Long before the party would snake their way through the Canyon of Dust, Aruktai Khagan, the Ringbearer, the Cloudstepper, ruled the desert and the lands beyond its borders. He led a small army of 1,000 warriors, but the rank and file were just for show. It was said that a mere gesture from his hand snuffed out the lives of his challengers from 1,000 paces away. If the sudden construction of his tomb hadn’t driven the warlord to the point of obsession, the whole world might have been his demesne.
If the winds are blowing in the right direction, the party will hear the Tomb of the Cloudstepper long before they would see it. Following the eerie, droning moan would lead them to a sprawling, single-story complex with numerous black portals leading inside.The tomb’s walls are fashioned into wind harps. Its music never becomes too loud, even when the party is standing right next to one of the twisted tubes. Instead, it draws them in, perhaps even making a few of them compare the song to the roar of a demanding crowd.
• intricate murals painted into the brickwork, depicting grand battles and strange rituals
• a forgotten skeleton, still clutching at the gem-encrusted sword lodged between its ribs
• the smell of an extravagant feast, so strong in one moment and gone in the next
• haggard vultures looking down from gaps in the roof
• footsteps left behind in the sand, untouched for an unknown amount of time
• a repeated motif of the moon transitioning from one phase to the next
• the sound of a faraway stone door grinding itself open, or maybe to a grinding close
• a simple fountain, run dry and surrounded by the husks of flower bushes
• a group of skeletons face down at a table, cups and plates before them, as if they were poisoned long ago
• the private journal of a worker containing an account of their last days
• the fresher corpse of a tomb raider who wasn’t fast enough to get out of the trap’s way
• coins scattered on the ground, bearing the symbol of the Cloudstepper
1-2 Scheming evil ○○○○
3-4 Poison / disease ○○○○
5-6 Factions at war ○○○○
7-8 Forbidden knowledge ○○○○
9-10 Criminal activity ○○○○
11-12 Corruption / blight ○○○○
1-2 Circular room (dead end)
3-4 Circular room, splitting off into five hallways
5-7 Worker’s quarters
7-9 Guard barracks
10 Unfinished hallway
11-12 Passage of History
The Passages of History
Aruktai Khagan was said to have employed the services of thousands of scribes who kept records of his exploits. The scribes were enlisted to help construct the tomb, but not to lay bricks or carve statues. Instead, they were to carve their records onto the very walls of the tomb, word by word. Thus, many hallways in the complex tell the countless stories of one-sided battles, political negotiations, and more temporary alliances than should be kept track of.
Party members who are versed in classic literature or dabble in the written word themselves are able to read the Passages in a unique way. By analyzing the connotations of a certain word or noting a specific phrase, they can read between the lines. How did the scribes really feel about the warlord? What was in store for them when they were no longer needed?
Unique Areas (encountered in order)
□ The art room
□ The menagerie
□ The false tomb
□ The Center of the World
□ The Hall of Trophies
□ The Eternal Court
□ The Mausoleum of Sons and Daughters
□ Hall of the Cloudstepper
□ The treasury
The Art Room
The Ringbearer was not a man of vanity, so the art room isn’t inhabited by statues and portraits in his likeness. In fact, true to his moniker, the majority of this room is dedicated to his ring collection. Or rather, it was dedicated to his ring collection. The numerous tales that tell of the Khagan’s enchanted rings have drawn the attention of many would-be practitioners of magic. The displays are mostly empty. This isn’t to say that Aruktai Khagan’s sons and daughters achieved his level of humility. The art room is still full of untouched portraits and marble statues of the warlord’s many, many offspring.
This enclosure looks like a prison at first glance, with the numerous cells lining its walls. Upon closer inspection, the observer will more likely compare this section of the tomb to a zoo. Each cell is outfitted with a variety of fake plants, and their walls are painted to look like natural environments. It could be argued that this amount of pageantry was not needed because the animals inside the cells, a collection of the Khagan’s favorite mounts, are undead. They are kept alive by some sort of necromancy, but the magic was imperfect. The beasts lust for living flesh now. Even the warlord’s most famous mount: a winged, horned elephant dressed in golden barding. Fortunately for the party, the cell bars are enchanted to be unbreakable.
Although, it’s possible the magic used for those was flawed, too.
The False Tomb
Aruktai Khagan was no fool. He knew that one day, a foolish band of grave robbers would eventually find their way to his resting place and try to filch his battle-earned riches. So, he instructed his engineers to create a false tomb, complete with a fake funerary urn and decorated with his fine (but not his finest) jewels and arms. As well as numerous traps. By the time the party arrives here, the decoy treasures might already be gone, but the secret door leading to the rest of the complex still lies unopened.
The Center of the World
The song of the tomb’s walls are heard most loudly in the Center of the World. This round hall is occupied by four imposing stone statues kneeling at the north, east, south, and west of the room. They all seem to depict the Ringbearer at different points of his life, from ambitious youth, to seasoned general, to grizzled veteran, to the obsessed warlord. Each statue pores over a meticulously detailed model of Aruktai Khagan’s lands. Miniature trees and mountains modeled in clay are rendered with lifelike craftsmanship. In the middle of the model is a circle, representing the tomb.
After spending time with the model, the more astute members of the party might realize that the entire tomb itself is laid out like a map of lands under Cloudstepper rule. Especially if the party mapped the tomb for themselves. The hallways correspond to rivers, both currently existing and long dried out. The circular rooms are lakes, the worker’s quarters are cities, and the guard barracks are mountains. But what does that make the more specialized rooms, like the art room and the menagerie? Or the more sinister ones, like the Eternal Court?
The Hall of Trophies
Although the old tales tell many times over about how the Cloudstepper treated his loyal subjects with a kindness previous rulers never showed them, the same could not be said of those who tried to rise up against him. The Hall of Trophies was a room even its builders did not like to venture into, especially on a cold desert night. Rows and rows of standing poles are planted into the floor of this room, and each one has the strangely preserved body of an enemy of the Khagan nailed onto it.
An unlucky party that finds themselves in the Hall of Trophies after nightfall learns why the workers were so afraid of the room. Whispers fill their ears, as the ghosts of warriors past mourn their lost battles. ‘If only I had…” “If only I hadn’t…” Are the spirits jealous of the party’s ability to come and go as they please? Or are they helpful, and want to help the party steal the rest of the warlord’s treasures?
The Eternal Court
8 years after the tomb was started and 8 years before the door was closed, supposedly once and for all, Aruktai Khagan called the entirety of his court, all of his best advisors and closest friends and colleagues, to the room. They assumed their usual positions, and knelt in front of him in the normal showing of respect. After a moment, they found that they couldn’t move, and they were soon covered in clay by tearful workers afraid to go against the wishes of the Cloudstepper. Any muffled screams that still remained that night were quieted by the blazing fire that hardened the prison surrounding their bodies.
There is no other room in the history of the world which has caused more scholarly debate than the Eternal Court. There are no rituals like it in any recorded histories. The closest the public face of the warlord had ever come close to joy was during court proceedings. Why did the Khagan do this?
The Mausoleum of Sons and Daughters
The Ringbearer’s children were spared the court’s treatment. Curiously, they were allowed to leave once the tomb was completed. Unbeknownst to them, a mausoleum was constructed that contained a funerary urn for each and every one of the warlord’s descendants. Even those who hadn’t been born yet. Every few years, a mysterious procession would come through the desert carrying the burned remains of member of Aruktai’s extended family, presumably to lay them to rest in their rightful place. A name is inscribed on every urn in the mausoleum, and while some of them still lay empty, somehow Khagan knew that his dynasty would end one day. Down to the name of the last carrier of his blood.
The Hall of the Cloudstepper
The simplicity of this room, the final room, sits in contrast to the complex ripples in history the Cloudstepper left behind. A small collection of polished armor and still-sharp weapons surround a raised pillar bearing the warlord’s own funerary urn. The golden vessel is no different than the urn of any commoner in the area, with the exception of a fine silver filigree of entwined dragons. A great stone moon, from which no light emits, hangs over the remains of Aruktai Khagan. Anyone who spends more than a second in this room is unnerved by the lack of presence. As if no one was ever truly here.
Adventurous party members will prove that eerie feeling right. The Cloudstepper’s urn is empty. While the warlord may not be here, the secret door to the treasury definitely is. But it begs the question: Where did the remains of the Aruktai Khagan go?
This room is filled with what adventurers were made for. Gold lines the floor like a fine rug. Golden idols (perhaps the Idol of Nimo’arr?), cartloads of jewels and crystals, and ceremonial shields peek out from every possible gap. Finding the warlord’s treasure might have been difficult, but carrying it all out will be another matter, especially if the party’s passage through the tomb has awoken anything that has been asleep for thousands of years.
• Why does the tomb of the Cloudstepper still stand after all these years?
• Who listens to the song sung by the tomb’s walls?
• Why was Aruktai Khagan so dead set on building his final monument here?
• What secrets did the Ringbearer take with him to his grave?
• What happened when the last brick of the Cloudstepper’s tomb was finally laid?
The Perilous Wilds,
Fantasy Name Generators, and
This Nigel Good album that inspired the name of the warlord.
Speaking of music, this is what I had in mind when I pictured the tomb’s walls.
Also, I definitely stole the concept of this post’s image from @visothkakvei. (Is that smudge white-out? Yes.)