Wednesday, January 14, 2015

"The Forgotten Crypt of Atachalat", Chapter 3 of The Fates of Kalmath

Joroon, alone in the dark, wearing little more than a shift

This week, the company makes an unlikely acquaintance, defeat some cannibals, talk to a long dead king, and free some prisoners. Somewhere along the way they also topple a local ruler and help start a rebellion.

The Company:
Ser Valerius, Armiger Errant, Executor of Justicia (Human Level 5 Paladin)
and his Celestial Lion Mount.

Balatan of Clan Brocktaw, Bronze Draconic Priest of Bahamut (Dragonborn Level 5 Cleric)

Aline, a Thaumaturge of half-Human/half-Sylvan parentage (Level 5 Half-Elf Wizard)

Absent this Week:

Gravy, Priest of Thumn (Human Level 5 Cleric)
And Introducing:
Joroon Hicks, Storyteller of the Hillfolk (Halfling Level 5 Bard)

The Lost Brother of Braxton Hicks
The company moved out of the chamber of the great stone head and into a disgusting foyer filled with human blood and excrement. Small bare footprints indicated recent passage through the chamber of filth. They followed the footprints through the door beyond into a short hallway. There they met a diminutive hillfolk survivor clad in little more than a burlap shift. The hillfolk introduced himself as Joroon Hicks. He had come to Horek looking for Aline, the last person to see his brother Braxton alive. Aline, astonished, introduced herself and the company exchanged introductions.

Joroon explained that he was a storyteller, and that he sought Aline to learn what happened to his brother so he could tell his story. While in Horek, he had managed to insult the satrap with a poorly worded jest. For his transgression, Joroon was sentenced to several months in the stocks outside the prison. Joroon, instead, took the option of exploring the Crypts below the prison of Zothalech, hoping to find the fabled secret exit. He had been wandering the crypt for several hours prior encountering the company.
Valerius heard the sounds of life beyond the next door at the end of the hall. They gave Joroon a crossbow and prepared for entry.

Blind Young Cannibals
Upon bursting open the door, they found a room filled with almost a dozen pale beings drinking from an upwelling of black oily ichor emerging from a small crater in the floor in the middle of the room. The beings looked as if they were once human. Now they were grotesque, pale, with long stringy hair and sharpened nails and teeth. Their eyes had fallen out, leaving only empty sockets. They were bestial, deranged, and carried sharpened human bones as makeshift weapons. Whatever the black ichor was, it had mutated them into this current state and kept them alive in the darkened gloom. Their leader was attended by several of his chosen in the rear of the room. Upon sensing the intruders, the pale beasts shrieked and charged, with some covering the door and others rallying to their leader’s defense.

Aline responded instantly by waving her Wand of Wonder. Suddenly, the entire back half of the room was filled with a massive swarm of monarch butterflies. The butterflies obscured all vision and protected the pale beasts from ranged attacks.

Meanwhile, Balatan summoned into existence a magical hammer, a weapon of the gods, that danced around and attacked targets at his direction.

While Valerius and Balatan held off the attackers at the doorway, Aline once more brandished her wand. This time the wand emitted a gust of wind the blew down everything in its path. The wind also cleared a path through the swarm of butterflies.

Balatan then used the last remaining charge in his Necklace of Fireballs, throwing the gemstone into the mass of pale beasts at the rear of the room. The resulting explosion reduced the cloud of butterflies to small flakes of ash and killed every one of the creatures within the blast. The leader, blackened and charred, rose to his feat and limped towards the company, but was soon dispatched with a bolt of flame.

Giving Voice to the Long Dead
The company continued their exploration of the Crypts, soon finding a silver door sealed with lead. Upon prying the door open, they found a crypt with eight sarcophagi, within each was interred a warrior of some reknown. A door in one wall was engraved with the visage of a mighty crowned king holding a small griffon in one hand and an amulet in the shape of a heart in the other. Joroon recognized the image of Atachalat, the mythical king that legend says built the fortress whose foundations would one day become the Fortress of Zothulech. Joroon recalled a legend that spoke of the king’s treasure buried beneath the fortress and of the curse placed upon said treasure. They carefully broke the seal on the door and warily entered the chamber.

The chamber contained a large crypt on a dais and a plinth containing a chest. The lid of the crypt was carved to resemble the great man interred within. Valerius, ever the cautious conscience of the company, advised the others that no treasure was to be removed from this place.

Joroon then set about casting two spells. The first allowed him to speak and understand any language. The second called forth the spirit of Atachalat to ruturn into his body in order to answer five questions. There was a strange feeling like the inhalation of the world accompanied by the groaning sound of the spirits of the long dead. Having cast his spell, Joroon tentatively asked, “Can you answer me, o great king Atachalat?”

A muffled response came from within the crypt.

Cursing his stupidity, Joroon asked Balatan and Valerius to carefully remove the lid of the crypt and open the sarcophagus within. Inside were the remains of Atachalat, still holding a heart-shaped amulet in one hand and a figurine of a griffon in the other. The eyes of the mummified remains of the ancient ruler opened and glowed with supernatural life.

Joroon inquired of the king’s remains if they could take, with the king’s permission, any of the king’s possessions stored within this sanctuary without falling prey to the curse placed upon them. The king replied, “No. They are mine.”

Joroon, with Valerius’ help, told of their mission to install Princess Murti on her rightful throne, emphasizing the righteousness of their cause, asking the dead king once again if they might sway his judgment.

The king, moved by the description of their quest, offered this, “You may take my belongings from this place with no fear of the curse so long as they are returned to me before the sun sets tomorrow. Ere you fail, my curse will set revenants upon you to hunt you down to the ends of time, there will be nowhere you may hide.”

Valerius and Joroon contemplated the offer. Aline and Balatan urged Valerius to accept it. Ultimately, Valerius declined, citing the uncertainty of what lay before them. He refused to make an oath he could not in absolute certainty keep.

Joroon then told the king that his legacy has become lost to legend and that few in this day knew of his time and deeds. He asked Atachalat where any written records or accounts might yet remain. The king replied that the annals of his rulership were kept in his treasury.

For his final question, Joroon asked if the treasury was cursed. The king said that it was not, but that it was protected by the Chamber of Eternal Serpents. Valerius and Aline immediately recognized this as being the room filled with undead vipers.

The company took their leave of the king, closing the sarcophagus and returning the lid of the crypt to its original position. They were careful to leave all as they found it, taking nothing.

The Chamber of Eternal Serpents
The company rested for an hour in the outer chamber of the guardians before they retraced their steps to the Chamber of Eternal Serpents.

The chamber was as they left it, a large room with raised platforms in three corners and a dark tunnel in the fourth. Stairs descended from each platform into a floor filled with writhing undead vipers, waist deep!

After tentatively experimenting with destroying a handful of undying vipers with ranged spell attacks, Balatan eventually channelled the power of his god, Bahamut, to destroy half of the vipers in the room. The company then rushed through the cleared areas to a passage in the corner of the chamber. Balatan, Joroon, and Aline made it into the hidden treasury area but Valerius became surrounded by swarms of unliving snakes. Valerius was bitten multiple times before he extricated himself from the writhing mass by turning the snakes away from the holy might of Justicia. He then joined his friends in the treasury.

Within the treasury, they found piles of precious coins and gems, along with a broom, a helmet that resembled the folds of a human brain, a pair of goggles, and a torc to be worn around the neck, as well as several volumes written in an ancient unknown language.. The company spent several hours resting, counting coins, and studying their new acquisitions. The broom allowed anyone who held it to fly. The helmet allowed its wearer to read and send thoughts. The goggles made their wearer charming to the point of being irresistible. The torc allowed the wearer to breathe easy in any environment.

Having rested, they searched for and found a secret door hidden within a niche that allowed them to leave the chamber without passing through the writhing mass of vipers. They explored some corridors before finding another teleportation chamber. They entered the chamber and emerged from a niche in a hallway they had recently marked with chalk. They followed their chalk marks to another teleportation chamber and emerged from the same niche from which they entered the chamber of the great stone head.

This time, Joroon recognized his position and led the company back to the entrance.

Out through the In Door
The entrance was located in a large chamber and consisted of a twenty-foot wide rectangular column against the far wall. The column was located atop two stacked stone platforms surrounded by a bottomless chasm and reached to the ceiling. The company used the flying broom to easily cross the bottomless chasm and made their way to the top platform. Joroon explained that he was placed upon the top of the column and that the guards magically controlled it to raise and lower. It lowered him down to this level before it raised back to the ceiling.

On top of the taller platform was a series of black and white tiles. After some experimentation, Joroon was soon able to press the right tiles so that the column descended. The company stood on top of the column and it soon began to rise.

When it reached its destination, the company found themselves in a small dark chamber. They opened the door to see a long wide corridor with rusted iron doors to either side. The corridor was dimly lit by wan torches at the far end where stairs ascended to the upper level. These were the dreaded oubliettes. Valerius directed that no one should release any of the prisoners until they had fulfilled their mission.

The company climbed the stairs and were in a room covered in straw with several locked iron doors. Joroon informed Valerius that common prisoners were kept beyond a set of locked double doors. Valerius put his back into it and burst the doors open.

The Prisoners Freed
Beyond, they found a vast low-ceilinged chamber supported by massive columns. The chamber was separated into dozens of large barred cages, each cage capable of housing twenty prisoners. The royal guard were housed in five such cages, exactly as Aline saw through the scrying glass.

Four prison guards shouted for others to run and get help and charged the intruders with spears. The prison guards were quickly dispatched. One guard was reduced to sobbing tears by nothing more than Joroon’s bitter taunts. The took the keys from the guards and opened what cages they could to free the royal guards. The doors of three of the cages were inaccessible, located on the other side of the chamber, so Valerius, inspired by Joroon’s encouragement, used his prodigious strength to bend the bars separating the cages apart with his bare hands.

Valerius then introduced himself to Captain Fariss of the Royal Guard of Kalmath, explaining that Princess Murti lived and had orchestrated this escape. The royal guards were to follow Valerius out through the Crypt where they were to join the princess in retaking the throne. Hearing this, the royal guard erupted into cheers.

Soon, a full contingent of dozens of prison guards were fighting with the now freed one hundred royal guards. The prison guards were clad in chain mail and carried spears while the royal guards had only their fists and the hope of freedom. The royal guard fought a defensive battle, taking weapons from their fallen opponents and freeing the other prisoners to maximize confusion. They retreated with Valerius and the rest into the oubliette level and barring the doors behind them.

The company and the surviving royal guard made their way through the Crypts to the hidden teleport chamber. On their way, they stop in the chamber of the Great Stone Head where Valerius asked Captain Fariss if four of the royal guard could grab two of the statues to carry out of the dungeon. Fariss, confused about the request but grateful to be freed, agreed and ordered his men to carry the statues.

Soon the royal guard were reunited with Princess Murti who was waiting for them in the Under-City of Horek.

An Insurrection Among Friends
Princess Murti warmly welcomed Captain Fariss and gave her heart-felt thanks to Valerius and the company. The company was told where they could find their payment of two thousand gold pieces.

The princess said a battle waited for them. Her royal guard would soon be armed with weapons she had arranged to have placed in a cache in the under-city. Valerius told her that Captain Subhadar, captain of the city guard, would lend his men to her cause, leaving the Satrap only his palace guards. Horek would soon be hers.

The next few days were a blur as the princess’ rebels, along with the city guard and the help of the company, made their presence known to the satrap and ordered him to recognize her rule. The satrap, who was allied with the Mantri, refused. Captain Subhadar, however, allied the city guard with the princess and soon overthrew the treasonous satrap. By the end of the day, the satrap himself was imprisoned within the walls of the fortress of Zothalech.

The princess had a long road ahead of her in retaking her throne, but she now had a foothold in Horek. Soon other cities would follow, but she knew that the Mantri and his expansionist ideology was popular with many other satraps. She would eventually have to face the Mantri and his magical army of elementals in battle.

After the chaos subsided, the company took their leave of the princess, now firmly in control of Horek. Valerius had hired a complement of architects, workers, stonemasons, men-at-arms, and servants to accompany him back to the hidden fortress. The company, now numbering many dozens, along with a young bronze dragon, returned to the gateway to the Xanthus River Valley.


After Thoughts

Thus concludes the Fates of Kalmath.

The blind cannibals were Gricks. I brought back the corrupting black oil from early in the campaign as a reminder that there’s something deep under the earth that’s mutating creatures into evil monsters. It’s also a convenient excuse of how something can survive in a subterranean environment with no food or water.

I had planned on the PC’s taking treasure from the burial chamber. Doing so would have triggered the curse, animating 8 mummies and a spectre. However, my players showed remarkable restraint and forethought by casting “Tongues” and “Speak with Dead”. Joroon’s player was so proud that he finally got to use those spells for something useful and productive. In all our years of playing D&D, rarely have any of us had an opportunity to cast those spells.

For the Chamber of the Eternal Serpents, I filled the room with swarms of poisonous snakes. Only I made them zombie snakes, which means I gave them the same Dexterity and Wisdom as zombies and made it so they could be turned. I treated every ten-foot-by-ten-foot square as a swarm. The room could regenerate one swarm per turn, generally next to a player character. Because there were so damn many, I reduced their venom damage from 4d6 on a failed save to 2d6.

This room was meant to be fairly straight-forward. Instead, my players spent a lot of time tentatively experimenting and gently probing before finally committing to a course of action. They were very afraid of a swimming pool filled with undead vipers. At one point, I just wanted to shout “For god’s sake, just go!” They eventually got around to it and once they did got through pretty quickly.

For some reason, I thought my “puzzle” for raising and lowering the stone pillar was going to be tougher, but not only was it not challenging, it was essentially “pushing a button to summon the elevator”. I don’t know what I was thinking there. In the end I decided to skip it and move on to the rescue.

I also assumed the random teleport chambers would be more vexing. However, my players wisely marked the walls with chalk and could easily identify their location. Also, of the three times they used the teleport room, the second time was to a niche a few dozen feet away and the third time was to the same niche they were teleported the first time. Talk about underwhelming results.

Finally, by the time they freed the prisoners, it was getting late and we had to wrap up. I didn't want this adventure to go for another week so we summed up the rest.

I’ll be writing up the dungeons from my notes for others to use in the coming weeks.

The Great Hall, aka the Yard
The Dungeons and the Pens

The Oubliettes

The Crypts

What’s Next?
The players have expressed an interest in returning to stories of adventure and fortune over tales of geopolitical intrigue. Valerius’ player expressed frustration at playing a paladin. He always felt obligated to respond to these political crises, and that meant drawing all other player characters into that responsibility. He didn’t like that and wanted a return to more treasure-motivated stories.

As a result, he is retiring Valerius as a PC, again, and for the same reason as the first time. Valerius is a great character but he tends to dominate any group in which he is a member.

Valerius will take some time off from the group to perform the following tasks:

  1. Bring Sablius to a bronze dragon reputedly living on Mount Zinnober.
  2. Return home to his wife and household in Wince to check in.
  3. Oversee the refurbishment of the Hidden Fortress in the Defile of Castragon.
  4. Re-build the gates of the Defile of Castragon.
  5. Re-build the watchtowers that overlook the Defile.

He might pop up from time to time as a patron for the player characters, hiring them to perform certain missions or sending them on quests for treasures to fund his projects.

In the meantime, he’ll be replacing Valerius with something more mercenary and independent. Expect to see more tales of treasure hunting and ruin exploring and less tales about doing the right thing because it needs to be done.

Coming Soon
The company bids farewell to Valerius and decides to investigate why, for the first time ever, the Xanthus River Valley is experiencing a cold winter.