Tuesday, January 15, 2019

"The Great Mechanism" - Tomb of Annihilation, Chapter 40

Argent disappeared in a flash of flame and smoke. His empty armor, weapons, and equipment fell to the floor in a heap.

The shadim commander directed her minions to return to the mural from which they emerged. She waved at the surviving members of the expedition mounted on the statue of the war mastodon and followed her underlings. The flames on the floor subsided.

Bramble, Apparently, and Orvex climbed down from the statue of the war-mastodon and examined the empty paraphernalia that remained of Argent.

Smoke began to coalesce before them. The smoke resolved into a humanoid form - a mighty Chultan warrior wearing a horned head-dress and clad in armor of thunder-beast hide. Orvex reverently whispered, "Ch'kagare."

The ghostly form of Ch'kagare held out his hand. It held a chalice made from a human skull. The chalice became solid - real. The ghost of Ch'kagare nodded silently and proffered the chalice to the survivors.

Apparently took the chalice. The ghostly form stood at attention, looking away into the distance, and faded into smoke and fog.

Orvex was the first to break the contemplative silence, "Sho, uh, dibsh on his shtuff."


  • Bramble Wolf - a theran barbarian wise-man (Wildhunt Shifter Druid) searching for the legendary origin of his tribe, recently transformed into a woman by a magic fountain, slowly becoming a goat due to a curse from a bronze staff. Current bearer of the spirit of the trustworthy god Moa.
  • Apparently Jones - a blue-skinned demijin caravan guide and animal trainer (Air Genasi Ranger) from Akasa, the land of sky mountains. Having failed to find work in Port Nyanzaru as an animal handler, she has joined the expedition to the interior as a scout. Current bearer of the spirit of the foolhardy god of froghemoths named Kubazan.
  • Xoc-Wik - a b'alam warrior (Tabaxi Fighter) from the jungles of Bres, searching for those responsible for the destruction of his tribe.
  • Zeynap Shiravadakar - a Eusebean smuggler (Human Warlock) bearing the spirit of a celestial unicorn. Current bearer of the spirit of the nimble god I'Jin.
  • Orvex Ocrammas - archaeologist and historian; rescued from the Fane of the Night Serpent.
  • Zorai - vyth (grey-skinned alien) explorer sent to Omu to investigate the massive seismic event that coincided with its destruction; trapped within a magic mirror soon after the destruction of Omu more than 150 years ago.

DM Comment-
I gave Argent's player the opportunity to make a new character. I thought of a couple of ways I could introduce them to the party. Since there are maybe only two sessions left in this campaign, he decided to promote Orvex from NPC to PC - so he made Orvex as a ninth level rogue. 

Sweet Dreams
Xoc-Wik and Zeynap, both back in the control room with Vythi-Zorai, finally shook off their Brain Fever and regained their bearings. Xoc-Wik unsuccessfully attempted telepathic communication with Argent. He was dismayed to learn of his passing from Apparently. Apparently guided him through the process of reorienting the cogs to the proper position and the remaining survivors made their way back to the control room.

They sealed the control room and decided to rest and recover.

As they slept, Xoc-Wik was visited by a strange dream. It was the drowned girl standing on the still water of a dark lake. The girl wore a long shift. She had long wet hair and dark voids where one would normally expect to see eyes. She held a red ball and asked Xoc-Wik if he would play with her. Xoc-Wik agreed.

The girl giggled and they two threw the ball back and forth. Xoc-Wik asked her questions. He learned that the girl's name was Ringu and that she lived in the lake. She was very lonely. No one ever came to speak with her. No one but Gorra, leader of the caretakers, and he just used her to make the slime which he used in his experiments.

He learned that she was not alone. A "bad person" named G'lyh'rul lived with her in the lake. She told Xoc-Wik that they'd never find the Soulmonger because they didn't have all the keys. She said she knew where the final key was but she couldn't tell him, she had to show him. Xoc-Wik would have to meet her in the lake so she could show him the way.

Xoc-Wik woke up rested but dripping wet. In his hands was a red ball. He told the others what had he experienced.

DM Comment-
I had meant to use Google translate to give the little girl a meaningful Easter Egg name like Oboreta Shojo or something, but I forgot. Xoc-Wik's player suggested "Ringu" so we went with that. 

The Lake
After sleeping, the party took some additional time to relax and prepare for the stress of the coming day. Bramble practiced juggling. Orvex practiced with Xoc-Wik's magical rapier. Zeynap recounted his adventures in a journal. Apparently performed the ritual to summon a new spirit animal - another bird-lizard which she promptly named "Archie".  Xoc-Wik made plans for the day.

The party assigned Vythi-Zorai to the controls of the gears of hate. They oriented the gears and retraced their steps to the access corridor and spiral staircase. They opened the metal hatch and walked out onto the short dock in the subterranean lake.

The water was dark but small blurry pin-points of bio-luminescent light could be seen on the lake's bottom. The water was viscous like slime.

The party climbed aboard the two rowboats and rowed underneath the two elevated walkways that connected the chambers to the giant cogs in the center of the lake. They were soon met by some ripples in the slimy water. Tentacles rose from under the surface. A large aquatic creature breached. It looked ancient and alien, with multiple eyes and wrinkled flesh around its head. Many tentacles writhed and flailed about.

The Thing in the Deep

DM Comment-
The aboleth had two personalities. It could have been the malevolent G'lyh'rul or the friendly Ringu. I asked the players to call High or Low. Xoc-Wik's player called "High". I rolled a d6 and got a high result. They got Ringu. 

Bramble, Apparently, and Orvex warily prepared for a battle.

The friendly voice of Ringu telepathically greeted them. The tentacles playfully motioned for Xoc-Wik to throw the ball. Xoc-Wik obliged and the two played catch for a moment and established their good intentions.

Xoc-Wik eventually asked about the hidden key. Ringu turned and led them to a small niche in the back of the subterranean lake. She told them that water poured into the lake from a higher chamber. She said she remembered Gorra thinking about the skeleton key being located there and that the intruders would never look for it there.

Xoc-Wik thanked Ringu who swam away pleased. Xoc-Wik then told the others he'd climb up the shaft, scout ahead, and either telepathically call for help if he needed it or return with the key. 

Hydra Fight!

Xoc-Wik struggled against the spray of the constantly falling water as he scaled the vertical shaft. When he reached the top he found a chamber about fifty feet wide. The chamber was a pool of water drawn from two large underground streams that drained down the shaft which he just climbed. He carefully looked around, his cat-eyes adjusting to the total darkness. On the far side of the chamber he saw a ledge about fifteen feet above the pool. On the ledge he saw a large chest or strong-box. Sitting next to the chest was a skeleton - the back of its skull formed a large key.

As he scanned the rest of the chamber he saw a large serpentine form sleeping in the pool. The form had five snake-like heads. Four of the heads were sleeping. A fifth was busy devouring some piece of meat. It was the hydra from the grotto under the palace! One of the two streams that fed this pool must connect somehow to the grotto.

He ducked down behind the cascading water. He was confident that he wasn't spotted. He telepathically communicated the situation to the rest of the party three hundred feet below. He wanted some consultation on his options - Should he try to get the skeleton without waking the hydra or should he wait for the others to climb the shaft and deal with the hydra as a group?

Bramble - addled as she was by the spirit of Unkh - could not decide. Xoc-Wik was finally forced to make the call. He would wait for their help. 

Bramble jumped out of the boat and transformed herself into a giant gorilla. Apparently, Zeynap, and Orvex climbed onto her back and she began scaling the vertical shaft. Xoc-Wik readied a tangle-foot arrow.

The sound of the giant ape climbing the waterfall alerted the hydra. Xoc-Wik loosed the arrow. The arrow exploded into a giant net of vines and thorns, pinning the hydra. Xoc-Wik then loosed several magically charged arrows into the hydra, killing one of its five heads. Bramble crested the edge of the waterfall and began slamming her giant simian fists into the hydra. Zeynap, riding on Bramble's shoulder, sent the continuous bolt of lightning from his Witch Bolt into the hydra.

The massive barrage overwhelmed the hydra. It fell into the water. Apparently leaped into the pool with her flaming sword, stabbing the hydra before it could grow a new head! The hydra was dead!

DM Comment - 
This entire scene was built to make up for the hydra fight I didn't get way back in Chapter 25! They cheated me then, so I placed the same hydra guarding the last skeleton key. Well, I rolled really bad for the hydra's initiative. It went last. Everyone went nuclear on the poor thing. I was dead before the round was half over! Orvex didn't even get to go! I may have got my hydra fight but I definitely got no satisfaction. 

The skeleton held aloft an ancient axe and leaped off the ledge. It charged Orvex. Orvex cut it down. The skeleton fell apart and the skull began to float towards the edge of the falls, forcing the party scramble after it. Apparently was finally able to grab the skull before it plunged over the side.

Bramble lifted Orvex to the ledge. As he went to open the treasure chest, it opened wide, revealing a huge maw filled with sharp teeth and a large sticky tongue! The chest was a mimic!

Orvex immediately stabbed the shape-changer with Xoc-Wik's rapier, killing it. The polymorphous beast shifted through several forms as it expired. One of its forms was that of Biff Longsteel. As its dying act, Biff Longsteel reached out an arm and pointed at Xoc-Wik. The beast died, melting into fleshy goo.

Everyone eyed Xoc-Wik suspiciously.

DM Comment - 
I really didn't feel like doing anything with the unresolved doppelganger situation so I used this opportunity to wrap that loose thread up. The final pointing was just meant to add some final suspicion. 

The Door of Devouring
They climbed back onto Bramble's shoulders and descended the waterfall. They regained their boats and once more encountered the aboleth Ringu.

DM Comment -
Again, I rolled in their favor.

They approached the metal hatch that led to the stairs. The outside of the hatch was shaped to look like the green devil face motif found throughout the Tomb of the Nine Gods. Small bio-luminescent crabs crawled off the dock and slipped into the water at their approach. When they neared the hatch, the devil-face spoke, "“I’m so hungry I could eat you alive, but I’ll settle for somethin’ else. Somethin’ livin’. Somethin’ light!"

Bramble, still a giant ape, reached under the water and produced several glowing crabs. They fed the crabs to the door. The hatch unlocked and swung open as it devoured its crunchy meal.

The Hall of Decay
The party made its way back around to the central cog. Xoc-Wik sent a telepathic message to Vythi-Zorai to reorient the cogs to allow access to the Cog of Blood, then reorient it again to exit through the north passage.

The passage turned left, widened, and descended a flight of stairs. At the bottom of the stairs was a long hallway strewn with debris. There was a side passage halfway down the hall to the left. The hall ended at a large archway. A bull's head adorned the keystone of the arch. A brass ring hung from the bull's nose. A room strangely lit by flashing energy lay beyond. The sound of turning machinery was deafening.

"Trap?" inquired Apparently.

"Trap." confirmed Orvex. "Wait here, I'll go exshamine that archway."

Orvex advanced slowly into the room. He made it fifteen feet in when all his equipment and clothing began to simply disassemble. Orvex soon stood naked save for a magic rapier.

Apparently winced. Orvex called back, "Get a good look, why dontcha!"

Orvex continued, naked, down the hall until he was standing under the bull's head. He pulled the brass ring. There was a sound like steam escaping. "Okay, give it a try!"

Xoc-Wik tossed an arrow into the room. When it failed to disassemble, the party reluctantly moved into the hall. Orvex had disabled the trap. Bramble gave Orvex the magical scintillating cape of Unkh to wear.

The Great Mechanism
Orvex and Apparently moved into the next room. They stood on a balcony in a wide vertical shaft. The shaft rose two hundred feet up and two hundred feet down. Another balcony was extended from the opposite side but was fifteen feet higher than the balcony on which they stood. Two giant gear chains ran vertically up and down the shaft. One chain constantly ascended while the other chain constantly descended. Both chains emerged from and disappeared from swirling vortices of energy, one in the ceiling and one in the floor.

"Wait, what's that?" inquired Apparently.

There was a flash of light. From it emerged nine cube-shaped mechanical entities, like the spherical being they encountered the previous day. These cube-things possessed four gossamer mechanical wings that beat like grasshopper wings. Four auto-loading dart-firing machine guns were mounted in front of each cube. Each cube wore what appeared to be square goggles over glowing glass eyes and leather flight caps on their squared "heads". They flew in triangular formations of three.

Behind them emerged a strange starfish creature, likewise made of cogs and machinery, piloting a crystal vehicle like a ten-sided polyhedron.

The nine flying cube-things made a dive-bombing noise as they flew towards Orvex and Apparently. They opened fire on the pair as they flew past, peppering the balcony with a shower of metal darts!

Apparently counter-attacked with her bow while Orvex surreptitiously lifted Apparently's unstrung short-bow without asking. Apparently noticed and shouted an objection. Orvex  explained he was just borrowing it as he strung the bow and nocked an arrow.

Xoc-Wik ran onto the balcony and loosed a barrage of arrows at the crystal vehicle, causing it to veer into the wall and crash. The starfish-thing fell but managed to grab some pipes on the wall and halt its descent. Xoc-Wik, Apparently, and Orvex retreated from the balcony and sought cover in the hallway.

Zeynap ran out onto the balcony and pulled a ruby bead from his magic necklace. It exploded!

DM Comment -
Record scratch!!

I told Zeynap's player that all of the fireballs on the necklace just exploded. He blanched! I asked him how many beads there were. He said eight. We did some quick math. Eight fireballs at 8d6 is 64d6, or 224 points of damage on a failed save! 

Bramble, Xoc-Wik, and Apparently were dead outright. Orvex has made his save and on top of that took half damage for being a rogue. He survived. Zeynap took the damage and was dying but was remarkably not dead outright. Orvex stabilized him. 

We started talking about what to do next. Did they want to make new characters and continue for what was probably only one more week? There was some serious discussion. I even said, "I want to show you something that might help you decide. This was meant to be a surprise for next week, but I want you to see why it's important we continue and not give up."

I went upstairs and brought down my terrain piece I built for the cradle of the death god as well as my custom sculpted Atropol. They were impressed but I had ruined the surprise. We decided to continue.

We were packing up and I decided to double-check the entry for the cursed necklace to see if I missed anything else.

Oh, look at that! The cursed necklace only does 15d6 damage total! NOT 64d6! Well, that makes a HUGE difference!

Suddenly, everyone had survived! Sure, some people were dying but a quick healing spirit fixed that! 

Xoc-Wik, Zeynap, and Apparently were unconscious from the blast. Bramble summoned forth a healing spirit wolf and quickly brought them back from the brink. All of the flying mechanical creatures had been destroyed in the blast.

The Orderer
Xoc-Wik climbed around the cylindrical shaft carrying a rope and the party was eventually able to make it across to the other side.

A passageway so narrow that everyone has to turn sideways and shimmy connected the far balcony to large dome-shaped room painted to resemble the night sky. Occupying the room was a massive clockwork device - a combination orrery and armillary. A central metal sphere, roughly ten feet in diameter, was surrounded by concentric brass rings. Arms ending in smaller spheres, each five feet in diameter, radiated from the central axis.

Zeynap approached the central sphere. A mechanism automatically opened a hatch and extended metal steps. Zeynap crawled inside and found a padded seat equipped with levers and dials. As he sat in the seat the inside of the sphere became transparent, allowing him to see the room outside.

Zeynap manipulated the levers and the rings began to spin and the smaller spheres began to revolve around the central sphere.

One of the outer spheres clicked into place and opened up like a metal lotus flower. Inside was a strange green creature with horns and wings, curled up in a fetal position. The opening of the sphere allowed the creature to unfurl its arms, legs, and wings and burst forth. A flaming energy coalesced into a large double-bladed battle-axe in its hands. It flapped its wings and became invisible!

Bramble transformed into a giant ape. Despite the creature's invisibility, it could be located by the sound of its flapping wings. Bramble charged the area and smashed the invisible creature with her massive simian fists. Apparently likewise attacked the empty space with her flaming sword.

DM Comment - 
I rolled a stealth check for the nycaloth with advantage and got a 2 and a 3. The others could track him using only their passive perception. It was sad. 

The creature abandoned its visibility and attacked Apparently with its axe. It then teleported to the other side of the armillary sphere. Bramble, Apparently, and Orvex gave chase and closed around the winged monster. The monster was surrounded and outnumbered and went down swinging. As it died it melted into a puddle of acidic goo.

Zeynap, able to witness the battle through the transparent inner sphere, was unable to assist. However, once the battle was over, he was able to master the controls that governed the movements of the concentric rings and spheres. He brought them into alignment.

The sphere disappeared from the room!

Zeynap was momentarily blinded by a flash of light. When his vision returned, he saw that the armillary sphere was now sitting on a paved road surrounded by a canyon of towering structures. Strange magical conveyances blared loudly at him while people sitting within the conveyances shouted unintelligible slurs at his direction. He seemed to be blocking some kind of traffic!

A uniformed guardian brandishing a billy club began to approach. Zeynap hurriedly reversed the levers and set the spheres and rings in motion. The armillary sphere disappeared and reappeared in the dome-shaped room he had left.

DM Comment- 
As fun as it would be to transport Zeynap to another plane of existence, I didn't want to end the campaign for him or his player, so I left the plot thread open and dangling. I wanted them to one day use the sphere to return Nova Scotia Blackman to his home plane!

Zeynap tried another arrangement. Once more the rings and spheres came into alignment but in a different configuration. One of the spheres opened and thousands of gold coins poured out.

Bramble rolled her goat-like eyes. "Useless." she bleated.

Zeynap tried again. The compartment filled with poison gas. He coughed and wheezed and nearly passed out but survived. He tried once more. This time a shining prismatic jewel the size of a plum to fall from a hatch in the ceiling of the interior. It landed in Zeynap's lap. "Nice!" he said. "But I think I'm done!"

DM Comment-
Ordinarily, you're only allowed one random result from the armillary sphere. I thought the results that Zeynap got were lame so I allowed him to keep going until he got something nice. My players were wary of the sphere because they remember the same device from Out of the Abyss. I even got to use the same prop I made! Technically, the first was an orrery while the newer one is an armillary sphere. I decided to combine them and make them both the same kind of device - a machine of modron invention that allows its user to control reality. 

In Out of the Abyss, the Orderer had gone awry, thus creating the twisted labyrinth of the Maze Engine.  In Tomb of Annihilation, it had been co-opted by Acererak and Whithers to reset time within the some of the rooms within the tomb. 


Wednesday, January 9, 2019

"The Hall of the Golden Mastodon" - Tomb of Annihilation, Chapter 39

Argent opened the wardrobe. A stinking cloud of smoke and ash poured out and filled the room with the smell of rotten eggs and burning flesh. There was a moment of darkness. The smoke faded to reveal that everyone in the room had been transported to another world. They stood in a stone arena in the center of an amphitheater. There was a wide pit in the center of the arena. Above the pit hung an iron gibbet on a chain. Inside the gibbet was a young girl with long black hair - the same girl from the watery visions! The girl seemed to be afraid and crying.

Sitting in the amphitheater were multiple rows of bizarre creatures - variously horned, barbed, calciferous, gaunt, winged, and hoofed. They began to cackle and cheer at the arrival of the newcomers in the arena below.

The largest among them, a winged serpentine figure with clawed arms and legs banged his long two-pronged fork-like weapon onto the ground. The audience became silent but still buzzed with anticipation.

The sky was dark with smoke and ash and underlit by innumerable fires. The landscape was rocky and inhospitable with tall spires like stalagmites and strange unearthly formations of obsidian and basalt.

The serpentine figure sat in a place of prominence and wore red jeweled robes and a powdered wig. It stood to address the newcomers.

"Greetings, mortals! Welcome to Narak! We, the shadim of Narak, long ago entered the service of the arch-lich Acererak. In exchange, we were offered the soul of this young girl. Per our arrangement with Acererak, the girl is allowed a defense. You have been selected to act as her advocates. You will face our own champion. If you defeat our champion - we will release our claim upon the soul of the girl. If we win - her precious soul will experience an eternity of torment to feed our insatiable hunger. You may forfeit at any time and be returned to your world. Do you accept these terms or do you forfeit?"


  • Bramble Wolf - a theran barbarian wise-man (Wildhunt Shifter Druid) searching for the legendary origin of his tribe, recently transformed into a woman by a magic fountain, slowly becoming a goat due to a curse from a bronze staff. Current bearer of the spirit of the trustworthy god Moa.
  • Apparently Jones - a blue-skinned demijin caravan guide and animal trainer (Air Genasi Ranger) from Akasa, the land of sky mountains. Having failed to find work in Port Nyanzaru as an animal handler, she has joined the expedition to the interior as a scout. Current bearer of the spirit of the foolhardy god of froghemoths named Kubazan.
  • Xoc-Wik - a b'alam warrior (Tabaxi Fighter) from the jungles of Bres, searching for those responsible for the destruction of his tribe.
  • Zeynap Shiravadakar - a Eusebean smuggler (Human Warlock) bearing the spirit of a celestial unicorn. Current bearer of the spirit of the nimble god I'Jin.
  • Argent Truth-Sayer - a golden azi knight errant of Bhamut (Dragonborn Paladin) in the service of Bhamut, sent on a holy mission to join the expedition to destroy the Soul Monger. Current bearer of the spirit of the selfish god of wealth Nangnang.
  • Orvex Ocrammas - translator and guide for hire; rescued from the Fane of the Night Serpent.
  • Zorai - vyth (grey-skinned alien) explorer sent to Omu to investigate the massive seismic event that coincided with its destruction; trapped within a magic mirror soon after the destruction of Omu more than 150 years ago.
DM Note- 
Xoc-Wik's player and Zeynap's player were both absent this week, so they suffered from Brain Fever. Apparently's player, who was absent last session, was back this week. Unfortunately, Apparently was trapped in the control room with Zeynap. I had her play Vythi Zorai until they could reorient the cogs and reunite with Apparently.

Ordinarily I'd just magically swap characters - like transpose Apparently with Xoc-Wik - but I didn't want the players to depend on that or learning to abuse it.

The Wardrobe of Narak
Despite being the drowned girl from his visions, Argent displayed no hesitation, "Let's do it! Any objection?"

Bramble, influenced by the spirit of Unkh, was overcome with indecision. Orvex shrugged. Zorai shook her head.

"We accept!" declared Argent.

The serpentine judge sighed, "Very well, we have chosen our champion!"

There was a flash of flame and smoke as a large creature covered in a thick carapace appeared in the far corner of the arena. It was the color of exposed bone. Large translucent wings like those of a wasp fluttered on its back. It bore in one armored hand a massive sword. In the other was a strange weapon composed of a long hollow tube.


Bramble transformed herself into a giant ape and charged the bone creature from its left flank. Argent approached the creature from its right. The creature was pinned in the corner.

Bramble wailed on the creature, cracking the bony carapace under heavy simian fists. Argent called forth the magical yklwa he named "Plate Mail" and stabbed at the creature. Zorai took aim with her plasma pistol but had difficulty connecting with her target. Orvex huddled in the opposite corner and hid.

The creature focused its attacks against Argent. The hollow tube fired poison-tipped darts at short range. The poison from the darts caused excruciating pain but Argent was able to shake off the lasting after-effects.

Argent and Bramble's coordinated attacks ultimately defeated the calciferous devil. As it fell screaming it burst into flaming tatters and cinders.

"Very well," sighed the judge, "The child's soul shall be returned to devachan to await reincarnation." With a bang of its forked spear, the child disappeared from the gibbet in a flash of pure white light, "You shall be returned from whence you came!"

He banged the forked spear again and the party found itself returned to the five-sided room of the Cog of Blood.

The Wardrobe of the Infinite Labyrinth
The fourth glass bulb over the portcullis was now illuminated green. Argent looked around at the remaining wardrobes. "Well, that was the fourth one, let's do the second one." He opened the second wardrobe decorated with a grinning hag dangling a baby over her hungry mouth.

A purple gas billowed from the wardrobe, completely filling the room and swirling like a maelstrom. When the maelstrom subsided, the party found themselves standing in a large room - a laboratory and library. Two cages hung from the ceiling in which man-sized four-armed insectoid creatures were imprisoned.

Each of the members of the expedition stood within magic circles drawn on the floor, their glow slowly fading.

Windows revealed a strange gray landscape of rolling hills covered in twisting labyrinths as far as the eye could see. The sky was a strange twisting display of glowing auroras.

A humanoid figure wearing the robes of a scholar sat at a desk writing notes in a book. A bushy fox tail emerged from his robes behind the back of his chair. He turned to look at the newcomers, holding a pair of wire-frame spectacles to his fox-like face, "Greetings," the vulpine scholar checked his notebook, "Ah, right on time."

He stood and brushed himself off, "Welcome to the Infinite Labyrinth, the domain of Amon Tor. My name is Ygga Raxy. I have made arrangements with the arch-lich Acererak. He told me that someone would arrive at this moment from some point in the future. Per our arrangement, I am to make you an offer. If you can pay my price of one thousand gold pieces worth of gems, I will  answer any and all of your questions regarding the Tomb of the Nine Gods, which has yet to be built. You can place your gems here on this table. If you are unsatisfied with my answers, we can renegotiate the terms. Do you understand?"

Argent and Bramble accepted the offer. Apparently had all the gemstones back in the control room. They scrounged their purses and satchels and pooled their resources. They were able to pay the price.

The fox-creature proceeded to answer their questions truthfully and helpfully. He told them that the Soulmonger was located a little over a hundred feet beneath the Cog of Blood and the correct cog configurations to reach it. He told them that the Soulmonger was a device and could be destroyed given sufficient destructive force. He told them that there was no way to align all the cogs to allow free passage - someone always had to stay behind in the control room. He revealed the location of the Skull Chalice of Ch'Kagare in the Hall of the Golden Mastodon and the cog configuration that allowed access to it. He also explained that once all five challenges of the Cog of Blood had been met, the portcullises would remain forever open. They would not have to repeat the challenges.

Eventually the party ran out of questions and the fox-creature concluded their business. With a wave of his arcane hand they were transported back to the Cog of Blood.

DM Note- 
I changed this up to give the players a break from fighting and a chance to roleplay. They seemed to enjoy the encounter. I was able to provide a lot of useful exposition and foreshadowing without giving away any big surprises. Plus it gave them something to spend their loot on. Had they been unable or unwilling to pay, then the arcanoloth would disappear and release the two mezzoloths from their cages.

The Wardrobe of the Great Mechanism
The second glass bulb was now illuminated green.

Argent opened the third wardrobe decorated with clockwork gears. The interior revealed a vast space of interlocking gears and spinning drive shafts. A round metal sphere with spindly arms and legs rolled out and fell onto the floor in front of Argent.

The third glass sphere over the portcullis began to glow green.

The sphere was a mechanical being with a spherical metal body. It stood up and looked around with illuminated glass eyes. Its voice was sounded artificial and monotone, "Greetings. We are searching for us. We believe we are trapped somewhere in this plane. Can we help us find us?"

"Uh, sure. Who are you?" asked Argent.

"EHHHH! Please define that word. We do not understand."

"Which word?"

Argent and Bramble did their best to communicate with the mechanical creature. They soon learned that it had no sense of personal identity. Singular pronouns or forms of identification were alien to it. Every time anyone used a word such as "you", "him", "her",  or anytime someone referred to someone by name, the little mechanical being simply blurted "EHHHH!"

DM Note- 
This was incredibly fun to role-play!

Argent and Bramble soon adapted and eventually learned that the creature was a modron - specifically a monodrone - from a place called the Great Mechanism. Acererak had captured a group of modrons and put them to work building what the modron called an "Orderer" - a modron device that altered reality. They agreed to help the modron.

The Wardrobe of Skion
"Two more," declared Argent. He opened the fifth wardrobe.

The room darkened. Everyone was overcome with a sense of dread, a feeling akin to falling down a shaft while standing on solid ground. The light returned and they were standing in a ruined mausoleum. Only part of the walls and ceiling still remained, the rest was rubble. Around them was a vast field of crypts, graveyards, mausoleums, and sepulchers. The sky was dark grey. The air reeked of death and decay. Within the ruins of the mausoleum were four desecrated sarcophagi.

From each of the sarcophagi rose six glowing spheres of ethereal light, translucent and sickly pale. The balls of light attacked! Bolts of life energy shot out from each victim like lightning. Each bolt was greedily absorbed by the spheres of energy.

Argent responded by calling upon his patron god, Bhamot. The spectral form of a serpentine dragon appeared over Argent. All but two of the spheres of light fled the mausoleum. The remaining sphere were soon destroyed by Argent's magical yklwa and Zorai's plasma pistol.

Once the last glowing sphere was eliminated, the party was returned. The fifth glass sphere was illuminated, leaving only the first.

The Wardrobe of the Scourge
Argent opened the final unopened wardrobe. The party was transported in a swirl of dust to a ramshackle cage covered by a dome made of interlocking metal parts and junk. Hanging onto the outside of the cage were a motley audience of onlookers who hooted and cheered at the arrival of the party.

There were strange orange-skinned humanoids with flat sinister faces and long pointed ears. They were dressed like scavengers in an assortment of bits of armor, found parts of clothing, and bits and bobs of salvaged equipment.

Scampering among the taller humanoids were smaller humanoids with skin that varied from green to yellow to red to violet. Taller more muscular humanoids with lumpy yellow skin pushed the others around.

An orange-skinned humanoid stood at the top of some metal stairs at the only way into or out of the domed cage. The humanoid wore a long fancy coat with large metal shoulder pads. His hair was combed into a high pompadour. He held in his hand a microphone attached to a wire.

"Greetings all you marauders, dregs, and crushers! Welcome to - the THUNDERDOME! Tonight we have a special treat! A challenge promised to us by the arch-lich Acererak himself! These worthy opponents have been transported across time and space from the far side of Antara to face one of our greatest champions. Tonight, you will be witness to the battle between these adversaries - foretold to be some of the toughest in all Antarra - and our very own main man, the terror of Ji-Go, you all know him, you all love him, WARLORD EPSILONNNNNNN!"

There were sparks and fireworks as the gate opened and in stepped a tall orange-skinned warrior wearing plate armor. A cadre of orange-skinned marauders entered with him and formed a line to the left and right of the entrance.

The crowd cheered!

The announcer continued, "You all know the rules - the team with the last man standing wins. Are you ready? BEGIN!" The announcer ducked out of the dome and closed and locked the gate.

Bramble leaped into action, calling forth a wall of spiritual flame which appeared in front of the line of marauders. They all perished in the conflagration!

Warlord Epsilon stepped through the flames and confronted Argent. The two fought. One of Epsilon's blows caught the modron and destroyed it.

Bramble quipped, "Well, he didn't last long!"

After a brief battle, Epsilon knew he had lost. He threw down his weapons and conceded the match. 

The crowd booed but the announcer confirmed the defeat. 

"Congratulations, champions! Acererak promised us worthy foes and he did not disappoint! You have defeated our best! You will now be returned to your point and time of origin! Good luck to you!" 

The party was returned to the five-sided room. All five glass bulbs were now illuminated green. The portcullises opened.

Xoc-Wik communicated the situation to Apparently Jones through his helmet of telepathy. During their time in the Cog of Blood, the heavy door sealing Apparently and Zeynap into the control room had once again lifted. The party moved back into the center cog and Apparently reconfigured the cogs so that she and Zeynap could rejoin the party.

This time, Zeynap, Xoc-Wik, and Zorai were left in the control room. The cogs were then reconfigured so that Argent, Bramble, Apparently, and Orvex could access the Hall of the Golden Mastodon.

The Hall of the Golden Mastodon
The party moved carefully down the corridor to the Hall of the Golden Mastodon.

They found a room shaped like a quarter of a sphere. The curved wall was decorated with a massive mural. The center of the room was dominated by a massive golden statue of a mastodon clad in battle regalia - an armored howdah was affixed to its back. The statue stood on top of a round dais. A small gap beneath the dais gave Apparently the impression that the entire dais and statue rotated, but no amount of force would budge the statue.

The mural told a story in pictures. Orvex explained that the murals showed Ch'gakare, the Chultan hero who stole the king of Omu's war-mastodon Ghom. As punishment, Ch'gakare and Ghom were banished to the Ennead Hells of Narak. There they fought and defeated a series of various and fiendish shadim before returning to Chult. Upon their return, they beheaded the king of Omu and turned his skull into a jeweled chalice.

DM Note-
I had Argent's player make a Religion check vs. DC 15 to identify the devils. He failed so got no info about what was coming.

Apparently climbed on top of the war elephant and found a star-shaped indentation in the back of its head. She told the others and they wracked their brains trying to think of what might fit.

DM Note- 
Argent's player said, "Ooh, I try the scepter!"

I asked for clarification, "Which scepter?"

He sheepishly replied, "I dunno." 

It was a funny moment but we both knew what we meant. I knew he had one of Queen Napaka's scepters and I wanted to know if he tried the real one or the copy. Not that it mattered, neither of them would have worked. 

Apparently finally remembered, "The star thing! Back in the control room! The knob on the level is shaped like a star!"

The party sighed and left the hall. They somehow got a message back to the control room to reconfigure the cogs, get the star-shaped head of the lever, and return to the Hall.

DM Note- 
Xoc-Wik was in the control room, so they didn't have anyone who could send a telepathic message. So let's just assume Xoc-Wik was keeping in constant contact. Sure, why not?

Back in the hall, they all climbed atop the elephant save Orvex who waited nearby. Apparently inserted the star into its socket.

The elephant started to rotate widdershins. A large stone slab fell from the ceiling and blocked the only exit from the room. Orvex gave a start. Suddenly, the entire floor caught fire. The flames soon reached six feet in height. Orvex screamed as his flesh burned and quickly climbed aboard the elephant with the others.

The elephantine statue continued through a full rotation. On its second round, four small devils with wings, their backs and tails covered in quills, emerged from the mural. They flew above the flames and launched quills from their tails at the adventurers on the elephant's back. Apparently, Bramble, Argent, Orvex, and Apparently's spirit animal Archie did their best to fight back but Apparently and Orvex but their weapons did little to eliminate the devilish creatures.

Upon the elephant's third rotation, three more devils emerged from the paintings - humanoid warriors with long thick tentacles growing from their chins like beards. The humanoids carried long pole-arms. Two climbed onto the tusks of the elephant and attacked Apparently and Archie from a distance while the third climbed the rear of the elephant to harass Bramble.

Bramble summoned a healing wolf and everyone on the back of the elephant moved through it as the elephant continued to rotate.

At the end of the elephant's fourth rotation, only one of the spined devils had been defeated. Two thin reptilian devils emerged from the wall. These devils were covered in thick spikes. They moved to the corners of the room and hurled small magical fireballs at the heroes on the elephant.

Apparently fell but was quickly revived by the spirit wolf. This time she felt the poison of the bearded devil's tendrils.

On the elephant's fifth rotation, a large winged humanoid with a long tail and long bull horns emerged from the mural. Argent noticed that the pattern indicated four, three, two, and one. He deduced that this would be the final devil. He called forth the holy power of the god Bhamut. Several of the devils cowered in the face of the power of Argent's faith.

Unfortunately, another devil emerged from the painting. The final devil was an armored female warrior with large feathered wings and small goat horns. She emerged with a heavy sigh like a bored teenager. She looked at the horned devil cowering in the doorway, "What's, like, wrong with you?"

She looked onto the elephant, "Oh, right!" She rolled her cat eyes, "WHAT-EVER!" She loosed three large arrows from her ornately carved bow at Argent.

Apparently once more fell but was once again revived by the spirit wolf. Archie was destroyed. HIs form instantly returned to the spirit world of Aeon. Things were beginning to look grim.

Argent leaped off the elephant and crawled along the ceiling using Nangnang's magic. The armored devil stepped into the room to better observe him, "Hey! Where are YOU going?" she demanded.

Argent told the others to close their eyes. He activated the cloak of Unkh and a blinding flash of scintillating radiance filled the room. The armored devil loosed three more arrows into Argent. He cried out and fell to the fiery floor, unconscious.

Bramble quickly summoned the spirits of healing to tend to Argent. The armored devil dropped her bow and picked up her shield and sword. Argent, suffering little from the burning floor, once more caused his cape to flare into brilliance, this time stunning the armored devil. Argent then withdrew a potion he had taken from Nangnang's tomb, opened it and drank what he believed to be a Potion of Superior Healing.

Argent's eyes began to bulge, his tongue stuck out, and he reeled! It was poison! The armored devil stabbed Argent with her sword. The dragon-man fell to the floor. She stabbed him again out of spite!

Bramble sent the spirit wolf to revive Argent. Argent was barely alive. The fire burned around him. He wouldn't last much longer.

Argent's Sacrifice
The armored devil shouted, "Okay! Wait! Hold it! Hold it!" she shouted, almost annoyed, "This is so BORING! Look, I'm just going to kill you, right? You're all going to die, and for what? Look, I'll offer you a deal. I'm bound to this wall and I'm forced to kill you, right? Well, I've got a clause. If I provide a soul to my boss, I get out of this stupid-ass job. C'mon! How about it? One little soul and you all get to walk out. Well, all but one of you."

Bramble considered it, but changed her mind. But maybe she would. She couldn't decide.

Argent stood up, wreathed in flame, "ME! Take me! Let them go!"

The devil's eyes widened and she smiled, revealing pointed teeth, "Oh, for SURE! Absolutely! Okay!"

She snapped her finger.

Argent disappeared in a gout of flame and ash, leaving behind his clothing, armor, weapons, and equipment.


Friday, December 14, 2018

"The Gears of Hate" - Tomb of Annihilation, Chapter 38

The utilitarian service stairwell ended in a small room with a corridor for an exit and a large metal hatch. The corridor, like the stairwell, was illuminated with dim fluorescent glass tubes that buzzed and flickered. The walls were smooth concrete. Grey mucoid slime dripped from small cracks and fissures in the wall and collected into large puddles on the bare concrete floor.

Argent paused and turned to talk with the others behind him, "Should we take the hatch or the corridor?"

Bramble prattled on about both options without providing clear guidance. Apparently boldly suggested they push on down the corridor.

Argent turned and was shocked to see a small girl with long dark hair and wet pallid skin standing in the puddle. A red ball rested at her feet. Here eyes were sunken and dark. Her face betrayed no emotion.

"I'm so lonely. Will you play with me?" said the little girl.

It was the little girl from Argent's dream three days gone.

Argent, still frozen in uncertainty, asked those behind him, "Does anyone else the little girl?"

"The what?" said Bramble behind him, still descending the stairwell.

Argent turned his head and pointed at the girl, "That little girl there!"

"What little girl?"

Argent turned back. She was gone.


  • Bramble Wolf - a theran barbarian wise-man (Wildhunt Shifter Druid) searching for the legendary origin of his tribe, recently transformed into a woman by a magic fountain, slowly becoming a goat due to a curse from a bronze staff. Current bearer of the spirit of the trustworthy god Moa.
  • Apparently Jones - a blue-skinned demijin caravan guide and animal trainer (Air Genasi Ranger) from Akasa, the land of sky mountains. Having failed to find work in Port Nyanzaru as an animal handler, she has joined the expedition to the interior as a scout. Current bearer of the spirit of the foolhardy god of froghemoths named Kubazan.
  • Xoc-Wik - a b'alam warrior (Tabaxi Fighter) from the jungles of Bres, searching for those responsible for the destruction of his tribe.
  • Zeynap Shiravadakar - a Eusebean smuggler (Human Warlock) bearing the spirit of a celestial unicorn. Current bearer of the spirit of the nimble god I'Jin.
  • Argent Truth-Sayer - a golden azi knight errant of Bhamut (Dragonborn Paladin) in the service of Bhamut, sent on a holy mission to join the expedition to destroy the Soul Monger. Current bearer of the spirit of the selfish god of wealth Nangnang.
  • Orvex Ocrammas - translator and guide for hire; rescued from the Fane of the Night Serpent.
  • Lukanu - Omuan champion and former personal bodyguard of Queen Napaka; trapped within a magic mirror soon after the destruction of Omu more than 150 years ago.
  • Zaal - goshi (humanoid water buffalo) warrior and best friend of Lukanu; trapped within a magic mirror soon after the destruction of Omu more than 150 years ago.
  • Zorai - vyth (grey-skinned alien) explorer sent to Omu to investigate the massive seismic event that coincided with its destruciton; trapped within a magic mirror soon after the destruction of Omu more than 150 years ago.
Lukanu and Zaal
Moments earlier, as the party prepared to descend the stairwell, Lukanu and Zaal informed Argent that they planned on staying behind. Lukanu had dedicated her life to protecting Queen Napaka. Her queen was dead. In addition, Zaal was too large to fit down the narrow service corridors and stairwell. She vowed to stay behind with her loyal friend and serve as a distraction for whatever forces might harry the party as they descended further into the tomb. Argent nodded and bade them farewell.

Awaken Napaka
Argent ignored the metal hatch to the left and continued forward down the corridor. He hesitated at the puddles of grey slime. Zeynap tapped him on the shoulder and assured the dragon-man that the situation was under control. Zeynap summoned forth a magical sphere of flame composed of coruscating hues. The magical flame rolled down the corridor ahead of the party, turning the slime into blackened crust.

The corridor turned left and, after a passage of thirty feet or so, ended abruptly.

Bramble strode past Argent but paused a few paces away from the fiery orb. Bramble looked back at Zeynap with impatience.

Zeynap looked confused before snapping to sudden realization, "Oh, sorry!" He dismissed the burning sphere, allowing Bramble to examine the dead end.

The wall was false and easily removed, revealing a narrow corridor composed of riveted metal plates. Grey slime slowly dripped from the seams in the walls and ceiling and collected into viscid pools on the floor.

The corridor to the left continued for about sixty feet before bending at a shallow angle to the right.The sound of droning machinery, pistons, chains, and turning metal gears echoed down the corridor from that direction.

A few feet to the right of the secret door, the corridor opened into another wider hall. The wider hall was well lit and led to the left and right. The entryway to the wider hall was covered in cobwebs signifying a dearth of recent use.

Argent led the party to the right and breathed a plume of fire to clear away the cobwebs. Scrawled upon the wall in dried blood was the words

The Eye of Zaltec
The hall was walled with steel plates and was lit by alternating magical glass bulbs every ten feet. The hall sloped from the right to the left.  The upper end of the hall ended in a blank wall about fifty feet to the right. The lower end of the hall was concealed by a curtain about fifteen or twenty feet to the left. The sloped floor was covered in patches of slime that oozed from the seams in the wall.

Argent entered the long hall alone. He examined the lights but saw nothing of note. He opened the curtain to reveal a statue of a large four-armed monster. Three of its hands were held outward and cupped as if awaiting some sort of payment or offering. The fourth hand was broken off and lay tightly clenched on the floor.

Words inscribed on the wall behind the statue read:

Three I need
Then three more
Three more still
Opens the door

Lawrence the Lizard began to panic, expressing great concern at seeing the statue.

Argent backed away and asked what had frightened the lizard.

Lawrence said that he can't remember what it was the statue did but that it was responsible for separating the Company of the Yellow Banner. His last memory was accompanying them as they approached the statue. He told Argent that they believed that the statue held in its hands the fabled Eye of Zaltec.

Orvex Orcammas gasped in disbelief. He explained that the Eye of Zaltec was a lost treasure of an ancient empire from the continent of Bres. He said that it could restore life to the long dead.

Lawrence confirmed that the Company of the Yellow Banner wished to use the Eye to restore life to "the Starfallen", an elioud who had lost her physical form.

Argent gave Lawrence to Zeynap and told the others about the riddle.

"Well, it obviously needs nine of something," was the consensus, "but nine of what?"

DM Comment-
The players spent about ten minutes trying to think of what it might need, guessing wildly. I knew they'd never guess.

As it happened, earlier that night we had joked about allowing microtransactions into D&D. One player asked if they could just buy a clue. I said, "Sure, why not?"

Zeynap's player said, "I'll pay you a dollar for a clue." I said, "sure."

He paid, I said, "gemstones."

It was a funny joke but I gave him his money back later.

Everyone in the party rummaged through their backpacks looking for gems. Bramble exclaimed, "We've found hundreds of gems! Where are they?"

DM Comment - 
No one had any written on their character sheets. Their notes were a mess. I told them if they couldn't find any gems, they were stolen by the doppelganger.

Apparently pulled out a clay jar, "Hey! This small jar contains like thirty gemstones!"

"Where did that come from?" inquired Bramble.

Apparently shrugged.

DM Comment - 
Ras Nsi's lair.

Argent put a gemstone into each of the three hands. the three hands clenched each stone tightly, crushing them to powder. Argent repeated the gift. The gemstones were once again crushed. He gave it three more gems which were again crushed.

The hand on the floor opened to reveal a lustrous ruby the size of a plum. The statue opened its mouth and exhaled a cloud of gas. Argent coughed and fell unconscious to the floor.

The top end of the hall slide into the floor revealing a massive mechanical machine pushing a heavy iron roller before it like a ten ton rolling pin. There was a squeal of machinery and a release of the steam as the machine began rolling down the hallway with gathering speed!

The Stone Juggernaut

Zeynap, standing in the side-hall, hurled a magical witch-bolt of lightning into the mechanical steam-roller.

Apparently shouted, "Move out of the way!" and darted past Zeynap. The blue-skinned demi-jin moved with startling alacrity. Her superhuman strength, enhanced by the spirit of the trickster god Kubazan, allowed her to left up the unconscious dragon-man with one hand, throw him over her shoulder, and grab the Eye of Zaltec with the other hand.

She looked up the sloping hall to see the steam-roller barreling towards her with increasing acceleration. She furrowed her brow and darted back to the side hall a split second before the giant machine rolled past, flattening everything before it.

The steamroller slammed into the statue and wall behind it with tremendous force! It stopped and slowly started backing up the inclined hall.

Bramble looked over Zeynap's shoulder, "Is that it? Is that all it does?"

Zeynap zapped the machine a few more times with his eldritch blasts, "I guess so."

Once the machine reached the top, it rolled down the hall again, once more slamming into the wall at the bottom.

Bramble and Zeynap both shrugged and turned to join the rest of the party as they tended to Argent. The party spent the next hour waiting for Argent to regain consciousness, studying the Eye of Zaltec, and regaining their strength.

Cog of Rot
The party continued down the narrow corridor to the slight bend. The corridor crossed a gap in the floor that opened into a dark space beyond. The gap was wide enough that someone could fit their head through it and look around. The warm humid air of the corridor escaped through the gap into the cold lower pressure outside. Argent looked through and around and saw an underground cavern filled with water and illuminated by small crawling arthropods.

On the other side of the gap was a pentagonal room made of metal. The entrance was located at the vertex of two facets of the pentagon. A metal pipe extended six feet from the floor in the center of the room, terminating in a sprinkler head. A mass of thorny vines covered in ivy grew out of a rotting mass of decaying compost all around the sprinkler head. Grey slime dripped from the seams of the metal plates along the wall. There was a narrow path from the corridor leading along the left wall to another exit at the next vertex to the left. The entire room stank of decaying plant matter and compost.

A ten-foot wide hole in the center of the ceiling opened to a shaft leading upward.

Argent moved through the dense vegetation and investigated the sprinkler head. Foul-smelling grey water dripped from the sprinkler. The shaft over his head rose over a hundred feet. He could see the atrium of the upper levels far above.

Argent rejoined the rest of the party as they navigated the narrow path into the second exit.

Cog of Acid
A narrow passage connected the sprinkler room to another pentagonal room with two exits. The two rooms were separated by another gap through which it was wide enough for someone to stick their head.  This room was decorated with friezes of five serpentine black dragons. The room was bare and possessed a chemical odor. A close examination of the dragons revealed small concealed nozzles in each of the dragons' mouths.

The room was quickly and nervously abandoned as the party moved through the second exit, across another gap, and down a short corridor into a small room.

Control Room
The room was twenty-five feet square. The center of the room was dominated by a large brass control panel. The panel possessed a blue knob and a red knob, a blue button and a red button, and a large level which was capped with a gold star-shaped handle.

A skeleton with a large octagonal key growing from the back of its skull was pondering an array of five groups of three circles illustrated on the far wall. Xoc-Wik disassembled the skeleton with a single bowshot.

Each of the five diagrams consisted of three pentagons arranged in a kind of triangle and five icons - a star, wavy lines, a steamroller, tusks, and a chain. Each pentagon in the diagram contained two open vertices. Beneath each diagram was a  glass bulb. The glass bulb beneath the third diagram was glowing.

Above the diagrams were three pipes.

The party quickly deduced that the diagrams represented the pentagon-shaped rooms through which they recently traversed and that the openings coincided with the exits in each room. They surmised that the third diagram represented the current configuration and that the openings matched their passage through the rooms. They further concluded that the rooms somehow rotated and that the panel in this room controlled their configuration.

Apparently wasted no time. She turned the blue knob to the left. The illuminated bulb switched to indicate the second diagram. She pushed the blue button and the entry to room just behind the control room rotated away to the left.

  Wheels in Motion
 Argent and Bramble observed the rotating rooms from the entrance way. They saw that the pentagonal rooms were situated atop massive rotating cogs rising out of pylons in the underground lake. The cogs turned against each other so that when the closest room rotated clockwise, the center room rotated counter-clockwise, and the far room clockwise.  There was a brief moment when the flat side of the pentagonal room was far enough away from the entrance that one could step out onto the cog and grab onto the exterior of the rotating room.

Bramble and Argent stepped out and climbed atop the closest room. They saw the ceiling of the cavern above them. Massive cogs and gears were driven by huge chains and drive-shafts. Small masked pallid figures climbed on catwalks and dangled from harnesses as they maintained the machinery. The figures noticed the pair standing atop the rotating room but paid them no heed.

They saw three enclosed catwalks atop pilings in the lake. One led to the center room - the corridor they had taken. The other two would connect with the previously unseen third room if the correct configuration was chosen. They also saw a large concrete pillar within which contained the stairwell they used to descend to this level. They saw the outside of the metal hatch. The outside was carved or cast to resemble the green devil face design so prevalent in the Tomb of the Nine Gods. The hatch led to a short dock made of metal grating. Two small rowboats were tied to the dock and an iron cage large enough for a man was suspended over the water by a gibbet.

The room eventually stopped rotating in a configuration matching the second diagram, the diagram that Apparently had chosen.

As they carefully made their way across the roof of the first room, Argent once more saw the little wet girl. She was standing on the water of the lake as if it were solid. She held the red ball in her hands.

Argent and Bramble froze. They could both see her.

The little wet girl communicated telepathically directly into their minds, "Would you play ball with me?"

Argent became stern, "No! Go away!"

The little girl threw her ball at Argent. It bounced with an audible "Tank!" off the outside wall of the pentagon and bounced across the water as if it were a solid floor.

Argent was nearly overcome with the urge to dive into the water to recover the ball. He held fast and shouted at the girl, "Be gone!"

The little girl vanished.

Bramble and Argent cautiously clambered down the side and hopped across to the middle room. He saw that the entrance to the previously unseen third room were open. However, when stopped, the corners of the pentagons nearly met. Since the entrances were located on the corners, the pair found the open entrances blocked by the proximity of the opposite corner of the adjacent room. The gap was large enough to look in, however, so Argent examined the room within.

The entrance was barred by a portcullis. The other entrance was likewise barred. Within they saw five wardrobes decorated by friezes.

DM Comment- 
We had continued to joke all night about micro-transactions in D&D. At this point, Bramble's player, frustrated at the puzzles and logic problems in this level, pulled out his wallet and just threw all his money and credit cards on the table - "How do we make this level go away? Just take it! Take it all!"

They climbed back to the control room. They found that the entrance was covered in slime which was pouring freely out of the three pipes in the control room.

"Wha-a-a-at-?" stammered Bramble.

"Well, we now know that when you pull the gold lever, it activates the slime dispenser!" said Apparently, exasperatedly.

"Wh- Why? Why is there a slime dispenser? And why so much?" said Bramble.

Apparently and Zeynap only shrugged.

The party set about planning possible room configurations that would connect them to the other passages. They knew that the third configuration  would get them to the center room but someone would need to stay behind to set the controls to the first configuration and operate the button. Orvex volunteered but the group overruled, choosing Apparently and Zeynap to stay behind.

Xoc-Wik donned his magical helmet obtained from beneath the arena in Omu. It allowed him to make a telepathic link with Apparently so that they could remain in contact.

Apparently set the rooms to the third configuration. Everyone moved back to the center room. There was a faint chemical smell and the plants were now glistening wet from the sprinkler. Xoc-Wike gave Apparently the signal to activate the first configuration. The room began to rotate. As it did so, the  sprinkler activated, spraying the plants with watered down ooze! The plants began to come alive! The vines writhed and twisted together to form huge woody tentacles!

The room came to a stop. The exits lined up with the third room and a mysterious smaller room. As the exit lined up with the smaller room, poisonous insecticide gas poured out. The gas spread through the room, causing those within to cough and gag.

The plants began to coalesce into animated behemoths. Bramble, coughing, ordered everyone to group up inside the small gas room, forcing the shambling plant-things to fight them one at a time. Argent would hold them off. Bramble said, "Don't worry! I have a plan!"

Zorai and Orvex led Xoc-Wik, who had succumbed to brain fever thanks to the gas cloud, into the small room. Bramble stood  behind Argent. Argent took a defensive position at the choke point.

Bramble called upon the spirits of nature to coalesce into a spinning maelstrom inside the small confines of the room. A massive swirling storm came into being, tearing the shambling plant-things apart with gale winds and torrential rain. Argent held steadfast as the vines could do nothing to abate the hurricane force winds and were eventually shredded into debris.

DM Comment-
There were three shambling mounds but they had a good choke-point. The Maelstrom had dispersed the gas. Only one shambling mound could attack Argent at a time and it could not get past his Dodge actions. After they destroyed the first shambling mound and had reduced the second to half hit points, I just called the fight. There was no point in continuing.

Once the plant-things were reduced to small bits, the party could investigate the small room in which they took refuge. The room contained the body of a male human, an Avallonian by his appearance and dress, wearing the livery of the Company of the Yellow Banner. He was obviously a nobleman and had died from the poison gas when he became trapped in this small room. Lawrence revealed that the man was the leader of the company, Lord Brixton. From the looks of him, he  had died two months ago. The party searched the body and recovered a sword with a pommel shaped like a dragon head and clothing bearing a minor magical enchantment that maintained their cleanliness. He also carried a pack of supplies and a pouch containing six gemstones.

Meanwhile, back in the control room, Zeynap was becoming restless.

"Is it time to turn it?" He inquired impatiently.

"No!" replied Apparently, "I have to wait for their signal!"

The spirit of I'Jin inside Zeynap couldn't take it. Zeynap began tapping his feet. He then sprang to the control panel and started pushing the red and blue buttons.

Apparently shouted for him to stop but it was too late. A heavy iron door slammed shut over the single exit, sealing them in.

"Stop!" she cried.

Apparently used her super-human Kubazan strength to try to lift the door but with no success. "Well, we're stuck."

"What does this red knob do?" inquired Zeynap, bitterly.

"Might as well find out." She turned the red knob.

A telepathic voice spoke to her mind. It was the petulant voice of a young girl, "No, Gorra! No more slime!"

"Um, hello?" said Apparently.

"You're not Gorra! Are.. are you really somebody else? You aren't playing a trick on me, are you Gorra?"

"Who is this?" she inquired cautiously.

"My name is 'Goo-lah-rool'. What's your name? Would you like to play with me?"

Apparently and Zeynap looked at each other in panic. They gestured wildly but were reluctant to communicate any further with the telepathic voice. Apparently turned the red knob back to the opposite position.

"No! Wait! I can help y-" The voice was cut off.

Cog of Blood
The portcullis that once barred entry into the third room was now raised and the party made their way inside.

They found five wardrobes, each decorated and carved with a different theme. The second exit, however, was still barred. Mounted on the wall above the exit were five red glass spheres.

The first wardrobe depicted two inhuman armies clashing. One army consisted of Warlords, Marauders, Crushers, and Dregs from the Scourge of Ji-Go battling armies of Crimson Draconians.

The second wardrobe depicted an old woman with an evil countenance dangling an infant  over her open mouth as if she was about to swallow it whole.

The third wardrobe showed an ornate clock and complicated gears.

The fourth wardrobe depicted masses of screaming tortured humanoids bound by chains.

The fifth wardrobe was carved to depict a scene of ghouls gnawing on bones.

"Here we go." warned Argent as he opened the fourth wardrobe.


Wednesday, November 28, 2018

"Lawrence the Lizard" - Tomb of Annihilation, Chapter 37

"'Allo!" said the lizard in perfect Avallonian, "Pleased to meet you! Name's Lawrence!"

Argent jumped back and hit his head on the ceiling of the confined space.

"What happened? Who said that?" inquired Bramble, worried.

Argent bent over and looked out of the devil's mouth, "It's a talking lizard! His name is Lawrence."

Argent returned his attention to the lizard, "Um, I'm sorry about that. I wasn't expecting you to talk. Have you always talked?"

"Oh no," said Lawrence, "I was given the ability to speak by a ranger named Seward!"

Argent extended his hand to Lawrence. Lawrence crawled onto Argent's hand and scurried up his arm to perch on his shoulder. Argent emerged from the niche behind the devil face and introduced Lawrence to the rest of the party.


  • Bramble Wolf - a theran barbarian wise-man (Wildhunt Shifter Druid) searching for the legendary origin of his tribe, recently transformed into a woman by a magic fountain, slowly becoming a goat due to a curse from a bronze staff. Current bearer of the spirit of the trustworthy god Moa.
  • Apparently Jones - a blue-skinned demijin caravan guide and animal trainer (Air Genasi Ranger) from Akasa, the land of sky mountains. Having failed to find work in Port Nyanzaru as an animal handler, she has joined the expedition to the interior as a scout. Current bearer of the spirit of the foolhardy god of froghemoths named Kubazan.
  • Xoc-Wik - a b'alam warrior (Tabaxi Fighter) from the jungles of Bres, searching for those responsible for the destruction of his tribe.
  • Zeynap Shiravadakar - a Eusebean smuggler (Human Warlock) bearing the spirit of a celestial unicorn. Current bearer of the spirit of the nimble god I'Jin.
  • Argent Truth-Sayer - a golden azi knight errant of Bhamut (Dragonborn Paladin) in the service of Bhamut, sent on a holy mission to join the expedition to destroy the Soul Monger. Current bearer of the spirit of the selfish god of wealth Nangnang.
  • Orvex Ocrammas - translator and guide for hire; rescued from the Fane of the Night Serpent.
  • Lukanu - Omuan champion and former personal bodyguard of Queen Napaka; trapped within a magic mirror soon after the destruction of Omu more than 150 years ago.
  • Zaal - goshi (humanoid water buffalo) warrior and best friend of Lukanu; trapped within a magic mirror soon after the destruction of Omu more than 150 years ago.
  • Zorai - vyth (grey-skinned alien) explorer sent to Omu to investigate the massive seismic event that coincided with its destruciton; trapped within a magic mirror soon after the destruction of Omu more than 150 years ago.

The Company of the Yellow Banner
Lawrence explained that he once traveled with a group known as the Company of the Yellow Banner. The company had come to Chult to find the fabled Eye of Zaltec, a magic item that could restore life to the long dead. They hoped to use it to free the elioud known as Starfallen from the ghost lantern in which she was trapped. They were separated by a teleport spell and that was the last he heard of them. That was nearly two months ago. Lawrence had survived on spiders ever since.

"How big was the Company?" asked Bramble.

"The company consisted of six adventurers. Let's see- there was Lord Brixton, knight of Avallonis and leader of the company."

Bramble and Argent nodded, sagely.

"Devlin Bashir," the lizard continued, "Uttaran wizard who looked like a goat and carried a goat staff."

"Yep," said Bramble, "We found his dead body. I have his staff."

"Ah, that's too bad," said Lawrence, "Let's see, there was Bravus, a terro cleric from Tsolin. He was known for his magnificent yellow turban."

"I'm sorry, but we found his remains in the tomb of I'jin. He was devoured by locusts." said Argent.

"I see. There was also Sephirius, better known as "Seph". He was an azi paladin of Bhamut from Plaksha like yourself."

Argent nodded, "Yes, we found his remains in the Chamber of Respite. He had starved to death."

"There was also the ranger named Seward."

"Haven't seen him," mused Bramble.

"And finally there was the fighter, Biff Longsteel. Oh! Be careful! Biff Longsteel is a doppelganger!"

The party dropped into combat positions and looked for Biff.

"Where's Biff?" shouted Argent.

Everyone looked around. There was no sign of Biff.

Zaal spoke up, "Do you mean the guy from the mirror? When the stone slab dropped upstairs and separated us, the merchant ran away screaming. Biff said he's go find him. Neither one of them has come back yet." 

Argent asked, "What do we do?"

Bramble replied, "Well, if I remember correctly, a doppelganger can't hold their shape if they're knocked unconscious. So, just in case one of us is the doppelganger, I'll have to turn into a giant ape and smash everyone until they're unconscious. Just to be sure."

Xoc-Wik tilted his head with scorn, "What ELSE can we do?"

Bramble set abut painting small X-marks on everyone's arms using Apparently's (formerly Devlin's) magical ink pot, "Okay, everyone be on the lookout for Biff. If you see any of us, look for this X. If they don't have an X, it's a doppelganger. Kill it."

Pay the Toll
The party exited the hall and returned to the atrium. They were at the very bottom. Four large statues of monstrous four-armed gargoyles were perched atop four square pillars. A small coin-sized slot was located at the base of each pillar.

"Coins? These things are coin-operated?" wondered Argent.

Bramble shrugged, "Feed them some coins."

"Wait!" Zeynap interjected, "Don't forget that the top of each pillar had a different color- copper, silver, gold, and platinum."

The party inserted coins of the appropriate type into each pillar and climbed the stairs to the next higher mezzanine.

They looked down the long corridor facing west. The corridor was at least sixty feet long. A skeletal silhouette staggered just at the edge of the magical illumination of Argent's shield.

The dark shape turned and charged the party. It was a skeleton with a large key-shaped growth emerging from the back it the skull. Xoc-Wik put an arrow into the skeleton which disassembled it. The bones fell lifeless to the floor. The b'alam picked up the skull. The key was shaped like a hexagon.

The Ghastly Door
At the end of the hallway was a large stone slab. On both walls next to the slab were bronze funnels shaped like snakes, mouths wide. The inner surface of both statues were stained with blood and emanated the stench of death.

Argent made a small cut on his hand and dripped a few beads of blood into the mouth of the snake on the right. The sound of chains rattling and frantic shuffling emerged from the bronze funnel, but nothing happened. He shrugged and suggested they instead explore the side corridor to the right immediately behind them.

Rolling Doom
Stairs led down from the main corridor. A closed chest sat at the bottom of the stairs.

DM Comment-
Bramble's player and Xoc-Wik's player simultaneously said, "Mimic!"

Xoc-Wik stepped forward and put a few arrows into the chest, just in case it was a trap.

DM Comment-
As a joke, I replaced the chest with a mimic miniature and said the mimic got up, walked back into the room, and returned carrying the real chest. It put the chest down and retreated into the room, nursing its wounds. That got a laugh.

Argent took Orvex down the stairs. The dragon-man asked Orvex to check the chest for traps. Behind him Argent saw a large room supported by four pillars with a raised area on the far wall. \

Orvex investigated and saw that a wire led from the lid down a small metal tube into the floor. Argent thanked Orvex and sent him back up the stairs to wait with the others. Once he was alone, Argent magically attached himself to the ceiling so that he hung down and opened the lid of the chest.

The ceiling at the top of the stairs unexpected dropped down like a ramp and down it rolled a large stone sphere. Argent withdrew quickly into the room behind him, using his magical gravity-defying  power to stay attached to the wall. The sphere crushed the chest and rolled past. The sphere crashed through the floor just inside the chamber, revealing a thin false floor concealing an acid-filled pit.

Argent looked back into the corridor and up the stairs. Bramble and Xoc-Wik pushed the ceiling back up until it clicked into place. Argent gave them a thumbs up.

Bramble examined the remains of the chest. He found a silk pillow which he proudly procured for his use. Doing so he heard an invisible clink of something metal fall to the floor. He searched around and found an invisible object in the shape of a key.

The party avoided the false floor pit trap thanks to Argent who carried them one by one along the wall. Argent, Bramble, Xoc-Wik, Lukanu, Zorai, and Orvex entered the room. Zaal was too big to fit down the stairs comfortably so he waited  in the hall with Apparently and Zeynap who were suffering from brain fever.

The Tomb of Unkh
Argent dropped everyone along the wall to the right of the entrance and the party began exploring the tomb counter-clockwise. The three walls adjacent to the entrance were made of ten foot panels decorated with scenes of goshi at work building the city of Omu and paying homage to a massive snail with ten eye-stalks. Each eye-stalk terminated in a spiked ball like a mace head.

"This is the tomb of Unkh the flail snail," explained Orvex, pointing towards the giant snail.

The back wall of the chamber was elevated above the rest of the chamber by a raised stage. The wall was adorned with an intricate maze-like pattern. As they looked closer they could see that the maze was a small model with two-inch walls. Closer examination revealed that the passages between the walls were filled with fog and that the walls of the maze were constantly and slowly shifting. Every few seconds, Argent could see a tiny colored dot appear and disappear in the maze.

Bramble pondered out loud, "Maybe we need to use that potion of diminution we found in the beholder vault?"

Xoc-Wik and Argent agreed that the idea sounded plausible bout wondered if there was a different way.

In the center of the room was a large sarcophagus made of opaque crystal. Every six seconds the sarcophagus would change color - blue, gold, purple, green, red, and black. There was a keyhole on the side of the sarcophagus. The invisible key was tried but did not fit.

Argent said, "Got it! I'm going into the maze!"

Xoc-Wik looked puzzled, "What?"

Argent climbed the stairs to the maze on the back wall and touched it. He disappeared in a flash!

Xoc-Wik ran after him and saw a tiny Argent in the maze. Argent likewise looked up and saw a giant Xoc-Wik peering down at him from above. Despite Xoc-Wik's attempts to communicate, Argent could hear no sound. Argent held his hands up to his ears and shook his head to communicate this to Xoc-Wik.

Suddenly, the panels along the other three walls of the room slid open to reveal piles of massive bones and water buffalo skulls. The bones began to magically assemble into large skeletal goshi wielding Chultan axes.

The goshi skeletons charged the party. Zorai was struck down. Orvex took a near fatal hit and was knocked into an empty cell vacated by one of the goshi skeletons. He hid under the bones to avoid further attention.

Lukana drew her yklwas and became a whirlwind of death, charging into the midst of the massive skeletons. She cleared a large enough path for Bramble to transform into a giant fifty-foot ape. Ape-Bramble waded into the room destroying skeletons, smashing them under her massive fists. Meanwhile Orvex was attacking from cover with his crossbow.

Xoc-Wik loosed arrows at the goshi skeletons. Some arrows arced around corners while others exploded, sending debris and bone fragments flying. Two goshi climbed the platform and bore down on Xoc-Wik. The nimble jaguar-man leaped off the platform onto Ape-Bramble's muscular back and continued attacking. Soon all the skeletal goshi were defeated and the room was secure. Xoc-Wik ran to Zorai and saved her from the brink of death.

DM Comment-
I normally don't worry about death saves for NPCs unless the players call for them. Players sometimes grow attached to NPCs they like so I'll allow them to roll death saves for them if they want. In the heat of battle we all forgot about the meatgrinder mode. Oh well, maybe she'll suddenly die mysteriously next week.

Edit- Argent's player just notified me that he did, indeed, roll death saves vs. 15. My mistake! 

Meanwhile Argent wandered the fog-shrouded maze. He eventually found a gold key. He took it and disappeared from the maze. He reappeared next to the sarcophagus. He waited for the sarcophagus to turn gold before inserting the key. The lid opened to reveal a box filled with salt.

Bramble ran her hands through the salt and found ten bracelets made of iridescent snail shell. She also withdrew a robe. The robe was made of a shiny iridescent fabric that gleamed in the light of Argent's shield. The collar of the robe contained ten tassels ending in soft spiked balls.

"Nice!" she said as she donned the robe.

Slime began to emanate from the inner lining of the robe. A voice spoke inside Bramble's mind, "Do you accept me?"

"No!" cried Moa, "This vessel is mine!"

The two trickster gods battled for occupancy of Bramble but Unkh won out. Moa was forced out and disappeared.

Bramble felt suddenly healthier, more robust, like she could take on the world.

Meanhile, the gold key in Argent's hand disappeared. A strange sigil magically appeared on the inside of his right arm. He found that he could suddenly smell the gold, silver, and other precious metals around him, along with all previous stones and gems.

Argent could feel the spirit of Nangnang dancing with joy at this newfound ability!

Grandfather Clock
Bramble was the first to notice the small passage at the back of one of the cells. Argent led the way. The party was soon looking at a tall grandfather clock sitting in an empty room. The pendulum of the clock terminated in a fist-sized pearl.

DM Note-
I normally play background music through a blue-tooth speaker. I replaced the music with a ticking clock channel on YouTube.

Argent carefully opened the door but was blocked from grabbing the pearl by an invisible barrier.

Argent concluded that the time on the clock face removed the barrier so he turned the minute hand to the next hour. The clock chimed. The sound was deafening and everyone but Argent was forced to cover their ears. When the chiming was done Argent found he had aged ten years!

The barrier was still there so Argent tried again! The clock chimed. This time, however, everyone covered their ears and was spared the premature aging.

The chimes had no effect on the barrier. Argent turned the minute hand one hour back. The clock chimed. The other members of the party shouted at him and pleaded with him to stop! They left the room, carrying poor Lawrence the lizard who had aged twenty years!

Eventually, Argent ran his hand along the invisible barrier. He found an invisible keyhole. He called Bramble back. Using the invisible key they opened the invisible door and took the large pearl.

Upon seeing the pearl, Orvex exclaimed, "It's the Navel of the Moon! It's a fabulous treasure rumored to reunite loved ones long lost! I believe that b'alam hunter was looking for this."

The Throne Room
The party returned to the end of the hall. Argent tried dripping some more blood into the funnels. Xoc-Wik and Bramble became impatient and shoved Argent aside, "Get out of the way! We've got this!"

They each held their arms out over one of the funnels. They cut their arms and a stream of blood flowed into the yawning mouth of the bronze snake. After a minute of steady bloodletting they heard the sound of chains rattling and vicious frenzy behind the walls. The heavy stone slab began to rise haltingly. It eventually opened wide enough for the party to enter the chamber beyond.

Within they found a large throne room with a vaulted ceiling supported by gothic arches and four heavy pillars. A narrow ledge ran around the perimeter of the chamber. The center of the chamber was sunken fifteen feet below the level of the entrance. The walls of the sunken section were decorated with painted scenes of adventurers dying from the traps of the Tomb of Nine Gods. 

Three humanoid figures stood near the walls holding brushes and palettes of paint. They were busy adding new scenes to the murals depicting the exploits of the party. One was painting a scene of Argent entering the very room in which they were standing!

The figures paused in their work and turned to the intruders. The party could now see that their skin was dry and leathery as if preserved by tanning and their eyes and mouths were crudely sewn shut using hemp string. The gruesome painters returned to their work.

Three niches on each side wall contained statues of Omuan warrior women wearing masks resembling the heads of hornets. Lukanu said, "They are the handmaidens of my queen, Napaka! What is this place?"

Directly opposite the entrance, on a ledge overlooking the sunken mural, was a large throne made of bone lashed together with leather thongs. The skull of a water buffalo was affixed atop the throne.

"That is the skull of a goshi!" exclaimed Zaal.

Argent made his way around the left ledge towards the throne, carefully passing each statue in case of attack.

A sign hung from the back of the goshi skull, "It says 'Karagos'!"

Zaal fell to his knees and began to weep. "Who was he?" asked Bramble.

"He was the leader of Zaal's people, he was a great engineer and architect, it was he that designed the defenses of Omu," explained Lukanu as he gave comfort to her friend.

There was a metal scepter on the seat of the throne. Its spherical head was made of adamantine. Argent picked up the scepter and began smashing the throne. He smashed the skull, sending it flying across the room. For a brief moment a flash of rage and revenge overtook him, but he quickly regained his composure.

Tomb of the Sun Queen
The rest of the party examined the statues. They were able to locate two concealed doors hiding secret passages. They chose the one behind the throne on the right to explore first.

Argent entered alone. He soon entered a secret crypt containing a fabulous sarcophagus made of gold. The word "NAPAKA" was inscribed onto the coffin in Atlantean.

A large golden sphere hung by a chain over the sarcophagus. The sphere was decorated with a friendly smiling face.  A box shaped like a jeweled scarab sat atop the sarcophagus. Argus opened the box and found a necklace of rubies.

DM Comment-
Everyone simultaneously said, "Necklace of Fireballs!" I sighed and rolled my eyes.

He also found a jade key shaped like a crocodile. Argent looked around but could find no keyhole.

Argent then walked up the wall and onto the ceiling so that he could better inspect the sphere. Again, he found no keyhole.

He walked back down and tried to lift the lid of the sarcophagus. It was too heavy for him. Argent went back to the throne room and asked Orvex privately about "Napaka". Orvex said that she was "the Sun Queen of Omu" and was likely the last queen of the city when it fell. Argent nodded.

Argent turned to the others and explained that he found a tomb and needed help lifting the lid. Lukanu volunteered but Argent held her back, "No, you better stay out here."

Xoc-Wik and Bramble entered into the small room and rendered assistance. They removed the lid to reveal the mummified remains of Queen Napaka wearing a golden hornet mask and a tattered black dress. An iron scepter identical the one on the throne lay clutched in her left hand.

Xoc-Wik took the mask from the remains. The smiling face on the golden sphere immediately changed to an angry grimace. The sphere began to glow as if building up to some kind of discharge. Xoc-Wik, Bramble, and Argent were able to quickly find cover as the sphere flashed. The intensity of the burst singed the edges of their clothing. The sphere was now glowing bright orange and radiating an uncomfortable heat, forcing everyone to flee the room.

Once outside, Bramble said, "Wait, I'll be right back!" She ran back in and grabbed the scepter out of the sarcophagus, then ran out as fast as she could.

DM  Comment- 
Dang it! I totally missed the gas trap in the sarcophagus! I'll make up for it later, I guess. 

The Service Corridors of Annihilation
The party then opened the hidden door on the opposite diagonal corner of the room. It revealed a utilitarian corridor of plain concrete. It connected to a spiral staircase that led up and down. The party followed Argent as he descended the stairs.