Wednesday, December 3, 2014

"The Satrap of Horek", Chapter 1 of The Fates of Kalmath

The team decide to escort Princess Murti to Horek. After sending a bullette packing, they arrive and meet the captain of the guard who invites them to a special dinner with the satrap of Horek. There they become involved in plots and schemes that could threaten the entire valley in a night of high role-play, grand intrigue, deep world-building, campaign back-story, and lots of exposition!

The party:
Ser Valerius, Armiger Errant, Executor of Justicia (Human Level 5 Paladin)
and his Celestial Lion Mount.
Absolom, Justicar (Human Level 4 Cleric/Level 1 Monk)

Gravy, Priest of Thumn (Human Level 4 Cleric)
Balatan of Clan Brocktaw, Bronze Draconic Priest of Bahamut (Dragonborn Level 4 Cleric)
Not Present This Week
Thaddeus, Under-City Scout from Swallow (Human Level 5 Ranger)

Non-Player Characters (So Many!)

Sablius the Bronze Dragon
Knott, Warrior of Questionable Ethics
Jalani, Priestess of Amun-Tor

Babu, a humble businessman from Horek, currently a wizard, formerly a thief 

Princess Murti, Exiled Ruler of Kalmath
Ashlor, Half-Elf Fighter from Horek
Nevra, Wizard from Thither
Willie and Drew, mercenaries from Swallow

Plans are Changed
Valerius planned to split the party, with Team-A, including Knott, Babu, Jalani, Ashlor, Nevra, Willie, and Drew, escorting Princess Murti to Horek and Team-B, including Valerius, Absolom, Balatan, Gravy, and Thaddeus taking Sablius back through the pass to Wince. 

The party spent the evening camping amid the ruins of the great western gate of the Defile of Castragon. They spent the time cataloging their loot and examining their newly acquired magical relics. While examining the two scrolls given to her by Gravy, Nevra accidentally set off a magical trap on one of the scrolls. The explosive runes detonated, catching Nevra with the full force of the blast and Gravy partially. Nevra was killed! Gravy was wounded but recovered. Cursing their luck, they buried what was left of poor Nevra and settled down for the night.

Around the campfire, the party shared their hopes and dreams. Valerius spoke of his dream to build the greatest city in the world, to one day re-take and re-build Duirnhold and return the Xanthus river valley to its former glory. Part of that dream involved restoring the Secret Citadel of Oron and re-establishing law and order over the Defile of Castragon. But he was about to start building a manor home on his property near Wince, and it was there he planned to return with Sablius. Absolom encouraged Valerius to consider building the citadel into his new home instead. 

Valerius was enamored of the idea and they began talking logistics. It could be done. They had a wagon-load of money and jewels. They could hire workers and guards, they could restore the citadel and staff it! Valerius started to make plans to hire workers from the nearest town. At first, he thought he could hire people from Flinch, but Absolom explained that Flinch was over 20 miles away to the east through the Defile and had only 30-50 people in the entire village. Princess Murti, however, suggested that he hire his men from Horek. Horek was 20 miles away to the south over flat terrain and had a large population from which he could draft his required laborers.

A Refresher on Kalmath
Also, while in Horek, if they wished, they could help her free her guard. Valerius, confused, asked her what she meant. Absolom reminded him of the Princess' story. She was the daughter of the queen of Kalmath. Their mantri had the mother assassinated and sold the princess as a slave to a nobleman in Thither. Valerius asked why the mantri had not simply killed her. The princess explained that she was beloved by her people and that killing her would turn them against the mantri. When he had her mother killed, it looked like an accident. To have them both killed would draw too much attention. 

Absolom continued, telling Valerius that the royal guard, who were loyal to the queen and the princess, had been arrested and imprisoned in Horek, an outpost far away from Kalmath. The princess added that the mantri had them arrested on charges of failing to protect the queen. To have them executed would likewise draw suspicion. 

With the queen dead and the rightful heir missing, the mantri had assumed control of the monarchy as steward. However, the princess managed to escape her captivity back in Thither. She had made her way to Swallow where she met Absolom. Her goal is to reach Horek and free her royal guard. Once she does so, she can rally her army and re-take her throne in Kalmath, hundreds of miles to the southwest across the Great Waste.

Knott, ever the uncouth pig, said to Valerius, "Don't worry. I'll keep the princess warm, I mean company, I mean safe. Heh heh."

With that, Valerius had decided. He would take Absolom, Gravy, Balatan, Ashlor, Willie, and Drew south to Horek with Princess Murti and Sablius. Team-A, consisting of Thaddeus, Knott, Babu, and Jalani, would head back to Flinch and Swallow to recruit from that direction. Once in Flinch, Thaddeus would leave Team-A and travel back to Horek to join Team-B in two days.

The next day, "Team-B" packed their things and, with Sablius pulling the wagon filled with treasure, headed south. To the west, the vast dry flat-lands of the great waste. To the east rose the near vertical slopes of the great blue stone edifice known as Nightflame mountain. The rest of the Great Wall mountain range stretched off to the horizon to the south.

Team-B walked for seven or eight hours over flat, rocky, dusty terrain. There were no streams, no lakes, no trees to be seen. The only wildlife were the occasional snake and a single herd of Aepycamelae scrounging for stubby grass. 

A few miles from their destination, they could see the land rise, a finger-like ridge stretching out from the Great Wall. To the west, higher up, they could see the great temple of the monks of Dahaka. Princess Murti explained that the monks appeased Dahaka, the three-headed dragon that prophecy said would one day destroy the world. At the end of the rise was the great walled city of Horek. At the base of the rise, a smaller outer city of tents and small structures could be seen. 

However, only three hundred feet ahead of them, they could see the ruins of a splintered merchant wagon, its meager wares scattered along the ground. The dirt around the wagon had been overturned as if tilled by a giant plow. Gravy and Absolom warily approached to see if anyone needed help.

Once they were within 120 feet of the wagon, the ground began to split in a line coming right at them, something large and just underground was charging them! Absolom and Gravy split up. Whatever it was dove deep underground, only to burst out a mere fifteen feet from Gravy. The massive form of a bullette, the dreaded land-shark of the desert, launched itself into the air, crashing down on him! 

Absolom rushed back to help his friend. Valerius rode to help astride his mighty leonine mount. Balatan ran forward, sending bolts of holy fire at the beast! The creature dove back down, only to re-launch itself into the air and crash down among Valerius, Absolom, and Gravy. 

Balatan urgently prayed to Bahamut, god of dragons, and the armored land-shark found itself within a zone of holy rebuke! The creature suffered great pain and turned to flee, but its feet were heavy and its movement was slowed. The party struck at the creature as it dove underground to escape. They cautiously waited for the monster's return, but the wounded beast had fled. 

The Outer City
The party finally arrived at the outer city of Horek in the mid afternoon. Here there were pens for animals, tents, merchants selling their wares, and a few permanent structures such as inns and a water shops. The men of this region had brown skin and black hair, their eyes were almond-shaped and they wore loose gauzy clothing and covered their legs, arms, and heads in bandage-like wrappings. Dozens of men took turns hammering at massive pilings. Princess Murti explained that the hammering annoyed the land-sharks and kept them at bay. As long as the men pounded on the pilings, the bullette would keep their distance. It was rare for the one they encountered to come this close to the city.

A massive ramp led up the side of the rise to the gates of the city. Massive statues of griffons flanked the gate, watching all who entered. Guards inspected passports and searched all wagons before they allowed entry. Travelers waited in the outer city, some for several days, before they were allowed entrance.

The party drew much attention as they entered the outer city. Few could not notice the bronze dragon pulling a cart filled with sacks and chests, the brass dragon-man walking with the dragon, the paladin of Justica riding a white celestial lion with tiny dove wings growing from its shoulder, and the young man wearing gilded plate armor polished to a blinding finish and carrying a bejeweled sword in a bejeweled hilt. A crowd gathered and stared but kept their distance, 30 feet in all directions. 

Princess Murti covered her face. No doubt the mantri by now knew of her escape and has hired assassins such as those they encountered in Swallow to kill her. She was not prepared to let her return be known to her people. So she needed a false passport to enter the city where she and Ashlor would do some investigating. She needed to find where the royal guard were being kept. She told the team that she would meet them at the Inn of the Drunken Merchant in the Outer City. Willie and Drew, meanwhile, were instructed to cool their heels in the Outer City.

Captain Subhadar
Soon after she left, a small sortie rode of city guards rode down the long ramp from the gate. The leader was a man in his fifties wearing gleaming armor, a long pheasant feather adorned his conical helmet. The crowds parted for his approach. He stopped his guard a few dozen feet away and called out to the strangers in Kalmathi. Sensing their incomprehension, he tried again in Agarthan.

Subhadar, Captain of the Guard of Horek
"Who are you and what business have you in Horek?"

The party introduced themselves, explaining that they were here to hire workers and guards to travel to Xanthus. 

The captain, whose name was Subhadar, said that travelers have told tales of the heroic exploits of a simple ditch digger from Xanthus who became a paladin and his jolly priest friend had reached even Horek. Was Valerius that paladin? Valerius conceded that he was. 

Captain Subhadar was in awe of the dragon that accompanied the party and asked of its origin and intent. Valerius told the captain that the dragon was named Sablius, and that it was friendly and traveled with them. 

Captain Subhadar, who could scarcely hide his interest in the dragon, informed the party that in order to enter Horek, one must possess a passport. Valerius said that they did not have one. The captain said Valerius could apply for one and wait for its approval, but before he would approve such a request, his men would have to search the wagons. Valerius agreed.

Upon seeing the vast wealth contained within the wagon, the savvy captain's demeanor quickly changed from cautious awe to that bordering obsequious reverence. He stammered that he would expedite the processing of the paperwork and that he would personally escort the party, including the dragon, to the palace of the satrap of Horek, who would no doubt wish to meet the members of the party personally! 

The Palace of the Satrap
The party were treated as honored guests of Horek. They were issued temporary passports that allowed them to enter the gates. They were led through the city, down the boulevard to the public forum and marketplace at the center of town. They passed large residential blocks filled with flat-roofed multi-story tenements stacked on top of each other like piles of blocks. Ladders and stairs led to the upper levels, rope bridges and sky-walks connected the penthouses. The occasional palm tree or cyprus grew from cracks in the ancient pavement. Linen and canvas awnings draped across every entrance providing shade.

Everywhere the party went, they were a spectacle for the curious masses. Word spread fast and crowds gathered to see the bronze dragon pulling a cart for the foreign armiger riding a large white lion as a steed.

The party was taken to the palace of the satrap. Through the gates they entered a garden of tall grasses, palm fronds, cyprus trees, pines, and exotic flowers and orchids. Fountains trickled lazily. Birds of paradise flew from perch to perch. A menagerie of strange animals wandered the grounds freely, some stopped to gaze curiously at the new arrivals.

The captain took the group to the north wing of the palace.There they were allowed to bathe with the assistance of beautiful slaves. They were given wardrobes more suited for the local climate. Afterwards, the captain returned and told them that he had informed the satrap of their arrival. The satrap was intrigued by their story and wished to meet his guests. They were invited to a dinner to be held in their honor at sunset.

In the meantime, they had the rest of the late afternoon to spend in Horek as they wished. The captain offered himself as a guide to the city's many sites. He also suggested a visit to the local money exchange where they might deposit their wealth in the safe keeping of the gnomes.

Absolom said he'd like to visit a library. The captain offered the library of the satrap. Valerius and Balatan indicated a desire to oversee the feeding and care of Sablius. Gravy, meanwhile, wished to explore the city alone. He asked if there were areas to avoid. The captain warned against delving too deep into the warrens of the residential blocks. The narrow alleys are labyrinthine and dangerous.

At that, Absolom spent the rest of the afternoon researching bronze dragons. He learned of their diet and life cycle. He learned that a great bronze dragon named Pitala was said to live in a lair deep within Mount Ignoit. He found that interesting and planned a future trip there. Perhaps Sablius could be reunited with his own kind.

Shenanigans with Gravy
Meanwhile, Gravy was exploring the town and seeing the sights. He passed an alley where he happened to see a nefarious looking figure skulking in the shadows. Gravy took up a position of observation across the street where he witnessed the figure set a trip-wire about shin-height across a curtained doorway in the alley. The door appeared to be a back-door to a local tavern. Soon afterwards, the figure emerged from the shadows. The wiry looking man with the bearded face looked around, gave Gravy a stern look, and entered the tavern.

Gravy, sensing an opportunity to thwart shenanigans, went into the alley and removed the trip wire. He then returned to his position across the street and began eating crescent rolls from a nearby vendor.

Twenty minutes later, the vendor was out of crescent rolls and Gravy was about out of patience when suddenly, the curtain was thrown aside and a man came running out, seemingly for fearing for his life. The man escaped into the street without impediment and disappeared into the throng. The wiry bearded man came running out, surprised that his wire did not trip his prey. He looked around in confusion and shouted a curse in Kalmathi. His plan did not work and his quarry got away. He looked at Gravy who innocently ate his last crescent roll and walked away.

Balatan meets with the Princess
Before sunset, Balatan left Valerius and Sablius. He planned to meet Princess Murti and Ashlor at sunset as planned. He returned to the Inn of the Drunken Merchant and found a booth in the back corner. Soon, Princess Murti, her face covered, entered the inn and found Balatan. She told him that Ashlor waited outside. She asked where the others were and was told of their encounter with the captain and the palace of the satrap. She rolled her eyes and sighed.

Princess Murti then explained to Balatan what she had learned. The royal guards were being held in a dungeon beneath the army compound, guarded by soldiers led by the satrap and loyal to the mantri. However, the city of Horek is ancient, built on the ruins of many previous cities, and is riddled with passages, catacombs, and tunnels. There was a secret entrance into the chambers beneath the compound which would ultimately connect to the dungeons.

Balatan asked if there was any need to hurry. Did they need to act tonight for any reason or could they reunite with the rest of the team and formulate a plan? The princess conceded that she could not think of a reason and agreed to be patient.

Dinner with the Satrap
That evening at sundown, Valerius, Absolom, Gravy, and Sablius were taken to the great hall of the satrap for a dinner. The great hall was an arcade of polished marble that overlooked the west wall of Horek. One could see far towards the western horizon. The sky burned with glowing pink clouds against a backdrop of electric blue as the sun set over the flat expanse of the Great Waste.

The Satrap of Horek
The satrap made a powerful entrance before dinner was served and introductions were made. The satrap was a man in his early forties, bald with a dueling scar on his right cheek. He was athletic and healthy with a military bearing. He sported a wide mustache and smiled little, wearing instead a look of steely resolve. He was a man of few words, direct, to the point, with little care for the niceties of diplomacy. He was, however, enamored with Sablius, inspecting the dragon as he would a horse before purchase.

The party was seated at one of two long parallel tables. There were no chairs, only cushions. There were no forks, only napkins, knives, and bowls for dipping your fingers. Dinner was served. Plate after plate of ripe fruits, sweetened meats, unleavened bread, and dips made from lentils and chick peas were brought out and placed in the space between the two tables. Then the main course was served. The captain of the guard clapped his hands in delight as a giant roast sabre-toothed dragon-lion was served - apparently a male due to its wings. One of the courtiers announced that the creature was selected from the menagerie in the palace gardens. Absolom swore under his breath at the honorless death of such a rare and magnificent creature.
Valerius and Absolom shared conversation with the satrap over dinner. Valerius asked the satrap of current events, specifically, how he felt about the mantri's rise in power. The satrap's answer was to the point. He said that the death of Queen Shahmam was the best thing to ever happen to Kalmath. Under the mantri, Kalmath would once more rise to greatness. The mantri has brought wealth to the satraps, he is building roads and fortresses and temples. His agenda had brought wealth and prosperity to the kingdom.

Valerius asked the satrap how the mantri felt about trade and commerce. Surely the wealth of a kingdom comes from exports and a strong economy. The satrap replied that the vizier cared not for such things.

"They are irrelevant! Those were the strategies of the queen. They were too slow, too unpredictable. The mantri has employed a different strategy, one that guarantees wealth for the satrapies. The mantri will simply TAKE what he needs from the neighboring kingdoms by force! Take, for example, the city-states of Xanthus. They are divided and weak. They can be easily conquered! Our spies in Xanthus- Oh yes, we have many agents in Thither, Swallow, and other villages, most in positions of wealth and power- our spies are already making the way easy for us. As we speak, we gather an army here in Horek that will march through the undefended Defile of Castragon and invade the Xanthus River Valley. Once we have taken the valley east of the Great Wall, we can move south unimpeded and attack the Kingdom of Myradonia. Soon all of Agartha will bow down to the Kingdom of Kalmath!"

To be continued in three weeks!
A rare and magnificent Sabre-Toothed Dragon-Tiger

After Thoughts
For an entire week, the players made plans to go west through the Defile of Castragon, back to Flinch, and all the way back to Wince. So I pre-rolled random encounters for the trip, I planned some roleplaying encounters, made contingencies for the various factions that await them, etc.

So OF COURSE they decide at the last minute on Friday night, an hour into gaming, to go south to Horek! It's what players DO! I had no map of Horek. I didn't know who ruled Horek. I had no idea what would await them in Horek, other than that was where the princess' royal guards were imprisoned and that she had a hidden cache of royal gold with which the pay the party for their assistance.

So all you see above was ad-libbed. Some was contributed by the players, for example the idea of pounding a pylon into the ground to ward away the bullette came from the players, and they kept elaborating on the idea. The name of the inn in the Outer City, "the Inn of the Drunken Merchant", was contributed by a player.

The Sabre-toothed dragon-tiger was an accident. I kept trying to say "Sabre-Toothed Tiger", but I kept saying "Dragon-tiger". There was much laughing at my linguistic ineptitude, but the image was implanted, so we went with it.

The little side-encounter with Gravy and the guy with the trip-wire was the result of a random encounter from the old Cities sourcebook by Midkemia press, a book I use a lot.

In other related news, I picked up the new Dungeon Master's Guide about an hour before gaming started on Friday afternoon. It's fantastic! I love it! We updated all the magic items to fifth edition. I used the random tables for NPCs (such as the Satrap).

I did have to downgrade a few of the magic items they got last week from Deception Pass. I took away the Ioun Stones and the Everfull Purse and replaced them with (random roll on challenge-level-appropriate table in new DMG) a few potions. The players weren't too happy about that. I allowed them to keep the crystal ball, however. That will come in handy later as a plot device.

This Friday I'm going to my wife's company's holiday party. Next Friday we're going to my company's holiday party, so no new campaign updates for a few weeks. In the mean-time, I'll write up stats for the Sabre-Toothed Dragon-Tiger and provide a visual guide to Horek.

Plus, I need to come up with a dungeon for the under-city of Horek.