Monday, April 26, 2021

Syria and the Movies Part Twelve: Where Time Has No Meaning

The Ambush

Shortly after Kane and Judge Putnam recover, the group become aware of the approaching footsteps of about a half-dozen individuals. Johnny prepares an ambush and gets into cover himself just as six more cultists appear.

The cultists, seeing the fallen bodies of two of their own, panic and move to collect the table/board upon which Bryan Slim is fastened. As they move into the corridor, the London Group strikes from ambush, efficiently mowing down the cultists in the space of about thirty seconds. One of the cultists, a very large man with a knife, does a significant amount of damage to Ron and Mikhail with an evil-looking, and possibly enchanted dagger before falling.

While Dr. Black patches up Ron and Mikhail (and while Pushok provides moral support to Mikhail), The group decides to pretend to be the cultists sent to fetch Bryan Slim, and to bring Mr. Slim up out of the catacombs. This plan is facilitated by Vivian, who has noticed that only some of the catacomb halls have their strange lamps lit. She assumes that the cultists have only illuminated the hallways that they are using, and she hopes that, by traveling down only the lit hallways, they will eventually find the rest of the cultists.

Leaving the Catacombs

Four members of the group each take a corner of Bryan Slim’s board/table and find that, between them, Mr. Slim is relatively easy to carry. The London Group progresses swiftly through the catacombs, eventually coming to a large, trapezoidal room with a towering staircase that leads upward and outward into what looks like daylight.

The group pauses to study the numerous frescoes painted on the walls of this room, including one where a fungus-like creature with insectile wings and a tiny, misshapen head seems to be presenting a group of small, hairy hominid creatures to a group of serpent people. Ron notices that the fungus creature holds a device in one hand similar to the one they stole from the Miskatonic University Library.

The Creature in the Mural

Though they are perplexed at the implications of this painting, the group knows that their true mission lies elsewhere. They mount the stairs and, after a lengthy climb, pass through the doorway above into the Nameless City itself.

They emerge in an area reminiscent of a Mayan or Aztec temple complex. The catacomb doorway deposits them on a wide and dusty processional path, at the other end of which is a looming step pyramid. Blocky windowless buildings line the processional path on either side. In between these buildings, the group sees numerous large pits. Some of these pits appear empty, but others are heaped high with bones of every shape and description. Feral creatures gibber and caper among these bones, fighting amongst themselves and feeding upon whatever marrow the bones might still contain.

What is most notable to the group is the sky. It is a pearlescent white, dotted with twinkling black stars. The group, realizing that they are very, very far from home, screws up their courage and marches down the processional path to face their destiny.

The Approach to the Bone Ziggurat

The Nameless City

The step pyramid proves to be the oft-referenced Bone Ziggurat. True to its name, it is made entirely out of the bones of myriad creatures, all expertly arranged and held in place with a mesh of silvery wire. Cultists and serpent people stand arrayed at every level of the pyramid, holding torches and preparing for the ritual that will bring Carl Stanford back to life.

The group notes that among the serpent people are several larger, atavistic specimens, dressed in regal finery and bearing heads and hoods much like cobras. These larger serpent people have a much statelier bearing and seem to hold positions of power over the other, smaller serpent people. Two of these larger serpent people stand at the base of the steps leading up to the top of the ziggurat, ready to receive the group and the body of Bryan Slim.

At the top of the ziggurat stands an altar surrounded by a gargantuan statue of an Ouroboros. Standing at the altar is a red-headed and bearded cultist who is wearing robes but no mask, as well as one of the other atavistic serpent people. The group immediately recognize the red-headed man as Belphegor. Johnny also realizes that the Ouroboros statue is actually a Gate of some kind.

Johnny’s magic spell, which has been guiding the group to Carl Stanford’s phylactery this entire time, now points to the altar atop the ziggurat. The group is close.

Parlay with the Serpent Priests

A Serpent Priest

As the group approaches the base of the pyramid, Dr. Black tugs aside his sleeve to reveal the brand he received at the end of the Path of the Penitent. He is hopeful that the brand will “do something magical” to make their ascent of the Bone Ziggurat easier, and is a touch dismayed when nothing seems to happen.

Dr. Black’s experimentation does bear fruit, however, for the two atavistic serpent people at the base of the ziggurat seem to recognize the symbol seared into his flesh. They approach and, in Valusian, greet the group as equals and Priests of the Nameless City. Between them, the members of the group know just enough Valusian to understand the serpent people, as well as to make themselves understood.

Ron Deluca, unfortunately, only speaks English, Italian, and French, and so spends the next little while being quietly baffled as to what is going on.

The atavistic serpent people say that they are priests as well, and congratulate the group for being the first outsiders in an age to dare the Path of the Penitent and become true priests of the city. This information amuses and shocks Johnny, who point blank asks the serpent priests if any of the cultists have walked the Penitent Path. When the serpent priests reply in the negative, Johnny demands to know why the serpent priests debase themselves to working with such impudent upstarts as the cultists and Carl Stanford.

The priests go on to explain that they are forced to aid the cultists due to pacts that their ancestors made ages past. They say that they submit to working with the cultists out of fear of what will happen if they break the pacts, and also because they know that, one day, the Lord of the Sleeping City will awaken and they will claim their ascendancy once more.

Johnny says that all the group wants to do is destroy Carl Stanford’s phylactery and prevent him from resurrecting. The serpent priests respond that they will not help the group do this, but nor will they raise their hands against fellow Priests of the City. They permit the group to pass them by without further incident, allowing them to bring Bryan Slim up to the top of the ziggurat where the ritual will soon begin.

The Battle at the Bone Ziggurat

The Map of the Bone Ziggurat

The group ascends to the penultimate level of the ziggurat. Once there, other cultists relieve them of Bryan Slim, bearing him up to the top of the ziggurat where he is laid on the left-hand side of the altar. On the right-hand side is a large, cocoon-like structure that Dr. Black suspects either is or holds Carl Stanford’s new body.

Between Slim and the cocoon is a large, human heart, carved out of silver. Johnny’s spell indicates that this is the phylactery.

The ritual begins. Belphegor and the serpent priest that stands with him slowly tease out a filmy mist from Bryan Slim’s unconscious body. As Belphegor chants, the mist slowly coalesces, becoming more visible, and moves rightward to swirl around the silver heart.

The group launches their attack, surprising the cultists. Belphegor attempts to cast his time-dilation spell, but it turns out that Mikhail has taught everyone the Justman Equation in their free time. The group immediately shuts down Belphegor’s attempted manipulation of causality, forcing him to move at normal speed. The group shoots Belphegor, who ducks behind the bulk of the Ouroboros statue for cover. The rest of the cultists arrayed on the ziggurat, realizing that there are enemies in their midst, race for the stairs and begin to converge on the London Group.

The serpent priests at the base of the ziggurat shout commands in Valusian for their brethren to stand down. The rest of the serpent people stand their ground at their positions around the ziggurat, watching the unfolding battle with expressionless and unblinking eyes.

Dr. Black produces the strange statue that Nodens had given the group and invokes its power. The statue melts into liquid and boils away as, above, a great void opens in the sky and twelve nightgaunts appear. The sight of these creatures causes both Kane Eastman and Vivian Bernouse to go mad with terror, and it is only their grim resolve to defeat Carl Stanford that allows them to continue the fight.

A wounded Belphegor casts a horrifying spell at Johnny, blackening and shriveling the flesh of his right arm and twisting the bones into unpleasant shapes. The pain is too much for Johnny, and he crumples unconscious on the steps of the Bone Ziggurat.

The nightgaunts spiral downward, until they are flying circles around the ziggurat. Dr. Black, realizing that the nightgaunts need to be commanded. He orders the group to take off their cultist masks before instructing the nightgaunts to “attack any of the masked cultists.”

Fortunately for Johnny, Mikhail stoops to remove his mask as the nightgaunts swarm the ziggurat.

The cultists of the Order of Silver Twilight are quickly overwhelmed by the nightgaunts and enveloped in their great, leathery wings. The cultists scream in terror and pain as the nightgaunts “tickle” them with their long, barbed tails. The creatures then vault into the sky,  carrying the cultists away from the ziggurat and through the black portal that swirls in the air overhead.

The group focuses all their attention on Belphegor, pinning him down with a hail of gunfire. This gives Dr. Black an opening to climb to the top of the ziggurat and bring Marcus’ blade down on the awful, silver heart. The heart cracks in half and falls open, revealing a diseased, still beating human heart within. The mist that had coalesced out of Bryan Slim swirls around the heart and begins to slither toward the cocoon.

Dr. Black tries to end the battle by piercing the beating heart with Marcus’ blade. Before he can do so, Belphegor strikes him with a magically summoned wave of concussive force that blasts Dr. Black off the top of the ziggurat and knocks him unconscious. Fortunately for the good doctor, Kane manages to catch him as he falls, preventing him from sustaining further damage.

Ron Deluca, seeing his chance to engage in bloody violence, draws his blessed blade and runs up the steps to the altar. Before Belphagor can stop him, Ron impales the heart, striking so hard that the tip of his blade sinks into the altar stone. The heart, now beating arrhythmically, showers Ron with a spray of putrid and clotted blood as it dies.

Ron realizes that the mist has all but disappeared into the cocoon now, and that the cocoon has begun to develop arms and legs.

Belphegor, enraged at the destruction of the phylactery and the utter failure of the ritual, lunges across the altar and tries to strangle Ron. This rash action also causes him to leave cover, allowing Mikhail a clear shot at Belphegor. The shot is fatal, and Belphegor dies, collapsing atop the blasphemous altar.

Flawless Victory

Diminished Serpent Person

The group takes a long moment to both celebrate their victory and revive Johnny. Their euphoria is cut abruptly short when Ron realizes that the cocoon body not only appears to be fully formed, but somewhat mortal. He stabs the cocoon with his blessed knife, which elicits a not insignificant amount of cursing from what appears to be a partially regenerated Carl Stanford. Ron and Mikhail take turns stabbing the cocoon until it fades from sight.

Mikhail then, for reasons clear only to him, uses his blessed Masonic blade to painstakingly saw off Belphagor's head. At Johnny's urging, he then throws the head down the temple steps, accidentally inspiring the future endeavors of director John Milius.

The group, relieved that they have dealt a heavy blow to the Order of the Silver Twilight, destroyed Carl Stanford’s phylactery, and prevented his resurrection, take a long moment to rest and recover atop the Bone Ziggurat. The serpent priests thank the group for their service and then depart, but not before telling them that the Ouroboros Gate can take them anywhere they wish to go.

After resting some more, the group decide to return to the world in two groups. Ron, Mikhail, and Vivian step through first, arriving bloodied, filthy, exhausted, and dressed in cultists robes within the train station in Bayonne, New Jersey. After drawing some curious looks from the locals, they remove their robes and travel to Mikhail’s mom’s house to freshen up. Ron also notes that he would like to see the carpet and door he purchased for Mrs. Dimathias.

The others return through the gate at As-Safa, where they tell the rebels of their success and reunite with Turki Nasar, Brother Theodore, and James Raven. After spending a night encamped with the rebels, the rest of the London Group sets off for As-Suwayda and their eventual return to America.

THE END

For Now

Friday, April 23, 2021

Syria and the Movies Part Eleven: Where Time Has No Meaning

The Second Challenge

The group, still bleeding profusely from their hands, climbs a steeply sloping tunnel that leads out into a vast, dark cavern, whose walls and ceilings cannot be seen. Savage, hurricane-force winds blow across around the cavern, stirring up great clouds of hard, gritty sand. Far off in the distance, the group sees a light streaming through a trapezoidal opening.

Everyone starts across. Despite their best efforts to remain together, they become separated from one another. Blown about and battered by the storm, the struggle to reach their far-off objective. Initially,  only Johnny, Kane, Ron, and Pushok make it to the door, where they resolve to wait for the others.

The rest find themselves lost in the storm, unable to see the guiding light shining through the distant doorway. They wander lost, through hummocks of windblown sand, until they are each assaulted by half-made, partially delimbed creatures that crawl out of the earth to attack them. These creatures gabble about how only they will survive this challenge, and that the group will give them the strength to progress. Judge Putnam, Vivian, Mikhail, and Dr. Black each confront one of the creatures, who seizes them by the leg and proceeds to drain away their life force.

Vivian and Judge Putnam fend off their attackers and flee into the dust storm, while Mikhail and Dr. Black, who are more conversant in the ways of the occult, use their magical skills to pull their stolen life force out of the creatures that grabbed them. Both Mikhail and Dr. Black take too much of the creatures’ essence, healing themselves, killing the creatures, and also stealing some of the creatures’ eons-old memories. 

Those lost in the storm eventually see the light coming from the doorway and approach it, soon joining their companions. They all feel notably weaker, due to their exertions and blood loss, and many of them are concerned that they will not survive the rest of the journey.

Realizing that there is nothing else for it, they proceed through the brightly lit doorway.

The Third Challenge

They find a spiral staircase that leads an impossible distance upwards. The group ascends, stopping several times to catch their breaths, and eventually step out onto a stone landing many, many miles up.

Johnny is the last person up, as he has been covering the group from behind. The moment his feet leave the spiral staircase, it silently detaches from the landing and accordions down into the abyss, lost to sight.

The group now faces a 30’ wall, covered in vines and slime. Kane realizes that everyone is going to have to eventually make it up and over this all, and so volunteers to climb up first and lower down a rope to the others.

Kane struggles up the wall, at one point coming perilously close to sliding off. As he attempts to recover his grip, a fibrous tentacle lashes out from a gap in the wall and wraps itself tightly around one of Kane’s wrists. The tentacle then bores into the open wound on Kane’s hand and greedily begins to sup on his blood.

Seeing Kane’s plight, Dr. Black casts his Wrack spell on the tentacle, causing it such grievous pain that it snaps off of Kane’s arm, becomes rigid, and retreats back into its hole. Kane, a little lightheaded but otherwise all right, manages reaches the top of the wall and lowers the rope, as promised. He then disappears into the darkness above.

The rest of the group climb up the wall, one after the other. Thanks to Kane’s rope, their ascents are without incident.

The Blood Fountain and the Plinths

Despite all traveling to the same place, the group finds that they are all curiously separated from one another once they reach the top of the wall. From here, until the end of the next section, they experience the same environments, but are, for all intents and purposes, alone.

The first thing that they see is a great fountain, its central statuary carved into the shape of four intertwined snakes. From the mouths of these snakes, hot, frothy blood pumps into the basin below. Most of the group, walks past the fountain and down a nearby corridor, wanting little to do with it. A few that experiment with the blood, such as Dr. Black, finds that it heals the wounds in his hands.

Kane and Judge Putnam are brave enough to drink from the fountain. This closes the wounds in their hands and fully heals them. Both men dare to drink from the fountain again, finding their minds abuzz with new and forbidden knowledge.

Beyond the fountain, at the end of the hallway, each member of the group sees a pair of closed leaden portals. The portals have a dial on them, and an indicator that points to one quadrant of the dials.

However, each of the members of the group instinctively realizes that they must first deal with four tall plinths arranged in a semi-circle across the passageway. All four are identical in shape and size, and all have a deep hole in them capable of admitting a single human arm. Bronze statuettes atop each plinth differentiate them as possibly being altars of the various gods of the Nameless City. They include, from left to right: a goat, a faceless sphinx, a serpent, a collection of spheres—or eyes.

The plinths react differently to each member of the group. For most, they are inert. For some, however, they either broadcast waves of sympathy or waves of antipathy. Notable examples include:

  • The Sphinx Plinth calls to Vivian and attempts to draw Ron to it with unseemly eagerness.
  • The Serpent Plinth is repellent to Judge Putnam and Mikhail, and seems to actively hate Vivian and Ron.
  • All of the Plinths seem to hate Dr. Black more or less equally.

One by one, the members of the group choose a plinth and slide their forearm into the hole inside of it. Metal rings clamp around their elbows and wrists, and a symbol is painfully burned into their wrists. Their results are as follows:

  • Dr. Black: Chooses the Serpent Plinth, which seems to hate him least. Just as the brand touches his wrist, he hears a cold, distant voice in his mind say, “no. This one is mine.” He is marked with a symbol of three gently waving lines, the sigil of Nodens of the Great Abyss.
  • Vivian:  Chooses the Sphinx Plinth. A voice tells her, “I knew you would play for me eventually!” She is marked with the symbol she spotted long ago on the bottom of the Jade Sphinx.
  • Ron: Chooses the Sphinx Plinth. A voice tells him, “Ah, Ronald, you were always mine!” He is marked with the same symbol as Vivian, which is the sigil of Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos.
  • Mikhail: Chooses the Sphinx Plinth. He gets a mark identical to Ron and Viv, but receives no special treatment.
  • Judge Putnam: Chooses the Serpent Plinth. The branding process is especially painful. He is marked with the symbol of a coiled snake, the sigil of Yig, Father of Serpents. Yig is astonished at the hubris of the judge, who dared to raise his hand against one of Yig’s children, but is interested to see what the judge will do in the future.
  • Kane: Chooses the Spheres Plinth. He is branded with a mark that looks like a cluster of spheres, the sigil of Yog-Sothoth, the Key and the Gate.
  • Johnny: Chooses the Spheres Plinth. He, too, is branded with the sigil of Yog-Sothoth.

Having received their brands, the members of the group withdraw their arms from their respective plinths. They find that they are all together again, the wounds in their hands all healed. Pushok is also there, looking confused and worried.

Dr. Black spends the next little while tending to his wounded friends and patching them up as best as he can.

The Leaden Doors

The London Group, relieved to be together again, moves forward to inspect the disc upon the leaden doors. It has four quadrants which depict: Some kind of tentacled worm; a sun-like symbol; a step pyramid; and a serpent’s skull.

Johnny uses the ritual that he learned from the Necronomicon to track Carl Stanford’s phylactery. As he sprinkles the Powder of Ibn-Ghazi upon the journal that contains the instructions for the Gate Box ritual, a beam of blue-white light erupts from the book and passes through the doors.

After some discussion, Johnny remembers that the Veiled Sage said that, “Carl Stanford’s phylactery lies within the catacombs of the Nameless City.” He assumes that the serpent’s skull, being a symbol of death, might indicate the pathway to the catacombs. The rest of the group agrees that this is plausible and turns the disk until the serpent skull rests beneath the indicator.

The doors unlock and swing open, revealing a long, trapezoidal hallway lined with niches. Crystal boxes stand in these niches. Spheres of glass, half-full of silver liquid, and set into the walls on metal sconces, burn with ethereal flames that illuminate the hallway with a dim, fitful light.

The beam of Johnny’s spell continues down the hallway. The group follows it.

The Cult of the Silver Twilight

Did You Miss Us?

The catacombs of the city are large and maze-like, and so the group proceeds with caution. After traveling for some time, they notice two people in robes and masks standing over a low, wooden table.

Realizing that the habiliments of the cultists are identical to the ones that the group found in Duncan MacBain’s stores back in the Canyon of Devils, the group retreat, disguise themselves in those robes and masks, and attempt to approach the cultists as equals.

The two cultists are very bored and, at least initially, accept the group’s presence without question. They have been tasked with guarding the table, which is actually a makeshift wooden stretcher with folding legs. A third person, dressed in full cultist regalia, has been secured to the board with metal bands. A long, slender box, which seems to be attached to the wooden stretcher, rests uncomfortably between the trapped person’s legs.

Through careful interrogation, the group learns that most of the cultists went forward to, “prepare the way,” and to meet with various serpent priests who were already at the Bone Ziggurat. The bored cultists are hopeful that the London Group have been sent back by the other cultists to let them know it’s time to bring their imprisoned charge into the city proper.

One of the bored cultists becomes suspicious of the group, but only realizes that they are not his erstwhile companions when Vivian starts talking. He pulls a gun from beneath his robes and points it at Vivian.

“There’s no women in the Order of Silver Twilight,” says the cultist, with smug triumph.

Johnny, who had been prepared for this, blows the cultist away with his shotgun.

The other cultist tries to draw his gun, only to have it catch on his voluminous robes. He runs. Ron chases him down, but Dr. Black manages to Wrack the cultist before Ron can reach him. The cultist collapses, howling in insensate, brutal agony. Johnny calmly walks up to the helpless cultist and blows him to smithereens.

Old Enemies

The man affixed to the board is none other than Bryan Slim. He is raving, weeping, and insane, but is very, very happy to realize that he has been rescued (sort of) by the London Group. He begs the group to free him and warns that the other cultists could come back at any time.

While he talks, Ron removes the Ouroboros Ring from Slim’s finger and puts it on. Dr. Black opens up the slender box between Slim’s legs and discovers that it contains Carl Stanford’s enchanted cane.

Talk quickly turns to figuring out how to destroy the enchanted cane. Slim panics, and tells the group that they don’t need to do that. He tells the group that they should bring the cane with them and retreat back to the cultists’ base camp. He explains that there is a book there that contains a spell which will allow the group to banish Carl Stanford’s soul from his body.

Ron, suspicious of Slim’s sudden lucidity, asks Mikhail and Judge Putnam what to make of the man. The judge and Mikhail agree that Slim sounds like a different person, and are fairly certain that he has, once again, been possessed by Carl Stanford’s more assertive and stronger personality. Ron, infuriated at the deception, punches the imprisoned Slim, knockout out a tooth and severely concussing the trapped man. Slim gurgles and sinks into unconsciousness.

While the rest of the group decides what to do next, Dr. Black takes up the blade of Marcus once again and chops Carl Stanford’s cane cleanly in half. Sparks flash and pop as the stored magic within departs.

Ron, meanwhile, feels called to awaken the magical power of his new Ouroboros Ring. He does so, but the necessary psychic energy needed to energize the ring is too much for him physically and mentally. He collapses. Vivian, realizing what has happened, grabs Ron’s hand and expends her psychic energy, hoping it will be enough to both power the ring and save Ron’s life.

As Dr. Black resuscitates Ron, Mikhail notices a very tall person in cult regalia coming down the hallway toward them. Mikhail goes to intercept this figure, only for them to laugh and call to Mikhail by name. The figure then removes his mask, revealing the handsome, albeit completely hairless, face of an Egyptian man. Mikhail falls back. Ron, who has by this point regained consciousness, approaches the man he knows to be an aspect of the Many-Faced Stranger and tries to talk with him.

The conversation rambles all over. It involves the Stranger taking the shape of Turki Nazar to taunt Ron and the London Group, the Stranger yelling at Ron for allowing Nodens to find and destroy the Dagger of Nephrem-Ka, the Stranger giggling at the machinations of both the London Group and the Silver Twilight, and Ron desperately trying (and failing) to get a straight answer about anything.

Ron attempts to remove the ring from his finger, so that he can give it to the Stranger, and is dismayed to discover that the ring will not come off. The Stranger says, “no no. You keep that. We will do this again in a month. Is there anything else, Ronald?”

Ron then asks the Stranger to heal him. This leads to a very unpleasant scene where the Stranger demands to know which member of the London Group Ron likes the least.

“And I know it’s not Vivian, so don’t even try it.”

Ron, loyal to his friends, refuses to name anyone. The Stranger quickly grows bored and, with a wave of his hand, takes a small amount of vitality from everyone in the London Group (including Pushok) and transfers it into Ron. He then departs.

The moment he is out of sight, the Ouroboros Ring slides off of Ron’s finger and clatters onto the stones.

It is also at this point that Kane and Judge Putnam, their minds reeling from the overwhelming presence of the Stranger and from the secret knowledge they had gained from the Blood Fountain, collapse screaming in terrified madness.

The Real Turki Nazar? Or Merely A Disguise?


Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Syria and the Movies Part Ten: April 8-9, 1926

A Letter from Home

A Little Note from Everyone's Favorite NPC

Ron takes some time, while still in Judge Putnam’s carriage house garage, to read Luca’s letter. The news is not good. Ron learns that “Big Grin” Bianco has gotten a huge influx of cash for his organization, and is using it to press very hard against the Bernouse Family operation. Half of the first whisky delivery from Dunne’s Distillery was destroyed on the docks, many of the family’s former allies in Boston have either defected or been killed, and a hired gunman—in a shocking breach of Mafia etiquette—shot up the Bernouse house with a tommy gun. No one was injured, and Vince is safe in an undisclosed location, but Luca is very concerned about it all. He also begs Ron not to tell Vivian about what happened to her father.

Ron takes a moment to pilfer a bottle of whisky from the judge’s stores and arm himself with a croquet mallet from the judge’s set before jaunting back through the gate box to Syria.

He, of course, tells Vivian (and the others) immediately. Vivian is beside herself, and suspects that Bianco is now being funded by the Silver Twilight Lodge/Look to the Future.

The Approach to As-Safa

The London Group beds down for a well-deserved west and awakens early the next morning refreshed and free from the oppressive and frightening dreams that they had experienced the night before. They take most of the day to prepare and sort out their resources before traveling across the desert to As-Safa in a truck and camel caravan.

Ron and Mikhail are, by this point, thoroughly suspicious of Turki and keep shooting daggers at him. Turki is baffled by this treatment.

It is well after dark by the time the group reaches the volcanic plain of As-Safa. As predicted, the hardened lava proves to be much too difficult terrain for the truck. Dr. Black and Johnny suspect that the coarse basalt would, at best, merely shred the truck’s tires. The group repacks everything onto the camels, while Turki provides them with basic tips on how to ride the “ships of the desert.”

As night wears on, an ominous fog gathers in the low spaces between the cindercones of As-Safa. The light of the moon shimmers on the rolling, cloudy banks, in some places more brightly than others. The members of the group who visited Nodens in his high house are vaguely discomfited by all the fog. Their unease is not helped by the fact that several portions of the fog seem somehow much brighter than the others—almost suggestive of a path through As-Safa.

Johnny tests this theory with the Powder of Ibn-Ghazi. At the powder’s touch, a very bright pathway is briefly illuminated through the fog. The group mounts up and follows this pathway, as best as they are able, into As-Safa.

Unexpected Company

Due to the group’s inexperience with their mounts and with the terrain of the volcanic plateau, their progress through As-Safa is frustratingly slow. They press on regardless, and eventually come to a place where someone has carved Arabic letters into the sides of one of the omnipresent cinder cones.

The group dismounts while Johnny struggles to interpret the carved Arabic symbols. After a while, he understands that the words are both a guidepost to ‘Umr At-Tawil and a warning to stay far away from that place. Johnny also notices a curious bas relief carving beneath the words, that seems to consist of a cluster of spheres…or bubbles…or eyes. Despite the simplicity of this carving, the sight of it unnerves him.

At about this moment, several members of the group, including Ron, Dr. Black, and Kane become aware of strange—and possibly human—sounds echoing off of the cinder cones around them. Dr. Black, concerned for Brother Theodore’s safety, takes the monk by the arm and drags him around behind one of the cinder cones. He immediately blunders into the muzzle of a long rifle wielded by a Syrian man. Dr. Black goes cross-eyed trying to focus down the rifle barrel at the Syrian.

Moments later, a very large group of armed Syrians step into view, leveling rifles at the group. From the omnipresent shadows, an unseen man addresses them in several languages, including Arabic and French. Members of the group are not proficient enough in either language, and so Ron asks if the unseen man speaks English.

He does. “Throw down your weapons,” he demands.

The group obeys.

Hello There

At this point, Turki steps forward and addresses the unseen man in Arabic. After a bit of a back-and-forth, the unseen man—whom Turki refers to as “the General” steps forward into the moonlight. He tells the group that he and Turki are brothers-in-arms, and that he is the local leader of the Druze’s military operation against the French. He wants to know what the group is doing there.

Johnny decides to be completely honest with the General, telling him that they seek the gateway called ‘Umr At-Tawil and the Nameless City. The General reacts with slight fear and disgust, and asks if they are with the other group that the rebels saw at ‘Umr At-Tawil two days before.

The General goes on to describe that this other group of about two score individuals wore strange robes and masks and seemed to be carrying another gentleman who had been, “strapped to a board.” Ron, with much preamble and care, pulls forth one of the cultist masks from his camel and shows it off to the General.

“Yes,” says the General. “Masks like this one. Exactly like this one.”

Ron and the rest of the group then confirm that they are hunting these individuals, at which point the General orders his men to lower their weapons.

There is some additional discussion, in which Kane tries to get some of the General’s forces to accompany the London Group as backup against the cultists. The General replies that neither he nor his men will go anywhere near ‘Umr At-Tawil, and that his quarrel is with the French, not the cultists. He agrees to escort the group to the gate, and will even watch over their camels in the event that they return from the Nameless City, but he will commit no other resources to helping them.

The group agrees to this and follows the General and his forces across As-Safa to the small, bowl-like valley upon which stands ‘Umr At-Tawil, the basalt gateway to the Nameless City.

Paths Diverge

Turki, overwhelmed by what he has experienced recently, politely requests to be discharged from the London Group. Judge Putnam agrees, thanks Turki for his excellent help and loyal service, and settles up his accounts. A grateful Turki prepares to depart with the rebels.

Brother Theodore also opts to remain with the rebels, at least for a little while. He also volunteers to take James Raven along with him, hoping to eventually return him to As Suwayda and medical treatment.

Before the rebels depart, Johnny pulls the truck keys out of his pocket and hands them to the General. He says that the group might not be coming back this way, or at all, and that the General is more than welcome to use the truck for his military operations. The General is quite grateful for the donation to his cause.

‘Umr At-Tawil

One Option for Entering the City: The Veiled Sage

The group is now confronted with the puzzle of opening the gate and using it to travel safely into the Nameless City. They spend the rest of the waning hours of the night poring over all of their notes and recollections. Mikhail seems to think that the Tahijuh mirror that the group has might be helpful in opening the gate. Vivian notices several important passages in Christopher Edwin’s dossier, which note that they must either, “perform a ritual of service to Yog-Sothoth and take up the silver key,” or “go to the place where its bones lay moldering and wait until the three suns rise in the West to anoint the face of the Gatekeeper.”

There is some talk that Dr. Black might be the Gatekeeper due to his possession of the YOLE key and the Stephen Clark painting in which he was anointed with the Seal of Yog-Sothoth. Mikhail believes that the three suns might be three stars, such as those making up Orion’s belt, but there seems to be no way to utilize these stars to open the gate.

As the sun rises, Johnny explains that they may need to perform the ritual to summon the Veiled Sage, an aspect of Yog-Sothoth that they had treated with previously. He, Kane, Judge Putnam, and Dr. Black begin creating the required sand mandala in the area before the gateway.

Vivian, frustrated but undeterred, sits down and pores over the group’s collected notes yet one more time. As she struggles to make sense of the conflicting pieces of information, she notices that the dawning rays of the sun are reflecting off of the bronze Tahijuh mirror resting at her feet and are shining back on the western side of the gateway.

In a flash of inspiration, Vivian calls for two more mirrors. Using the Tahijuh mirror, the compact in Vivian’s bag and a pair of glasses that Johnny borrows from Judge Putnam, the group prepares to open the gate Vivian explains that they will need to concentrate on the place that they want to arrive at, which should not be the Well of Souls. The group chooses to go to the Path of the Penitent. Judge Putnam takes the opportunity to get a little drunk, presumably to help make meditating on the Path of the Penitent a little easier.

Three lights shine on the lintel of ‘Umr At-Tawil.In the empty space beneath, a dark, pulsating gate opens. Dr. Black is volunteered to go first. He steps into the gateway, seems to freeze in place and, after several fraught seconds, vanishes.

The rest of the group pluck up their courage and follow him.

The Path of the Penitent

The group appears in a large room, its ceiling held up by four massive columns. On each column is a curious lantern: A sphere of glass, half full of silverly liquid, sits on a metallic sconce. A blue-white flame flickers in the air a few inches above each sphere.

A pathway leads through a low, trapezoidal doorway, through which the group must crawl. They spend an agonizingly long time on their hands and knees before arriving in another room reminiscent of the bottom of a pyramid, with a flat ceiling and inward-slanting walls.

Alcoves on each of the walls holds long, boxes made out of crystal, which are fitted with precious metal and gems. Johnny warns the group against splitting up and against looking too closely at things. Everyone, even Ron and Mikhail, stay away from the crystal boxes.

The group progresses through another low, trapezoidal tunnel into a larger room, where a staircase leads up to a massive pair of lead doors. In front of the doors stand two pillars that are about a yard high and a yard apart. Both pillars are topped with long, cruel spikes covered in brownish residue.

The door refuses to budge, and so Dr. Black decides that he will try to prick his hands on the pair of spiked pillars and see what happens. The group winces as the good doctor impales himself, screaming in agony as his blood runs freely out of the ragged holes in his palms.

Moments later, the lead gates swing open a fraction, allowing him—and only him—admittance.

Ron goes next, piercing his hands and passing through the open gateway to join Dr. Black on the other side. Dr. Black immediately sets about dressing Ron’s wounds, but finds that there seems to be nothing he can do to close the wounds or stop the flow of blood.

Soon after, the rest of the group joins Dr. Black and Ron, with bloodied palms and terror in their eyes. Pushok, for some reason, seems largely ignored by the defenses of the Nameless City, and is able to follow Mikhail past the lead portals without needing to make tribute himself.

The First Challenge

The pathway abruptly ends at a ledge overlooking a massive cavern, whose bottom is obscured by tendrils of swirling mists. Several pillars rise up out of the mist, allowing access to the doorway on the far side of the cavern by those who are brave or mad enough to try and jump across. This traversal is made all the more difficult by several huge, heavy bladed pendulums that swing between the gaps in the pillars, ready to maim anyone that jumps at the wrong moment.

Kane Eastman hops across the pillars easily, as does Judge Putnam. The rest of the group fares less well, and either do not jump far enough, do not move fast enough, or are intimidated by the deadly pendulums. Ron ends up trapped on a pillar with Vivian, Mikhail, and Johnny and, out of frustration and concern for their safety, simply picks up his companions and hurls them to the ledge on the far side before making the final jump himself. Kane catches Vivian. Mikhail crashes into the Judge, and Johnny must fend for himself, but all of them make it to the other side.

Meanwhile, Dr. Black decides to close his eyes and trust in the power of Nodens, Lord of the Great Abyss, to save him. Without opening his eyes, Dr. Black effortlessly jumps from pillar to pillar, avoiding the razor-sharp pendulums and joining his friends on the other side in short order.

Together again, albeit battered and still bleeding from the wounds in their palms, the group progress deeper into the Nameless City, and to the next challenge.

Friday, April 2, 2021

Syria and the Movies Part Nine: April 8, 1926

Envenomed!

Dr. Black attempts to treat Ron’s snake bite. This is made much easier thanks to the fact that Ron’s fang wounds are unusually large and easy to clean out. It also helps that Ron did not take a full dose of the snake’s venom. Ron retains the tingling in his extremities, for now, but is told that he will probably survive being envenomed. Ron is thrilled.

Searching the Cave

Ron and Johnny rejoin the group as they thoroughly search the cave. They quickly discover that a large stone tile lies hidden beneath the sand on the floor. This tile is engraved with further images of the Goat and the Serpent, along with writing in Valusian that indicates that the tile, or what it covers, is a gateway to the gateway of the Nameless City.

The group discovers that the tile is inset into the stone floor of the cavern and might be covering something, but that it is far too heavy to lift without industrial equipment.

While the rest decide what to do, Mikhail brings James Raven into the room, along with Turki and Brother Theodore, and starts using quotes from “The Count of Monte Christo” to get further information about his “friends,” the invisible monsters.

James, at this point, has moved on and seems to be channeling “The Three Musketeers,” and continuously refers to Mikhail as D’Artagnan. James now seems to believe that he is Athos, and that the cavern complex is a holding of the Countess D’Winter.

This fa├žade crumbles the moment that James lays eyes on the tile. In a rage, he grabs one of the picks left behind by the cultists and begins assaulting the tile with manic fury. Mikhail and Ron tackle one another, and James, in their attempt to stop the mad actor.

While they calm James. Kane inspects the tile. It appears that James, in his fury, has cracked it in half, and has created a small hole that Kane can peer through. Kane can tell that there is a void underneath, but can’t determine how deep it is or what it contains.

At Kane’s direction, the group pry the two halves of the tile out of the floor and, using tools and a great deal of effort, manage to slide them apart to create a wide gap.

The Cache and the Mosaic

Beneath the tile is a rectangular, two-foot-deep pit decorated with a colorful mosaic on the bottom. The mosaic depicts the most detailed rendition that the group has yet seen of the Goat and the Snake, as well as several other monsters of fanciful design. There are also glyphs placed around the edge of the mosaic, and Johnny immediately realizes their occult significance—this mosaic is, in fact, a magical gate.

 Resting atop the mosaic are the following:

  • A sheaf of rotting, yellowed parchment. These contain a ritual that allows the caster to turn the willing participant into an invisible monster.
  • Five vaguely humanoid terracotta statues.
  • A sixth terracotta statue that has been smashed into pieces.
  • A curious rectangular stone block surmounted by a statue of a two-headed snake.

One of the Terracotta Statues

The End of the Hunters

The group presumes that the terracotta statues are the reliquaries of the invisible monsters plaguing the Canyon of Devils. They also presume that the shattered terracotta statue represents the invisible monster that they killed in the storage shed. The group decides to try and break the terracotta statues to see what happens.

Dr. Black returns to the mouth of the cave and stands watch over the pathway that leads back into the canyon. Once he has situated himself there, the others smash the terracotta statues to pieces. Dr. Black hears inhuman shrieks of pain and anguish echoing around the valley. He watches, with no small measure of relief and satisfaction, as five barely visible outlines shudder, shimmer, and collapse into piles of acidic slime.

He returns to the rest of the group and proudly reports the hunters’ destruction.

The Two-Headed Serpent

The group assumes that the two-headed serpent statue is a powerful artifact of Yig and his cult. There is much discussion of what to do with this statue, and the group ultimately decides that they should destroy it.

The statue proves to be immune to mundane weaponry. Mikhail, reasoning that magic weapons may be necessary, loads one of his enchanted bullets into his gun and fires at the statue. The magical bullet damages the statue, but doesn’t destroy it.

Dr. Black realizes that it is time to test the might of Marcus’ reforged gladius. He steps up to the statue and, with two mighty swings, cleaves the statue effortlessly into three pieces.

The Two-Headed Serpent Statue, Pre-Cleaving

The Gate

The group then discusses what they know of the Nameless City and what they expect to find on the other side of the gate. After an intense debate, it is decided that Dr. Black will perform a ritual to open up the gateway, but that the group will not go through it. Instead, Judge Putnam send the drone he acquired from Look to the Future through the gate. He, and the rest of the group, will then be able to use the monitor on the drone’s controls to see what awaits them on the other side.

As Dr. Black begins the ritual, he will realize that it will cost him significant mental effort to both open the gate and keep it open long enough for the drone to explore the far side and return. Rather than use all of his magical power in the initial opening, he decides to call upon the unlocking power of his YOLE key to aid him in the ritual. This works, though several more teeth fall off of the key.

While Dr. Black holds the gate open with his willpower, Judge Putnam sends the drone forth. On the monitor, the judge sees that the far side of this gate opens out near the volcanic plain of As-Safa. The judge pilots the drone around various cinder cones. He eventually spots an encampment in As-Safa of what appear to be Syrian rebels. In order to avoid detection, he pilots the drone away from the encampment and back through the gate.

Travel Plans

The group decides not to use the gate to travel to As-Safa. Dr. Black is only too happy to let it close on itself and disappear.

Realizing that the terrain at As-Safa might be too difficult for their truck, they decide to bring the cultists’ camels along with them as backup conveyances and traveling companions. It turns out that Mikhail, possibly through his experiences of training with Pushok, is able to get the camels do more or less what he asks them to do. He becomes the group’s camel jockey.

Johnny redistributes the group’s essential equipment, packing the essentials on the camels and sending the rest back through his gate box luggage to Judge Putnam’s carriage house. This will leave the truck largely empty of goods and allow the group to instantly switch over from vehicle to camelback once they reach the volcanic plain.

Ron travels back to Staten Island, via the luggage, to help with the redistribution of the group’s resources. As he arrives in New York, Ron discovers that there is a sealed letter in the Staten Island gate box that is addressed to him. It is apparently from Luca.