The party emerged from the base of a chasm to behold a rich landscape. The vista spread as far as they could see - pastureland, dense forests, hills and rivers. On all sides the Valley was bordered by mountain peaks, an age-old barrier against intrusions from the outside world. Everything indicated that the Valley had lain undisturbed for centuries... right up to this moment.
The Lost Valley of Hutaaka
The companions hopped excitedly from one foot to the other, having finally entered the Lost Valley. Their months of searching seemed almost at an end. Somewhere within the Valley lay the fabled lost treasure, the wealth of a civilisation, forgotten by modern Man. Stephen in particular was keen to uncover the riches, motivated by longing to outperform his erstwhile tormentor, the wizard Golthar. His family deserved a share of the riches as compensation for the hardship they endured at the hands of the Iron Ring slavers and their goblin associates.
Following an ancient cobbled path, the party - comprising Drewen, Threy, Karnus and his charmed bodyguard Sligh, Vasily, Lana and Stephen - found themselves entering the remains of a village. Mud huts stood around a central market area. In the midst of the square stood a once-magnificent stone fountain. The party entertained the notion that the ancient waters might possess healing qualities, but thought better when they approached and found the pool's contents to be stagnant. Perched atop the fountain were several stirges, which took to the air to assault the party as they drew near. Once they had been despatched, and upon closer inspection of the stonework, the stonework of the monument was found to have been defaced, seemingly with precision. The head of the central statue had been hewn off and dumped to one side, while the face and hands of the beings depicted on the sides of the pedestal had been chipped at with chisels. The party members suspected an uprising, perhaps a workers' rebellion. In any case the village was deserted and any rebellion would have taken place centuries ago.
The party progressed through other villages where similar sights were found. After crossing a wide river the path led into a deeper area of the Valley, where an abandoned temple was located. In a chamber at the rear of the complex, inside a recess in a crumbling wall, Karnus found a sleeping creature which resembled a dog. The blue-robed mage edged forward curiously. The animal snored contentedly, its rust-coloured haunches rising and falling. Suddenly its eyes opened, burning red; this was no mere dog. The hellhound reared and charged at Karnus. In calm control, the mage chanted words of magic and summoned an arrow of sapphire magic to blast the beast. He scarcely had enough time to hurl a dagger at the creature before it was upon him, claw and tooth savaging the wooden end of his quarterstaff. The thing unleashed its fiery breath but the nimble mage dodged aside, landing a thwack of his quarterstaff just a moment later. A further blow ensued, whereupon the hellhound breathed no more. Karnus' companions came racing into the chamber to find their companion casually snipping some of the dog's bristles for use as spell components.
Camp was made. Wolves howled through the night. Vasily roused the others during his watch and silently gestured into the forest which surrounded the shrine. Figures were moving among the trees. From their lumbering and silent movements, there could be no doubt that these were the undead. Curiously, the zombies seemed to be carrying something between them. Even more curiously, they paid the party no heed.
The next day while progressing toward the interior of the Valley, the party made a discovery - three dead bodies on the riverbank. Surely no-one had dwelled in or known about this place for a thousand years? The companions immediately suspected that Golthar and his cronies had followed them. Approaching the bodies it became clear that these corpses were not normal.
The 'humans' had died only a short time ago. They resembled normal men for the most part but exhibited larger heads, squarer shoulders, stooping stances and more rugged physiques. The party members gazed at one another in astonishment. Might these be the Valley's current inhabitants, they wondered.
Noise came from a short way off as a band of identical humanoids emerged from the undergrowth, astride giant lizards. The leader roared at the outlanders in a strange but familiar language, which only Karnus and Vasily understood clearly. These strangers spoke a distant Traladaran dialect. Vasily deduced that these humanoids could be none other than the Traldar - the ancestors of the people of Karameikos. Their race seemed to have evolved in a peculiar manner; having existed unknown for a thousand years, their physical forms had clearly altered during that period.
The Traldar leapt to the assumption that the outlanders had slaughtered their kinsmen. In the strange variation of Traladaran, Karnus and Vasily fought to make themselves understood, pointing out that the Traldar had been killed by weapons which the outlander party did not possess. There was also a set of tracks leading away from the scene. The Traldar accepted the logic. "After all," they stated, "you don't look anything like the Mutts."
This came as startling news. Not only did the Traldar inhabit the Valley, so too did descendants of the jackal-headed Hutaakans.
Each side was astounded to have encountered the other. Having established the outsiders' peaceful intentions, the Traldar invited the party to visit their village of Ronkan. The sun was low in the sky and the Traldar made clear that it would not be safe to remain outside after dark. That evening, the party was presented to the Traldar chieftain Guri-Ben Gahl. This rugged tribesman voiced his ill-feeling toward the evil, silver-tongued Hutaakans, the former oppressors of his people. Recently, he explained, the Traldar had rebelled against their jackal-headed masters, and were preparing to wage a final war from which they hoped to emerge victorious. Fewer than two hundred Hutaakans now lived, as opposed to their kind's mighty empire which had occupied the Valley and the land beyond in centuries gone by. Guri-Ben also mentioned how the dog-men were suspected of performing rituals to re-animate their dead as slaves for evil purposes. The party was extended his hospitality and also his protection against the cruelty of the treacherous Hutaakans.
The party spent two restful days and nights in Ronkan, conversing with the Traldar people and marvelling at their primitive culture. During the daytime they explored a small amount of the outlying regions, still getting their bearings on the geography of the Valley. Speaking with Guri-Ben, he professed that the Traldar had not heard of any "lost treasure". They did however state that the greedy Hutaakans had taken the best spoils of the land for themselves, which might be holed up in the last of their great cities - Byxata, over a day's walk to the west. All the same, the Traldar were displeased that their outlander guests wished to associate with the "Mutts", and repeated their warning to proceed with caution where any contact with the jackal-headed ones was concerned.
As night fell over the small but well-fortified town, a horn sounded and the town defences were raised. Almost at once, a moaning sound could be heard coming from beyond the town's defences. The party were roused from sleep and rushed to investigate the commotion. It became apparent that the forest outside the town was infested with Hutaakan undead! The jackal-headed zombies acted with an unsettling, united purpose as they approached carrying a battering ram. They began a tireless assault on the town's walls which continued long into the night.
To safeguard the town's weakening defences, Karnus devised a plan. He reached into the folds of his robe and drew out the magical stone which granted power over the element of Earth. Seating himself he began to concentrate; within minutes an earthen giant pulled itself out of the bedrock surrounding the town and began laying into the undead, one zombie at a time. Karnus bid his minion smite one zombie, then another, while the Traldar looked on in disbelief. They marveled at the power of this blue-robed man who could control the very ground itself. Soon little was left of the undead.
The horde, now dissipated, was clearly seeking something. Lana suggested that the suggestion town's gates should open a fraction to allow one or two of the zombies to enter. Their movements could then be observed while the party's clerics remained close by to prevent anything untoward from happening. Drewen ran to fetch the clerics but was unable to rouse Threy who was deep in slumber and snoring loudly.
The gates edged apart and a trio of zombies passed through. Proceeding along the main path through the town, they approached a hut and tore the door from its hinges. There were townsfolk within! Vasily stepped forward, still rubbing sleep from his eyes, and invoked a Turning but to his amazement it had no effect. For whatever reason the zombies continued undeterred. At once Lana and Karnus hurled daggers into the zombies' backs, and the two figures fell dead. Karnus raced to protect the inhabitants of the dwelling, and threw himself in front of a slumbering traladaran warrior. Karnus winced as the zombie's filthy claws raked his flesh, before retaliating with a swipe of his magical dagger. The zombie fell lifeless to the floor.
Assessing what damage had been done, Lana's mouth opened in horror. There lay one corpse too many within the hut - that of an ageing Traldar tribesman. Had he been slaughtered in his sleep by one of the zombies? Feeling wretched, Lana checked the old man's pulse but breathed a sigh of relief. His skin felt stone cold; he had evidently passed away in his sleep several hours ago.
After a short while, as the sun began to rise, the few remaining zombies ceased their assault on the town and retreated into the woods. Who was controlling them, the party demanded to know. The Hutaakans perhaps? The Traldar's allegations of evil magic seemed to have substance. In fact the Traldar scouts reported a ritual occurring in an abandoned shrine not far away from Ronkan. The heroes mounted lizards and went to investigate. Reaching the temple within less than an hour, the companions found a handful of Hutaakan priests in the midst of a ceremony. Watching from the undergrowth, things began to go wrong when a large contingent of undead emerged from the forest and began slaughtering the helpless priests. It seemed the Hutaakans might have been trying to lay the wandering undead spirits to rest. With their weapons readied, the outlanders went to the rescue!
During the ensuing skirmish, in the thick of heavy combat, Sligh chose to reveal his true colours. Karnus' charm spell had worn off days ago, yet the ex-bodyguard had maintained a pretence of allegiance. He had been biding his time, feigning allegiance while plotting when and how he should make his next move. He turned upon the blue-robed mage with his sword drawn! Lana ran to her fellow mage's aid - releasing magic missiles upon the treacherous fighter. Six bolts impacted forcefully into his substantial form but still he stood. Karnus and Lana closed with their daggers drawn and at last with great effort Sligh was felled.
Glancing around however after the fight, the priests had fled. With no better clues as to what had become of the priests, or what their strange ceremony had been trying to accomplish, Vasily stepped forward and employed clerical magic to converse with one of the deceased priests' bodies. The spirit spoke of a secret passageway inside the shrine, which Drewen had no difficulty in locating. The characters entered the hidden tunnel, following its murky length for many miles. At last the party caught up with the fleeing priests. Karnus conversed with the dog-headed clerics in Traladaran and offered to escort the priests safely back to their home village - Byxata. Could this be where the lost treasure was hidden, the companions wondered.
The party reached Byxata, now in ruins and crumbling badly but which had obviously once been a magnificent and opulent town. The outlay had been no doubt designed by the cultured Hutaakans, whereas the brutish Traldar had been employed to carry out the physical labour required to construct the many monuments and buildings. Undoubtedly much blood, sweat and tears had gone into the construction of towns such as this and others. Had the direction and learning offered by the Hutaakans been a reasonable price for the exploitation of the Traldar people?
The party was led through the town streets to the steps of a large shrine, one of few remaining Hutaakan temples, dedicated to their Immortal patron, the beast-headed Pflarr, in whose image his servants had been created. The companions were instructed that the Hutaakan High Priestess had recently died in mysterious surroundings, elsewhere in the valley. Her replacement was a younger but powerful cleric, the silver-furred Kforedz. Karnus acted as interpreter for his companions as some lengthy dialogue was conducted with the eloquent and haughty Kforedz. The High Priestess appeared friendly, extending her hospitality and offering the rest within the walls of Byxata. She assured the party that the Hutaakan undead were not controlled by her people. Rather, for some unknown reason when the Hutaakans bury their dead, the deceased were not permitted their rest; instead there was some evil, magical entity elsewhere within the Valley which exerted a controlling effect. The Traldar, Kforedz stated coolly, would avail of any opportunity to blame the Hutaakan people for any misfortune which happened to crop up.
It was suggested that the companions might help vanquish this evil. After lengthy communion with her Immortal patron, Kforedz was granted knowledge of how to conduct a unique ritual to banish the undead for good. But, she claimed, her knowledge was complete; to fully understand the task, a magical tome would be required from an abandoned Hutaakan crypt, far to the west within Traldar territory. To recover this tome, she entrusted Karnus with a carved wooden runestick. This item, she claimed, was the sole remaining legacy of a class of magic-wielding scholars from the Hutaakans' past. Karnus' eyes gleamed at the news; here was proof that the lost Hutaakan riches might contain magical items. The runestick wand, Kforedz explained, was charged with two spells to combat the crypt's evil enchantments, and would provide a key for entry. Armed with the wand, the party set out in search of the crypt.
The route to the crypt was straightforward, and with two hutaakan priests accompanying the party as guides there was no chance of becoming lost. Halfway along the road however, the party came upon a young girl sitting by the roadside, crying into the folds of her brown cloak. A human girl! She claimed to have been abandoned by her master - Golthar - in a recent fight against the Traldar. Being young and inexperienced (or so she claimed) she feared that she would be devoured by wild beasts if she remained on her own. Wary of her overly dramatic performance, the party nevertheless agreed to let the girl accompany them, offering her protection for the time being at least.
Reaching the tomb, the hutaakan priests refused to enter and stated that they would guard the entranceway while the companions ventured inside. Just before venturing into the tomb, Lana swore she caught a glimpse of yellow, flitting across the sky in one corner of her eye. Scowling, she informed her companions of the bad news.
The previous evening Karnus had memorised an incantation to decipher the runestick's Hutaakan script. After a few moments' chanting, the wording became clear! The first spell appeared to be a variant of the Knock spell; after Karnus spoke the runes aloud, a portion of the crypt's stone floor rose into the air momentarily, before dropping to smask into rock dust. A gaping hole was left in the ground beneath. Within the recess a tunnel could be made out, leading into the earth. A second spell from the runestick caused a ball of light to float down into the passageway, illuminating the way as brightly as daylight.
Karnus led his companions down and into the tunnel which led a long way before opening abruptly into a long chamber, plain but for a shelf fixed on a wall at the far end. In the bobbing magical light the companions could just about make out a book sitting upright upon the shelf. Underneath however a pile of rags and bone began to stir... a mummy! Its snout was ridden with maggots, and dirty bandages flailed from every limb as it rose to its feet and stumbled toward the intruders. The clerics were appalled when their turning abilities proved to be of no use. Lana and Karnus unleashed magic missiles, then a solid blow from Drewen's hammer whacked the creature's head clean across the chamber. The companions stared dully at one another, having expected a tougher fight (assuming their foe had been a proper mummy, that is). At least none of them had sustained any harm.
The party emerged back out into fresh air, Karnus bearing the book with care, so as to not crumble its decaying pages. Outside however, a surprise lay in store, which became apparent when the Hutaakan priests were noticed lying dead at the tomb entrance. Out stepped a familiar figure robed in yellow. Lana snarled and sent a dagger flying toward the midriff of the murderous magician, but his bodyguards stepped in and deflected the wayward dagger with ease. A fight ensued, Lana and Karnus itching for stabs at Golthar, Drewen battling the muscle-bound fighter Gacctis, while Threy and Vasily occupied themselves with the remainder of the slavers' minions. The thief-girl whom the party had taken in on the roadside outside Byxata revealed her true nature, drawing a long dagger from her cloak to stab Vasily viciously in the back. She professed how it was she who, in Threshold in the disguise of an old woman, had lured the party to the riverside where they would face battle with Golthar's minions and the troll. She herself had been a spy for the Iron Ring in the town. But no more. The girl's threat was quickly neutralised, and her unconscious form handed to the Hutaakans for justice.
Golthar escaped by means of magical flight when the tide of battle turned against him, grabbing a dagger from the belt of his bodyguard Gacctis as he did so. Also in the fight Threy managed to invoke a Holding against Golthar's clerical colleague, the woman Jolenta. Upon being released, the priestess was convinced to repent of her ways and of her allegiance to the Iron Ring, and so joined the party for a short while.
Jolenta vowed revenge upon the cowardly members of her own party who had abandoned her. (She would later leave the party and rejoin the Iron Ring as one of its highest ranking members!). As a display of trust Threy went so far as to return the enchanted black mace which he had taken from the woman during their previous encounter in Threshold. Jolenta lent valuable assistance to the party for a short while, before parting company. Before she did so, however, a conversation took place between her and Threy. The priestess declared her opinion that Threy seemed not to be a true follower of Chaos. For a long time Jalenta had kept company with the most egotistical and honourless dregs of society, and could not fathom how Threy managed to function in the company of his more lawful-minded travelling companions. She assured her clerical counterpart that their two pathes were more than likely to cross again one day.
The party resumed their journey back to Byxata without their guides, and presented the magical book to the High Priestess. Kforedz retreated to study the text, before demanding the party's services once again. She announced a need for a bowl from the ruined Great Temple of Pflarr, which lay to the north within Traldar land. She and her acolytes offered to accompany the companions to the Temple, where they could find the bowl for her then witness the ritual to end the undead problem. The party suspected that the High Priestess might be exploiting their presence within the Valley, but consented to the proposal nevertheless.
Arriving at the grandiose-but-dilapidated Temple around noon the next day, Lana used a casting of the Knock spell to open the main doors. The party peered inside, into darkness beyond. To their horror, a massive crowd of zombies were found sheltering within. The undead routinely conducting their rampages at night; it appeared they were using the temple as a refuge during daylight hours. Hastily shutting the doors once more it was decided to return later that evening, when the temple would hopefully be deserted.
Hours passed and the sun retreated beyond the horizon. A hole was located in the Temple's roof and Karnus invoked a Fly spell to venture inside. A small flock of stirges attacked him but were despatched once drawn toward the remainder of the party. Karnus reached the interior of the now-empty Temple and opened the great doors for his companions. The upper level was found to contain little beyond robing chambers and a records room from which Karnus and Lana liberated a few choice scrolls. Proceeding onward, there was nowhere left to search but a single stairwell leading down into catacombs. Kforedz and her assistants retreated to the robing chambers in order to prepare for the ceremony ahead.
The companions followed a subterranean tunnel into a crypt, a long chamber filled with stone sarcophagi. Two shadowy figures could vaguely be seen shuffling through the dark far corners of the room. Threy invoked a Turning; at once the figures shuffled away down a side-passage. Finding little more of interest within the room, it was decided to prise open one of the sarcophagi. Warily, the companions eased back a stone lid. As if on cue a figure arose from within, swathed in ancient bandages - a mummy! This one proved more fearsome than the last such foe the party had encountered.
The tide of battle quickly turned against the party. The mummy's festering touch broke through each of the companions' defences, inflicting a deathly chill which paralysed the combatants! Each of the companions stood stock still and all seemed lost as the mummy advanced, frighteningly slowly, to rend his victims apart. At the last moment there came sharply spoken words, and the mummy wrenched itself away from the party. Kforedz had arrived, resplendent in her ceremonial robes, and banished the undead monster to a far section of the crypt. Her assistants stepped forward speaking words of prayer to release the companions from their frozen states.
The opened sarcophagus was found not to contain the bowl which the party was seeking. The passage which led on from the crypt was followed whereupon the companions were confronted by the shuffling figures which Threy had expelled from the crypt - wights! Lana and Karnus hurled magical daggers, scoring hits, then Lana (with Mirror Image defences in place) and Drewen (after gulping his potion of heroism) closed for hand-to-hand combat against the deadly, life-draining creatures. The wights were soon vanquished, and the dead-end passage returned to an eery calm. Drewen commented on a strange feeling, and proceeded to make a thorough search of the end section of the corridor. After just a few moments there came a satisfying click and a section of wall slid aside. Beyond there lay a Hutaakan figure, clad in sheening ceremonial armour and around whose neck hung a platinum star, the symbol of Pflarr. The former high priestess! Clutched under one arm was the ornate golden bowl which Kforedz required to banish all undead spirits from the valley and put the evil curse to rest.
As the party stepped forward to claim the bowl, the body began to convulse and a jet of steam rose escaped its mouth. This smoke coalesced within instants into a vaguely human-like shape, with evilly glowing eyes which regarded the party with malicious intent. A wraith!! Magic missiles raked through the air as the undead demon advanced. Drewen led hand-to-hand combat against with the creature. Fierce combat ensued, the companions dodging the energy-draining attacks, but finally emerged victorious.
Still there was no rest. As the wraith dissipated into nothingness, Drewen and Lana became aware of silence emanating from where their companions had been standing moments before. Why was there no congratulatory cheering, they wondered?! Turning, the pair came face-to-face with the mummy which Kforedz's Turning had affected a short while earlier. Lana attempted to cast a spell but became paralysed when the monster touched her exposed flesh. Drewen stood alone against the monster. Grasping his hammer and with a ferocious cry, the dwarf closed to defend his comrades. The fight was long and ferocious, the nimble dwarf caught the mummy's raking claws on his shield and twisted to land a few mighty strikes of his own. His companions had no choice but to watch in paralysed terror, barely able to breathe, as they willed on their brave friend. At long last, with a hearty dwarven battle cry, Drewen spun his hammer with both hands and impacted straight through the monster's chest. The mummy staggered, its filthy bandges flailing, then collapsed. Countless scratches marred the dwarf's face, rivulets of blood streaming freely down his cheeks, the wounds not clotting in the locks of his brown beard, but nonetheless... Drewen was victorious.
For his heroism, it was agreed Drewen should be granted whatever treasures lay within the mummy's sarchophagus, now that its protector had been vanquished. Thus Drewen received a golden orb and a jewel-encrusted sceptre for his efforts.
Read on - The Valley of Hutaaka, Part Two
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