So the PCs were last seen fleeing into the night, after escaping from the Temple of the Golden Lotus. They were convinced that the monks were up to something sinister, but their captive sadly succumbed to massive brain trauma without reawakening - probably something to do with being hit on the head with a fucking door - so they needed someone else to question. Heading to the nearest stupa indicated on Hash's sketch map, they noticed that it was evidently being maintained and inhabited, with neat channels of water and gardens of golden lotus growing around it. Concluding that this would be a good chance to learn more about what the monks were up to, they dressed Sovan up in the dead monk's robes and sent him in to pose as a messenger from the temple, ostensibly to warn them about the dangerous band of travellers who had just escaped from it. The monks within thanked him for the news, and asked him whether these people were associated with 'the old order'. Sovan, bluffing desperately, guessed that they probably were, and the monks looked serious and sad and said that it was tragic that such divisions had been necessary, but that the work they were doing had to be done, regardless of the cost to themselves or anyone else. Was it not for that very reason that they had come here, reclaiming this stupa from the hungry ghosts who had haunted it? Sovan agreed heartily and left as quickly as possible.
|Monks: 1. Hungry Ghosts: 0.|
Concluding they needed to know more, but fearing that the power of the stupas was protecting the monks from mind-altering magic (which they had seemed oddly resistant to back at the temple), the PCs hit upon a plan to lure them out by staging a 'hungry ghost' of their own. Using Command Corpse on the dead monk's body, they ordered it to start stumbling and moaning around near the stupa, while illusion magic was used to give it an unearthly glow. Sure enough, the monks came rushing out to exorcise it, at which point the PCs unleashed a barrage of Hold Person and Charm Person spells which left them all either paralysed or charmed. Leaping out of cover, the PCs then staged a heroic 'battle' with the animated corpse, before telling the charmed monks that they were secret foreign agents of the Golden Lotus who had come to save them from this undead horror. (At this point Circe went off on a mad tangent about how the paralysed monks had been frozen by the weight of their guilt and would only recover if everyone started confessing their sins, but the rest of the party shushed her.)
Claiming to have just arrived from overseas, they quizzed the monks on what they were doing out here, and learned that they were performing one part of an immense geomantic working which was designed to cleanse the whole kingdom of Qelong from the evils afflicting it and put the naga back to sleep... at the small price of 'moving the remaining population painlessly on to their next incarnations'. It was the disagreement over the necessity of this rather drastic plan which had led to the fissuring of the order, and the apparent slaughter of most of the moderates by the hardliners. Reassuring the monks that they were totally on their side, and that the super-secret foreign Golden Lotus cult of which they were the agents would remember their tragic but necessary sacrifices forever, the party ran off before the Hold Person spells wore off on the paralysed-but-uncharmed monks.
Grim though their solution was, the PCs had to admit the monks had a point: if no other way of ending the land's corruption could be found, Qelong would soon be nothing more than a blighted, depopulated monster-factory. With renewed urgency they headed for the hills - but along the way they chanced across a strange road, cut through the fields in a completely straight line, wide enough for several people to walk abreast. Following this odd path to the south-east, they found its origin point appeared to be a strange metal container embedded in the earth as though fallen from a great height, covered in strange snakeman glyphs and warning signs, with a hatch hanging open on one side and a few human finger-bones lodged in the handle. For a moment they thought that this unremarkable-looking object might be the fleet beacon they were looking for, but a Comprehend Languages spell soon revealed otherwise, translating the snakeman script as reading WARNING: PROJECT MYRMIDON BIOWEAPON. HANDLE WITH CARE! Wisely, the PCs decided not to handle it at all.
|Probably harmless, though, right?|
As they ascended into the hills, the miasma clinging to the land became worse and worse. Noting that their mechanic droid, Princess, was unaffected by it, the party started using her as a scout, sending her to look over each ridge and report back. First she found an abandoned village, which actually turned out to be infested with a swarm of horrible skittering severed hands that chased the PCs from the area. Next she found a crude fort built on a larger-than-human scale, which the PCs concluded must have been built and then abandoned by the vatspawned demons who had answered the call of the fleet beacon. Then she went over the next ridge and didn't come back. Following cautiously, peering into a miasmic haze so powerful that they could barely see through it, the PCs saw what could only be the fleet beacon itself embedded in the hillside: a shining metal object the size of a house, with one demon watching over it from a crude watchtower, and several more pinning Princess to the ground and piling rocks on top of her. One panel high up on the beacon's side was hanging open, and what looked like a human corpse in a ragged silk robe was dangling down from it, its upper body apparently embedded in the beacon's inner workings.
So the party faced a problem. They needed to somehow deactivate the beacon if Qelong was to be saved, but the waves of arcane radiation pulsing off it were so powerful that they'd probably just melt if they came too close. Their first bright idea was to set fire to the dangling corpse with flaming arrows, in the hope that the flames would be sufficient to cripple the beacon's mechanisms; they thus took up position on a ridge overlooking the beacon, although even getting within bowshot of it meant absorbing so much malefic radiation that Jack and Sophie started sweating blood. Hash began firing flaming arrows at the corpse, hitting on his third attempt. The demons assumed they were under attack, and started advancing cautiously towards the ridge, shields held high over their heads; but the party fled as soon as Hash had hit his target, and the demons showed no interest in pursuing, clearly prioritising the protection of the beacon. The corpse burned and fell, but the beacon's malefic energies remained as strong as ever.
The PCs then came up with a new plan: seeing that dead flesh was apparently unaffected by the radiation, they decided to use the crawling hands from the abandoned village as delivery systems for improvised acid bombs. To these ends, they went to the edge of the village, dug a series of shallow pits, put pungi sticks at the bottom, and covered them with leaves and branches. They knew from their earlier conversations with refugees that these hands would have been severed because the dark energies of the land's curse had become so concentrated in them that living flesh simply came apart under their touch, and assumed that the same would be true now in their severed but animate state: so Skadi, who was to act as their bait, put on her gas mask and armour to ensure that every inch of her skin was protected from their touch. The party then lurked in wait in the bushes, holding pots, buckets, and even gongs and cymbals looted from the temple at Pralaj - anything big enough to trap a hand under, basically - while Skadi walked into the village and tried to look tempting.
|They're coming! Run away!|
Sure enough, scuttling hands soon came swarming out of the houses and began crawling towards her. Skadi fled, leaping over the pits: the hands pursued, and lacking any intelligence some of them fell and were impaled on the spikes below, leaving them flexing uselessly in holes. Skadi led the rest of the mob into the bushes, at which point all the other PCs jumped out, slammed their improvised traps over the hands, scooped them up with lids, and scattered, while the animated hands bounced around frantically inside their crude prisons. The remaining hands gave chase, with Jack, Sophie, and Hogarth blazing away over their shoulders with lasers and magic missiles to thin the pack; but Sovan stumbled as he ran, and one of the hands gleefully threw itself at his face, causing his forehead to split apart and blood to pour down into his eyes. Desperately, he tried to catch it inside the same pot that he was already carrying one hand in, knowing that if he was too slow then both hands would escape and probably kill him; but one good Dexterity roll later, he nimbly used his pot-lid to flip the hand off his face and into the pot before its current inmate could leap to freedom. With the remaining hands now lasered to death, the PCs then circled back and used long pairs of tongs to extract the ones caught in their pits, dropping them into yet more improvised lobster-pots.
They were now the proud owners of nine evil severed hands in boxes. For their plan to work, Hogarth would need to control them using Command Corpse spells, so they retreated to the abandoned fort to rest; but their sleep was tormented by headaches and nightmares, and memorising new spells proved impossible. Descending from the hills, they dosed themselves up with extra large helpings of golden lotus tea (to which both Circe and Sophie were now becoming somewhat addicted), and spent another day resting: but they were once again interrupted, this time by a booming voice calling out from the trees nearby: 'Hu-mans! Vord! VORD!'
It was good news, for once. Vord was their demon ally, who they had last seen in the foothills of Deathfrost Mountain, marching off towards the distant call of the beacon; and while the demons calling to them were clearly not Vord himself, they obviously knew him and had been told by him to watch out for them, as their references to 'green-skin' (Jack) and 'purple-hand' (Hogarth) demonstrated. (Jack and Hogarth had been left permanently discoloured in two separate magical mishaps the year before.) Warily they followed the demon messengers, who led them back into the hills and away from the beacon, into a deep valley filled with dead trees. There, in a hidden camp in the thickest part of the forest, they found Vord - looking much the same as ever, except for huge masses of scar tissue around both ears.
|Vord's welcoming new home.|
Vord was delighted to see them, and they exchanged stories, hampered somewhat by the fact that Vord was now clearly rather hard of hearing. He told them of how he had come to the beacon, and found thousands of his kin assembled there, waiting for their 'commanding officers'; how he had told them that the empire which had created them was long dead, and they were now free to do as they chose; and how they had built a fort and claimed the lands around the beacon as their own, safe in the knowledge that its radiation would protect them from any human encroachment. But then the snake-men had come from the Purple Islands, in some kind of flying machine whose loudspeakers played their hateful command codes in a continuous loop, hijacking the genetic programming locked into the vat-grown brains of the demons and forcing them to obey. Vord had escaped by stabbing himself in the ears the moment the machine crossed the horizon; a handful of other demons, absent from the fort when it arrived, had also slipped the net, and had been gathered together by him here. All the rest, enslaved once more by their ancient masters, had been marched away into the jungles of the west, leaving only the ten sentries who now watched over the beacon itself.
The PCs told Vord that the beacon's energies had corrupted the river and all the lands watered by it, bringing untold suffering to the people of Qelong, and that it now had to be deactivated before the Naga awoke. Vord agreed that putting the Naga back to sleep would be best for everyone, but he was very unwilling to risk the lives of his followers, and reluctant to kill the sentries unless he had to: after all, they were only doing what they had been programmed to do, and he knew only too well what it was like to have your free will overruled by someone else's override codes. The party decided to give their 'acid-hand' plan a test run, and used a Command Corpse spell to control one of the hands, sending it crawling towards the beacon with a jar of space-acid strapped to its back, with orders to throw itself into the exposed machinery; meanwhile the PCs staged a distraction, involving lots of noise, poorly-aimed arrow-fire, and a dancing purple snakeman conjured with a Purple Simulacrum spell. While the demon guards were trying to work out what the dancing purple snakeman could possibly mean, the hand completed its suicide mission and threw itself into the machinery, causing a noticeable distortion in the energy pulsation but no obvious reduction in its strength.
The PCs regrouped and reconsidered. Damaging the mechanism didn't seem to be helping, but the only person who might be able to safely turn it off was Princess, who was currently in captivity. Consulting with Vord, they formed a new plan: they would go back up to their sniping ledge and try to non-lethally incapacitate as many demons as possible with magic, at which point he and his followers would charge the remainder and try to bring them down without killing them. One volley of Light and Hold Person spells later, half the demons were either blind or paralysed, and Vord and his comrades ran in to grapple and bludgeon the rest, with only one of them getting killed in the process. Mentally programmed as they were, the captured demons simply wouldn't stop struggling, so Vord and his followers ultimately dug a huge hole and buried their captives up to their necks in earth, hoping that they'd eventually find a way of deprogramming them. They then moved the crude watchtower over to the beacon, allowing the now-rescued Princess to climb up to the exposed panel. After several hours of intensive tinkering with the burned and acid-damaged machinery inside, the faithful droid mechanic was able to safely deactivate the beacon's power source, ending the magical radiation being vomited into the water, air, and soil of Qelong. Before they left, however, Jack looted a magic ring from the corpse they had burned earlier - seemingly the body of a Qelongese magician who had tried and failed to deactivate the beacon months before - which some experimentation revealed to be a ring of water walking. Given Jack's crippling phobia of drowning, this made him feel very much safer.
|Jack-the-Fighter! Su-per-star! Do you think you're what they say you are?|
This was a major achievement: but the surrounding area was still a blighted, poisoned wasteland, the Golden Lotus monks were still presumably planning on performing their magical hard reboot of the Qelong valley, and the snakemen would presumably be instantly aware that the beacon was no longer emitting its signal. After making sure it could not be easily turned back on again by removing several key components and burying them under Vord's hidden camp, the PCs decided to leave before the snakemen and their demon army came back to find out what had happened; so, bidding farewell to Vord once more, they headed back down into the lowlands, giving the Temple of the Golden Lotus a wide berth. After several days travel, during which Sophie's golden lotus consumption reached alarming levels, they returned to the ruined town of Pralaj, where the handful of remaining people bemoaned their now poisoned river - surely nothing to do with all the space acid the PCs dumped into it during their fight with the naga-kin! - and begged to accompany them downriver; so, with a straggling trail of seventy-odd malnourished refugees now limping along behind them, they headed on towards the city where they had seen the foreign mercenaries on their journey upriver. Not wanting to tangle with a numerous and well-organised force, they left the refugees camped several miles away while the party crept off to scout the city under the cover of darkness.
They found the city desolate. The same straight path that they had found emerging from the Myrmidon capsule, much wider now, had apparently intersected with the river and then simply carried on down its bank, unable to cross the water, until it reached the city wall. The city's gates were broken open, and no sign of life could be seen within. Entering cautiously, the PCs saw no people, no animals, no life of any kind... just scattered bones, picked clean, and a single silver ant, gleaming in the moonlight, which Circe scooped up in a bowl. Growing increasingly anxious as they realised that the city seemed to contain no organic materials at all - no scraps of leather, no rags of cloth - they began to hurriedly retreat, only to hear crashing sounds from a building, from which soon stumbled a bulky humanoid figure caked in a thick layer of clay, completely enclosing it apart from its eyes and mouth. From its crude mouth-hole poured a stream of silver ants, swarming across its clay-covered body. The party fled, woke the refugees, and told them that they needed to get across the river as soon as possible, ultimately rigging up a crude rope-drawn raft with which to ferry everyone across to the far side. (The ring of water-walking helped, as it allowed Jack to simply walk over the river carrying the rope to which the raft was attached.) The next day they continued down the river, seeing the broad, straight trail that the ant-creatures had cut along its other bank, but hoping that none had managed to cross to their side of the water.
As they drew near the capital of Qelong, which stood at the mouth of the river, they were stopped by a patrol of exhausted-looking horsemen, who made a half-hearted attempt to question them about which pretender to the throne they were loyal to before simply giving up and confessing that everything had fallen apart. First the mercenary soldiers had come charging downriver under cover of darkness: well-equipped and highly motivated, they had been easily able to breach the city's fortifications, fight their way down to the harbour, capture all the genuinely seaworthy ships, and sail away, all within the space of a few hours. After them had come the horde of refugees from the city the mercenaries had abandoned, bearing awful stories about ant-monsters covered in clay... and then the monsters themselves had arrived, implacable and unstoppable, smashing their way through the already-breached fortifications and into the city itself. Everyone who could had fled, and all the bridges over the river had been torn down, leaving the whole population crammed onto the river's left bank. The right bank was in the hands of the ant-monsters, now.
As they approached the city, the PCs saw the situation for themselves. In one half of the once proud royal capital, thousands of refugees crowded together in a seething mass of human misery. In the other half, over the river, stumbling figures lurched in mobs through the streets, covered with glistening ant swarms and a thick armour of clay: victims of PROJECT MYRMIDON. Circe tried to use Speak With Animals to talk to her captive ant, but all she heard was psychic static. This was not an enemy which could be tricked or reasoned with. Staring grimly over the river, Hash began muttering that maybe the Order of the Golden Lotus had the right idea about Qelong after all...
Will the PCs save Qelong from this out-of-control bioweapon? Will they abandon it to its fate? If they leave, how will Sophie obtain a new supply of the golden lotus petals she now takes three times a day for 'medicinal purposes'? Have faith in the Frog God! All shall be revealed!