along in 18 days if the party was done early. With a long trek across the desert ahead of them, the party set out. It was only a few hours of early morning hiking before they were stopped and attacked by wildlife in the desert – an enormous pack prowler, a giant hyena that was likely the companion of a Dune giant. A fierce and frenzied fight ensued, the pack prowler leaping from party member to party member trying to take someone down for a neck-breaking killer bite. Alas, he never succeeded, though he did manage to inflict a few wounds that would last before he was laid low by the party.
Weathering the hottest part of the day in their partially buried tents in order to rest, the party departed again as the sun began to dip low on the horizon, marching toward Latpasa. For the next three days, the party trudged, closing the long miles toward the town without marking much excitement. While marching on day six, they observed four bright dots in the sky to the south moving East to West. They never quite figured out what the dots were, and so kept moving toward their goal. By day seven, they were 8 miles out from the city and the tall, legendary walls and road gates of Latpasa were visible in the distance. As they march closer, they observed an explosion in the city, followed by a column of smoke. Other less intense columns of smoke were observed rising from various parts of the city. Blade released his bird, Bolt, to take wing and scout the situation ahead of them, looking for trouble that might be marked by the sighted explosion. Quickly returning, Bolt spotted debris on the far side of the wall near the sight of the explosion, but no movement. He did report that there was lots of movement near the wall, saying he saw many slow-moving people.
As the group moved closer to the wall, they saw that the people Bolt had observed were actually herds of shamblers moving along the outer wall, tracing a path through a trench they had worn walking the circle again and again over many months. The party attacked, easily dispatching the two groups of shamblers closest to their point of approach of the wall, using a series of careful and methodical attacks. As they drew to the wall, the group worked together to get up and over it, landing atop the wide parapet and making their way along to the nearest tower. Arriving at the tower, they entered to commence a search from top to bottom before emerging at the ground level inside the city. Near the very top of the tower, they found the remains of the commander of the city watch, who had apparently died defending the stairs from shamblers, now evidenced only by the piles upon piles of clothes and loose sand that made the stairs down treacherous. They learned this commander’s name was Basren Najafi.
Emerging quietly into the street from the guardhouse at the base of the tower, the group consulted their city map about where they might try first. Settling on a nearby trade compound, they moved out. Sure enough, the trade compound was overrun by shamblers, shuffling to and fro in an endless loop of unimportant activity until they saw their target. When they saw the group, they rushed to the attack, but there simply were not enough of them to properly challenge the party. In short order, the way was cleared and they searched the compound. The trade compound itself was arranged as a pair of large warehouses, with a common yard between them intended for vendor stalls. The trade houses each contained a series of independent compartments, originally intended to separate the goods of specific owners. The group found a few interesting items within the warehouses, but they had mostly been stripped of anything of value. Eventually, the western warehouse yielded the most interesting find of the two buildings: an intact barrel of the compound used to create the shambler disaster. After securing and disposing of the barrel, the party moved on to a pair of strong rooms in the back of the western warehouse. In the strong rooms, they found two large groups of wholly burned bodies. Evidence in the room indicated some of these people had been burned alive and someone had entered the room to search them for valuables after they were murdered. There was a small collection of personal effects left in the corner, apparently collected but found to be of little value. Among the collection, they found several holy symbols of Mahari, several holy symbols of Rustum, and one holy symbol of Ahura Mazda. It seemed this had been the collected clergy that still remained in Latpasa when someone very evil came calling.
The party left the compound, disgusted and somewhat disheartened by their find. Moving north, they came across a larger group of shamblers but were able to pick them apart with careful tactics and patience. Immediately after this group was dispatched, the party was threatened by another group of shamblers, at least 60 strong. This group, unlike the others, did not simply charge in a mad rush. They seem to fragment, coordinating their movements. Some held back until the party showed a weak flank, and then moved to take advantage of that gap in their defense. Through coordination of their own, Blade, Khida, and Zakiya were able to hold various fronts as Mud tore through the groups from afar. This horde took longer to dispatch and it was a close thing, but the party prevailed.
They continued to move carefully through the city, attacking groups of shamblers when they could do so safely, and avoiding others. Eventually, they made their way to the south gatehouse and entered to take a brief respite. The inside of the gatehouse appeared to have been repaired sometime after the initial attack, with new timbers used to shore up damaged walls and some doors replaced. As they rested inside the gatehouse, the party heard noises of a battle nearby. Theorizing this battle may involve cultists, survivors, or both; the party rushed to intervene. They found a small group of Riyaqan people under attack by shamblers in the street. Lending aid, the party was able to help them dispatch the group quickly and end the battle. The man leading the group introduced himself as Salyat Qarda – an officer of the Latpasa city guard and now the leader of a small group of refugees living inside the city and hunted by cultists that took up residence here some time after the first attack. Sizing up the party after a brief interrogation, Salyat agreed to give them a place to sleep for the night in his safe house inside the city. Once they arrived, not everyone at the safe house was happy to see the party, worried they might be cultist infiltrators. This led to some measure of tension the party bedded down for the night and got to know their new friends.
By the following morning, the party learned that Qarda and the other refugees intended to remain in the city until they found a woman named Zari Najafi. Zari was the daughter of Basren Najafi, the guard commander the party had found dead earlier, leaning against a door, when they first entered the city through one of the towers. They knew she was still alive and had been kidnapped by the cultists. Once she was found they would consider leaving, but they did not intend to escape with any living refugees left behind. Reasoning that their goals aligned in this matter (as hunting for her should bring them into close contact with the cultists that were no doubt responsible for maintaining the threat of the shambler presence in Latpasa) the party agreed to add findings Zari to their goals and set off for the last place that she had been seen – being dragged off by cultists toward Queen’s Keep in the middle of the city, months ago.
It was not long before the party came into contact with a large herd of shamblers standing stock still in the streets that would otherwise allow them access to the keep. Blade sent his companion skyward to scout, who quickly located two cultists standing on a nearby roof, easily identified by their black and red robes. The party was simultaneously attacked by the herd of shamblers and the cultists, one of whom seemed to have some measure of control over the shamblers actions. Intelligently focusing their opening efforts and attacks on the cultists, the party fought hard to dispatch the pair. One of them seemed to be a spellcaster, while the other was a skilled melee combatant. He charged the party with blades out, moving with incredible speed as he landed the first of several blows with his jagged black short swords. Meeting his charge had on, Blade and Khida cut him down in short order. Meanwhile, Mud had blasted the spellcaster out of existence while Zakiya held the first of the arriving shamblers at bay. With the cultist dispatched, the party fell into a well-practiced pattern of retreats and attacks in order to dispatch the now leaderless mob. Returning to check the bodies of the cultists, the party found a few items of value and one piece of intelligence – a note scrawled with the numbers “7358”.
The party returned to the safe house to drop off the loot and information that they had located before heading back toward the keep. When they arrived this time, they found several cultists standing on a balcony of the Queen’s Keep. One of them introduced himself as Ibrahim – the new master of the Children of Ahriman. His demand was simple: leave now if you want to live. He claimed that Latpasa now belonged to the Children, and they would enforce that claim with violence if necessary. Hordes of shamblers marched into the streets like highly disciplined infantry in response to Ibrahim’s commands. Sensing that this might not be a fight they could win, the party began looking for options. Soon, Mud found one. At his coaxing, the party began working at an extremely heavy grate that led into the sewer below the street, as the shambler army marched forth. It was a concerted effort over several valuable seconds, but the party eventually dislodged the grate and dove into the sewer below. With a little luck, they could use the sewers to get under the keep itself before anyone caught up to them.
As they navigated the confusing sewer tunnels, they could hear the thumps of the massed footsteps in the streets above them. Shamblers seemed to be spreading out, trying to cover all of the entrances to the sewers to ensure they were there when the party poked their heads above street level again. When the party did not reappear, Ibrahim upped the ante a bit, sending some special surprises into the sewer after the party. As they arrived at an intersection in the sewer, pipes leading in from the street above began to stream wet sand just ahead of the party. It piled onto the floor with a sloppy slapping sound and began to move and slide of its own accord. Within seconds, it had assembled itself into a massive body well over 10 feet tall, with a fist larger than their goblin companion. And as they stood in awe of the size of this new sand shambler, the thing lashed out. The tunnel rumbled and cracked as the beast smashed about, trying to flatten members of the party against the walls or floor. The few times it managed to connect with a blow proved devastating, straining the party’s ability to stay on their feet. From afar, Mud poured hot damage into the thing as the rest of the party attempted to split its attention and prevent it from focusing on any one person. In the end, their tactics worked and the violently motivated pile of sand was dispatched back into just a pile of muddy slime. Moving on, the party soon came to a series of rooms that seemed to have some engineering purpose for the tunnel system.
Hearing faint noises ahead, the party began sneaking as they moved into these rooms. The light was poor and the floor slick. They would need to be cautious in order not to be seen or heard before they were ready. Soon enough, they came across a cultist as he worked alone in a room. Jumping him from stealth, they immediately subdued him. A few moments later, they came across a much more capable cultist. This man was dressed similarly to the martial expert they had faced in the streets above. He moved quickly and with purpose, but was not evenly matched against the party working on his own. Though he connected with a few blows, he was easily dispatched. Checking him, they found a set of keys on his person which would prove invaluable as they moved further in and further up into the keep.
A few hallways later, the party got the drop on a cult librarian named Lelan. He was sleeping when the party approached but woke as they drew near. After a brief parlay that uncovered little, the battle was joined. Immediately learning he was a capable spellcaster, the party went all out trying to kill him quickly. Unfortunately, the fight drew the attention of other cultists nearby in the complex. Within a few seconds, four more showed up and joined the fight. As the fight moved out of the room and down the hallway, Blade bit off a little more than he could chew and fell to the onslaught of two of the cultists. He momentarily regained consciousness, electing to press the attack rather than retreat. His sacrifice was noble and no doubt bought his companions time rally and force a victory, but in the end, Blade paid with his life as he fell a second time. A cruel spell from the librarian struck Zakiya blind moments before the librarian’s life was snuffed out. The party was victorious, but at great cost, and weren’t in any shape to press the attack further into the keep. Collecting their fallen and everything of value they could find, the party retreated back into the sewers. They followed the sewer tunnels as best they could further south into the city, and toward the safe house, before returning to the surface.
Arriving back at the safe house, the party took refuge and arranged a proper cremation for Blade. Distributing what they did not need of the captured equipment to the various refugees, the party arranged a barter of Blade’s valuable armor with a cleric named Javon, in exchange for lifting the curse on Zakiya and restoring her sight. The party had managed to return with a single live captive, whom Salyat questioned aggressively during the night. Awaking in the morning refreshed, the party met a man named Tavor who agreed to accompany them back to the keep, since they were now one shy and the odds were stacked even further against them. They accepted his company, reasoning they would need all the help they could muster. And with that, they set off for another go at Ibrahim and his remaining cultists.
Again taking to the tunnels, the party arrived back the engineering levels below the keep with little trouble, meeting only a couple of large, slime-covered serpents in the sewers. In a room full of mud they had previously cleared, the party found two cultists bathing without their clothes, and attacked while their guard was down. They quickly subdued and knocked out the pair, venturing further into the complex after binding them. As they made their way through the confusing array of halls and rooms, the party eventually came to a door guarding an abnormally cold section of the compound. Proceeding in, they found an eerie subterranean cathedral – long since converted from the wholesome worship for which it was designed into a blasphemous altar of death. 12 cultists knelt in the room facing the altar. The party challenged them, and then investigated when the cultists failed to respond. They found that all their bodies were held in place by creative binding with wire. The entire lot was long dead.
Upon this discovery, the party was immediately confronted by Ibrahim and four seemingly intelligent shamblers. They quickly discovered that Ibrahim was projecting himself via some illusory magic, but that hopefully meant he was at least nearby. The four shamblers were very real and very dangerous. They charged and tore into the party, with the melee spreading about the dank chamber and stirring up a great quantity of dirt that reeked of rot. A couple of the party members narrowly escaped falling during the combat, with Tavor proving his worth as he tore into shamblers with reckless abandon alongside his new comrades. Soon enough, the chamber fell silent as the last of these new shamblers was put down. But even as the party watched, their bodies were slowly reassembling themselves. It was obvious they would not be down for long. Looking around the chambers, the party located four small containers that appeared to be canopic jars. Reasoning that these might serve as phylacteries for whatever foul magic animated the four shamblers, the party did not hesitate to destroy them. With their destruction, the reanimation of the scattered piles ceased. The party was given only a moment to enjoy the victory, as the illusion of Ibrahim taunted them before vanishing. Searching the room, they found piles of clothes – probably the old clothes of converted cultists who no longer needed them. Rooting around in the clothes for suitable bedding material, Mud found a curious circular object, decorated with evenly spaced runes and hieroglyphs. Of little interest to him, he handed it off to the other members of the party as he searched for just the perfect pants to incorporate into a new nest.
Deeper in the complex, the party found what appeared to be a jail block. Hanging in irons, the bodies of several flayed men made for grim decor on the walls. As they examined the men, the party determined one was still barely alive and they did what they could to stabilize him. They learned his name was Silas, and he had been lashed here as punishment for failure to deal with the refugees. In exchange for information about exactly where to find Ibrahim and how to confront him, the party healed and freed Silas. They sent him on his way with a few potions and tools to make his way into the city. Following Silas’s instructions, they struck out upstairs to the courthouse on the keep grounds, and toward their confrontation with Ibrahim.
They found the man waiting for them on the main floor of the courthouse, surrounded by several versions of shamblers that he had created. It was apparent that the man had been hard at work perfecting the craft that Sadeesh had started. As the battle commenced, he sent his minions forward to block the party’s advance as he cast spells from the air in the center of the courthouse. Sandy corpses exploded right and left as the minions threw themselves at the party, each seeking the best advantage for its own sacrifice to serve its master. Ibrahim’s harassing spells eventually turned to direct damage as the party worked their way closer to him, paying for each inch of gain with more bloodshed.
Escalating to ever higher levels of rage, Tavor was knocked low several times. Each time he was brought back to his feet by the party as they continued to advance, rapidly drawing Khida’s healing reserves to dangerous lows. After a couple of solid strikes on Ibrahim, Mud found himself targeted by a particularly nasty spell, which literally drained all the strength from his body. To the horror of his companions, he collapsed like a marionette whose strings had been cut. Together Tavor, Khida, and Zakiya pushed for one final charge and brought Ibrahim down. Knocking him unconscious, they tied his hands and feet and gagged him.
Searching the remainder of the courthouse, the party soon found Zari imprisoned in a chamber on the second floor. Literally collared and chained to the ceiling in the center of a large lab, she had been forced to continue Robert Pinan’s work for Sadeesh. She was surrounded by detailed notes on many versions of the shambler serum, and exact plans for the explosive barrels that had delivered most of the shambler apocalypse. She also had recipes for some of the advanced serums that Ibrahim had her create, and some journals on what things might cure this terrible plague. Collecting Zari and her notes, the party returned to the safe house and made plans to eradicate the rest of the shamblers inhabiting the city, now that the cultist threat had been dispatched. After the refugees removed the magic afflicting Mud, they joined forces and spent the next few weeks completing the mission, street by street and building by building.
Three and half weeks later, the party, Tavor, and Zari made their way back into the desert to rendezvous with Plainsrunner for the trip back to Tulesa. The Explorers’ Guild and the settlement leadership would be very interested indeed in what they had found and accomplished in Latpasa.