Tuesday, February 23, 2016

"The City of Blades" - Out of the Abyss, Chapter 7

What follows is an illustrated dramatic retelling of my group's play through of the D&D campaign setting, "Out of the Abyss". SPOILERS for anyone wishing to play in this campaign.


A motley group of diverse individuals
have so far escaped drow captivity,
witnessed the razing of a city by a demon lord,
travelled twenty-eight days through endless caverns,
where they survived untold dangers and challenges,
and have now arrived at Gracklstugh,
the City of Blades...

Talorean - Half-drow abandoned at birth to be raised by wolves.
Angolwen - Wizard of mixed human/elven parentage.
Kettle Bearclaw - Halfling baker living among dwarves.
Pain Grille' - Halfling street urchin from Waterdeep.
Virtue - Tiefling paladin and a mysterious wild card.

Hemeth - Duergar trader rescued from Sloobludopp. Leading the party to Gracklestugh.
Ront - Thuggish orc from the surface world. Respects authority and follows Talorean's commands.
Topsy and Turvy - Deep gnome twins. Missing from the group since the cave-in. Possibly were-rats.
Prince Derendil - Elven prince in the body of a brutish quaggoth.
Sarith - Drow guard sentenced to die for murdering a fellow guard.
Jimjar - a roguish deep gnome who likes to wager on everything.
Stool - a myconid sprout that follows Kettle like a pet follows its owner.
"Moon Elf" - an mute female elf, an escaped slave from Menzoberranzan with no name.

Thus it was, after their thirty-sixth rest since escaping captivity in Velkenvelve, the party arrived at the gates outside Gracklstugh. 

Hemeth had forewarned the party of what to expect, so they pretended to be his slaves. Sarith wore a cloak to conceal his identity as a drow. 

They approached the massive stone gate, the path now paved and lit by lamps. 

Several slits opened in the cavern wall revealing several crossbows aimed at the party. A loud metallic sound alerted the party to an armored presence behind them as six heavily armored dwarves with white hair and dark grey skin appeared out of thin air. 

A harsh voice hissed in Dwarvish from a nearby slit, "State your names and business!"

"I am Hemeth of Clan Ironkeel. My boat was destroyed in Sloobludop. These are what slaves I could rescue. We have traveled through the passages for many rests and seek entrance into the City of Blades."

The slit closed and the great bronze gates opened, revealing an antechamber protected by another gate within. The party advanced into the holding lock and the gates closed behind them.

Several vertical slits opened in the stone revealing a barred window, behind which stood a duergar guard. The guard examined the party but focused on the two halflings.

The guard sniffed and spoke in luiric, the language of halfings, "You two. Tell me. What are you really doing here?"

Pain answered, telling the guard in luiric, "We are slaves."

Kettle added, "Our boat sank in Sloobludop."

The guard considered them, then added, "It is clear you are lying. I ought to have you all thrown into the slave pens, but... you amuse me. What do you ahve that is worth your freedom?"

Kettle and Pain looked at each other, confused.

"Those swords there. Are those.. of drow manufacture?"

Kettle's hands went to the two blades he had named Jelly and Jam, "Yes. Do you want them? I will give them to you." He began to unfasten the blades.

The guard nervously looked around and waved the halfling down, "No, no. Not here. Go to the Darklake Docks and find a duergar named Werz Saltbaron. Give the swords to him. Tell him that they are gifts for Gorglak. I will check with Werz at the end of my shift. If the swords aren't there, I will have you all arrested."

Gorglak then spoke in dwarvish to Hemeth who had been quietly conversing with Talorean while waiting for the inner gate to open, "You have impertinent slaves, Hemeth. They speak without your permission. You should discipline them!"

Hemeth looked back at the halfings in anger. He stormed up to them and slapped them both, ordering them to remain silent! The halflings apologized to their "master" and complied.

The inner gates opened and a gust of hot wind rushed in. The air was thick with ash and smoke, causing everyone to begin coughing almost immediately. After so many weeks in the silence of the Underdark, the party was almost deafened by the cacophony of sounds. The din of thousands of beings was almost overpowered by the constant sound of thousands of industrial hammers striking anvils, the roar of furnaces, and the mechanical grinding of great gears and machinery.

Before them stretched a city of stone and iron built onto the banks of the Darklake to the right. The city rose to the left, disappearing into a forest of stone columns. Streets were wide and terraced. The cavernous ceiling rose hundreds of feet overhead, supported by natural and artificial columns that blocked the view of the other side of the cavern over half a mile away.

Two stone guards were waiting inside the inner gates. They moved aside. Hemeth said, "Welcome to Gracklstugh."

Hemeth strode forward, signalling Talorean, Virtue, and Ront to follow. They were joined by Sarith, concealed under a robe. Pain called after Hemeth, "What do we do? Where should we go?"
Hemeth the Duergar
Hemeth waved his hand dismissively, "I don't care." and walked away without ever looking over his shoulder.

Pain looked at Kettle, "I guess he's done with us." Kettle shrugged.

Pain turned to address the remainder of the party but was interrupted by Topsy and Turvy who went running off into the city like excited children at a theme park.

DM Note- 
Talorean and Virtue's players were out this week, so I separated them from the party to keep things simple. I figure Hemeth needed their help. I envisioned Hemeth going to the insurance company to explain the loss of his boat, or needing their help dealing with creditors from Clan Muzgardt. 

The remainder of the party, Pain, Kettle, Angolwen, Stool, Prince Derendil, Moon Elf, and Jimjar, decided to look around.

The wandered to the right, towards the water, hoping to find the docks. They passed between a large fortress to the left and what looked like the ruins of an ancient structure to the right. There was a stone quay below with a boat unloading boxes of mushroom. Several barrels and casks were stacked onto the quay waiting to be loaded. The boxes of mushrooms were carried into the ruins on the right, from which emanated the aroma of brewing. Kettle decided to check it out, followed by the rest. They saw several duergar working around large copper vats brewing ale out of the mushrooms. A duergar overseer noticed them and shouted, "Outlanders are not allowed here! Leave immediately! Don't make me summon the Stone Guard!"  The party quickly left.

They continued to wander into the city, walking past the imposing fortress with the sign in dwarvish "Overlake Hold". They wandered past several stone columns. One contained a tunnel entrance from which emerged several outlanders. A sign outside was adorned with a carved image of a bullette and the dwarvish words "The Gohlbrorn's Lair".

They decided to check it out. They entered the tunnel, walking past several derro, kuo toa, orogs, goblins, kobolds, and  svirfneblin. They entered into a dining hall filled with outlanders.

The entire dining hall was filled with the smell baked black sporeflour bread and rothe roast. Kettle took a deep breath, "I love the aroma of fresh baked bread and roast meat! Its the greatest smell in the world!"

Pain replied, "Oh yeah! Remember the pies and cakes on gift day mornings?"

A smile spread across Kettle's face as his thoughts turned to childhood gatherings, "Oh yeah! Every year on the winter solstice we'd all get together and open up our gifts, the smell of baking filling the entire burrow."

Pain's disposition turned sour, "Yeah? Well I grew up poor and alone on the streets of Waterdeep. I didn't have ANY of that!"
Pain Grille'

Kettle winced.

They found a table and were met by a duergar serving wench.

The serving wench did not introduce herself. She was dour and monotonous and unenthusiastic. She answered all questions put to her, explaining that the Gohlbrorn's Lair was the only inn that served non-Duergar in Gracklstugh. She also explained that outlanders were only allowed in the Darklake District, only Duergar were allowed into the forbidden areas of the city.

The party ordered fish, bread, and ale, their first hearty meal in weeks.

Afterwards, they secured rooms, paying for a full "rotation".

DM Note - 
There is no such thing as "nights" or "days" in the Underdark, such concepts are foreign. Instead, time is measured by the burning of oil in lamps. The party purchased a number of measures of oil. Time units, therefore, would be "fingers" or a finger of oil, roughly equivalent to an hour; "hands" or four "fingers" or oil or four hours; "shifts" being two hands or eight hours; and "rotations" a full turn of three shifts, equivalent to 24 hours. 

They also took the opportunity to take a hot bath and wash the weeks of underground travel from their weary bodies.

Afterwards, Kettle, Pain, and Angolwen prepared to shop the Blade Bazaar and head down to the docks to look for Werz Saltbaron. They instructed Moon Elf to stay at the inn and asked Prince Derendil to stay with her. The "Prince" felt that, as an elven noble, the duties should be reversed but agreed on the grounds that it was his noble duty to ensure the health and safety of his commoners. Jimjar, meanwhile, said he planned to work the room in the dining hall and make a few coins. As they prepared to leave, Stool asked "What about me? I want to go too!"

Kettle, Stool, Pain, and Angolwen wandered about the Blade Bazaar, surrounded by shops and stalls with Duergar selling their wares to visiting traders. Likewise, several stalls were set up for outlanders to advertise their goods. They were surrounded by crowds of visitors from across the Underdark: dark elves, deep gnomes, orogs, kobolds, shield dwarves, and others.

Suddenly a strange looking derro wearing a large floppy hat with long long pointy lobes like a jester's hat came running past saying, "Oh, I'm so late! Pardon me! Must get through! Very late!" before he disappeared into the throng.

Their first stop was to sell the pearl necklace they obtained from the kuo toa. They took it to an assay for appraisal. They were met by an unusually genial duergar who welcomed them. The duergar took the necklace and fixed his magnifying monocle upon it when he suddenly disappeared! Kettle and the others were taken aback! The shopkeeper, however, kept talking as if nothing had happened, "Pearls from the giant clams at the bottom of Darklake. Very rare! Very expensive! I will offer you 1000 Gracklstuvian gold coins for it."

Kettle incredulously asked, "Where'd you go?"

"I'm right here, sir. Why do you ask?"

Kettle asked several curious questions and poked at the invisible shopkeeper, but the shopkeeper seemed equally confused by the behavior of the little halfling. It was clear that the shopkeeper was unaware of his transparency.

Angolwen concluded the transaction and the party left, bewildered.

Now bearing currency, the party found a suitable weapon shop from the many dozens available from which they could purchase silvered weapons.

Pain approached the shopkeeper only to overhear him berating a potential customer. The confused patron left in a hurry. The shopkeeper then addressed Pain with courtesy and respect. Moments later, Kettle entered the shop. The shop keeper began immediately to berate Kettle and ordered him to leave the shop immediately. Pain assured the shopkeeper he would take care of it and Pain escorted the insulted Kettle outside the shop. Pain told Kettle he thought something odd was going on and told him to wait here.

Pain re-entered the shop to conclude the deal, only to be met with anger and outrage from the shopkeeper. Pain left quickly and sent Kettle back in. Kettle was met with polite courtesy and concluded the purchase of the desired silvered weapons. Upon leaving, Pain exclaimed, "What the HELL is going on?"

Angolwen, meanwhile, had found a shop selling spells, scrolls, and potions. The proprietor was genial, though for some reason he ended every sentence with a threat of bodily harm or mutilation.

Angolwen asked, "Do you carry spells?"

The proprietor responded, "Of course! We sells magics of most schools and levels. I will, of course, murder you while you sleep and eat your heart."

Angolwen, aghast, replied, "Excuse me???"

"As I say, magic spells from most schools and levels, and at reasonable prices. I will strangle you with your own entrails."

The conversation continued in this manner and eventually Angolwen just started to ignore it. It was about this time, however, that Kettle came into the shop looking for potions. Upon encountering the shopkeeper's strange behavior, Kettle became unnerved, made his purchase, and promptly exited.

Upon rejoining Pain, Kettle exclaimed in exasperation, "This town is NUTS! It's driving me crazy!"
Kettle Confused
The foursome reunited in a wide square near a gate to the inner city. Angolwen has purchased her necessary spells and components and the halflings had procured silvered weapons. They were about to head down to the docks to look for Werz when, suddenly, the nearby gate burst open, the great bronze doors knocked off their hinges. Stone blocks were tumbled and nearby structures were crushed as a twelve-foot-tall bald grey-skinned giant with two heads burst into the bazaar.

DM Note - 
The exchanges above were so much fun to DM and the players got a hoot out of it. We probably could have done these all night. 

I will say that their plan was originally to go straight to the docks, but I nudged them a little, saying "You probably want to do your shopping first, since the Blade Bazaar is on the way". I did this because Angolwen still hadn't purchased all her spells, and I wanted her to be full up prior to some of the events coming up.

Kettle, Stool, Pain, and Angolwen stood dumbfounded as a grey-skinned stone giant wearing a pale toga and robes burst through a nearby gate. The giant was mad, frothing at the mouth and screaming incoherently. A second malformed head had grown from its shoulder. The head was pale, pulpy, and covered in veins. Its tongue lolled out of its mouth and its eyes rolled in mad ecstasy.
A Rampaging Stone Giant
The giant ran across the square of the bazaar right at the trio of escapees. It swung its arms madly, smashing against Angolwen and knocking her down. The surrounding patrons of the bazaar scattered looking for cover. Pain drew his weapons and Kettle drew his two new swords - sugar and spice!

Angolwen got up and carried Stool towards the other end of the square as Pain and Kettle engaged the giant in melee combat. Four nearby duergar, two regular guards and two Xarrorns, elite fire lance warriors from Clan Xardelvar, ran forward and aided the two brave halflings.

While the six warriors slashed at the mad giant, Angolwen cast a "Hold Person" spell against the towering maniac. Unfortunately, the spell had no effect, so she followed up with a series of "Chromatic Orb" spells, each exploding into caustic acid.

The giant was eventually defeated, but not before it took the life of one of the guards and one of the Xarrorn.

Soon afterwards, a contingent of duergar Stone Guard arrived. The surviving Xarrorn gave a plain unembelished account of the events to the Stone Guard. Presently, another stone giant approached. This giant wore the a toga and robes similar to the recently deceased. This giant introduced itself to the Stone Guard as Dorhun, apprentice to the Stone Speaker Hgraam. He explains that the dead giant was named Rihuud.

The halflings asked Dorhun what happened. Dorhun recounted how Rihuud, another apprentice like himself, had been "communing with the stone" in Cairngorm Cavern when he began to behave erratically. Soon afterwards, he began to sprout a second head and lost all reason. He stormed out and went on a rampage through the city. He apologized to the Stone Guard for the damage.

One of the halflings asked if this had happened before. Dorhun admitted that it had happened previously, about twenty "rotations" ago. One of his brothers had been communing with the stone and had heard the call of a faraway voice. The brother ran off out of the city with no supplies. He hadn't been heard from since. He was presumed dead.

Kettle said he had encountered this stone giant during their journey from Sloobludop. He was alive, though mad. At least he was eleven "rotations" ago, or as near as he could guess. Kettle and Angolwen explained that they had encountered the giant in a region of caves filled with strange sounds that induced madness.

Dorhun was intrigued! He expressed concern over his lost brother and wished for his safe return. He wanted to know more about this mysterious location. He had been wanting to mount a rescue mission to save his brother but because they knew not where to look, he was forbidden. He asked Kettle if he would retell this tale to the Stone Speaker. Then he would have his evidence that his lost brother might be alive and could be rescued.

Dorhun reached into his toga and withdrew what was to him a small bronze engraved tablet. He handed it to the halfling, to whom the tablet was as large as a shield. Dorhun told Kettle that this tablet would instruct any Stone Guard to escort the halfling and his companions to Cairngorm Cavern. There he would tell his tale to the Stone Speaker.

In the meantime, he had to attend to the removal of Rihuud's body and the preparation of funeral arrangements. He wished the trio well and the Stone Guard released them to their own recognizance.

A strange looking derro wearing a big floppy hat with long dangling lobes suddenly ran past and over the giant's fallen body, muttering, "Very late! Very late! No time!" before disappearing beyond the demolished gate into the inner city.
A Very Late Derro
The foursome continued navigating the stairways and stone plazas to the Darklake Docks.

Angolwen, Kettle, Pain, and Stool arrived at the stone quay of Darklake Docks. There were a few large flat-bottomed galleys and dozens of small round craft hollowed out of the laquered heads of giant puffball mushrooms moored on the docks but for some reason there were not very many people about.

They spotted a lone duergar standing at the end of a pier and decided to approach and ask for Werz Saltbaron. Suddenly, two duergar clad in black cloaks appeared out of thin air, flanking the lone figure on the pier. The two cloaked duergar formed glowing immaterial blades from their clenched fists and began stabbing the lone figure!

The overworlders, plus Stool, rushed to the aid of the lone duergar. Angolwen cast a "Hold Person" spell on one of the attackers, freezing him in place. Pain arrived first, cutting down the frozen attacker just as he started to move again. The vicious strike sent the assassin flying into the water. The second assassin grew to large size before their eyes.

Pain shouted, "Hey! I thought Hemeth said they couldn't do that!"

Kettle replied, "Myth, my ass!"

Kettle ran up and the two combatants, aided by attack spells from Angolwen, slew the would-be assassin who returned to normal size.

They helped the victim of the attack to his feet. He was gravely injured. Kettle bound his wounds. The duergar paused and said, 'Thank you..."

There was an uncomfortable moment of silence as Kettle, Pain, and Angolwen expected the duergar to continue. When he did not, they broke the silence, telling the duergar that they were looking for Werz Saltbaron. The duergar said, "I am he." They tried to offer Werz the swords they promised Gorglak. Werz declined the transaction, "Not here,  meet me at the Shattered Spire in four shifts". He then looked around apprehensively and said, "I really must go!" and ran off down the docks, leaving the foursome standing next to the body of a dead assassin.
Werz Saltbaron
Pain shrugged and rifled through the effects of the assassin. All he could find was a strip of fish paper bearing the likeness of Werz Saltbaron.

Suddenly, a contingent of Stone Guard emerged from their invisible shroud, spears pointing at all four escapees. "Stop! You are under arrest for murder and for deviation from the norm! You are to be remanded to Overlake Hold! Come with us!"

The three overworlders and Stool were then manacled and transported to the imposing fortified edifice overlooking the Darklake known as Overlake Hold.

Kettle, Stool, Pain, and Angolwen were bound into a dungeon underneath Overlake Hold, a massive fortress built from a stalagmite and surrounded on three sides by the waters of the Darklake. Their legs and arms were manacled while Stool's stumpy legs were chained. Stool cheerfully exclaimed, "I'm helping!"

After what felt like many hours, they were taken from the dungeon and transported to a spartan office with a zurkhwood desk and several stools.

A door at the rear of the office opened and in walked an imposing female grey dwarf. She was fully armored and bore an insignia of an ebon skull. She was flanked by two elite guards who stood by the door.
Errde Blackskull, Commander fo the Stone Guard
"I am Captain Errde Blackskull, commander of the Stone Guard. You will each state your names and homelands."

She paused to allow each to introduce themselves. When they were done, she inquired, "Why did you kill those two unarmed duergar on the pier?"

They told their version of events, conveniently omitting any mention of the would-be victim's name.

Errde considered this, "I believe you. We found the body of the other attacker in the water. Both attackers were members of the Empty Scabbard Killers, a secret order of assassins. They were dressed to kill. Either you killed them to save another or in self-defense. In either case, it is very unlikely your murdered them."

Errde continued, "But all that means nothing. You are worth nothing here in Gracklstugh and you are still guilty of entering Gracklstugh under false pretenses if nothing else. Most of those in my command would sell you off in a heartbeat as the cheapest manual labor. However, I've learned to make much better use of deviant scum such as you."

"For many rotations, my guards have been tracking the movements of a courier, a derro named Droki. Despite many sightings, he has managed to avoid capture, as if he somehow nows in advance where my patrols will be - invisible or otherwise. We suspect that he is linked to a conspiracy involving the Derro Council of Savants, and maybe even elements among the clain lairds. I need to capture this Droki and interrogate him, or at the very least I need confirmation of his activities and evidence of conspiracy."

Kettle exclaimed, "We've seen him!"

Errde nodded, "Droki lives somewhere in the West Cleft District, a place where even duergar are forbidden for our presence there would likely start a derro uprising."

"I want you to find this Droki, follow him, chase him, capture him, and bring him back to me! If he cannot be brought back alive, then bring back the confirmation and evidence I need. Will you accept?"

Pain inquired, "What's the alternative?"

"Oh, I will put you back into the dungeon for a few rotations. Then you'll be auctioned as slaves."

Kettle replied for everyone, "I guess we'll do it."

"Excellent. By the way, before I let you go. I want to know something. I've been hearing reports of strange erratic behavior among the duergar. Have you encountered anything out of the ordinary? Anything irregular or irrational?"

Kettle and Pain recounted their experiences at the Blade Bazaar, as well as the extortion at the hands of the gatekeeper and the poor service at the inn.

"Okay," Kettle smirked, "I guess the waitress was just being a duergar. She doesn't count."

Errde thanked them for their information and promised them a reward. After they complete their mission, they will be allowed to return to the Keep where she will grant them each 350 gold pieces worth of equipment from the armory of the Stone Guards.

In the meantime, she gave them each a badge bearing the insignia of the Black Skull. She told them to keep the badges hidden and to show them discreetly to the Stone Guards to grant them access to the inner city as far as Laduguer's Furrow.

"You are free to go."