Monday, December 15, 2014

A Visual Guide to Horek

Horek, looking east

 Horek is the westernmost city of the Monarchy of Kalmath, located near its frontier with the Xanthus River valley. Horekis built upon a finger of high ground, part of the foot-hills of Nightflame Mountain. The city was constructed eons ago by an unknown culture at the site of an artesian spring emerging from the rocks of the Great Wall mountain range to the west. The city is so old that it is built upon a tel, a hill composed of layer upon layer of ancient cities. Some of the ancient buildings were buried over intact, sealed away for centuries. Miles of tunnels run under the streets of Horek, leading to the great cistern that collects the water from the spring, the city's only water supply and the only supply of water for dozens of miles.

The land east of the Great Wall is a flat parched desert called the Wasteland by the Xanthusians and the Desert Waste of Gazh  by the Kalmathi. It is a flat rocky expanse of packed dirt, cactus, thorns, and hardy grass where little to no rain falls. During the height of the mines of Duirn and Flinch, traders would come from across Agartha to do business in the Xanthus River Valley. For two thousand years, Horek was situated as the destination for traders and merchants crossing the Wasteland. Here they could meet representatives of the dwarven mining guilds, the gnome bankers, and the human merchants. Trade could occur with Flinch through the Defile of Castragon twenty miles to the north or with Durinhold via the Stairs leading up the slope of Duirn's Mountain twenty miles to the south.

A hundred years ago, the invasion of the Red Orcs of Zinnober into the valley caused the mines of Flinch to be lost under a collapse of a mountain of rock, its location eventually lost. Forty years ago, the dwarves fled Duirnhold when it was invaded from mysterious powers from below, the entrances sealed with magic keys. Trade continued, however, as merchant caravans traveled through the Defile and down the old Imperial Trade Road to Thither, the closest sea port. However, six years ago even this route became treacherous as the pass became plagued by a force of ogres under the leadership of the unlikely alliance of a magic-using cyclops, a fire giant, and a minotaur. One in six caravans were attacked at random, even when the merchants did their best to keep the timing of their routes a secret.

As a result, trade dwindled to a trickle and merchants stopped coming to Horek in as great of numbers as they once did. Today, merchant caravans travel to Horek from the plains to the north east and the Dragonborn realm of Khunkara Vakti in the far north, from the cities of Kalmath to the south west, and the remnants of the ancient Agarthan empire of Nedula Madhya and the Gulf of Khari beyond.

The city of Horek is ruled by a satrap, a title of Kalmathi nobility roughly equivalent to that of the Agarthan archon or a Myradonian baron. Like the cities of Swallow and Thither in Xanthus, the satrap of Horek holds counsel with the wealthiest merchants of the city as well as the high priests of the temples.

Earlier this year, the Queen Shahmam of Kalmath was assassinated by her own royal guards. The guards, despite the crimes for which they were accused, were still popular with the subjects. The execution would have caused an uprising. Instead, they were arrested and imprisoned within the dungeons of the cult of Adhinatta in Horek. Princess Murti, next in line for the throne, disappeared and hasn't been located, despite a large bounty placed upon her safe capture. In the meantime, the mantri, the chief adviser to the queen, has been reluctantly forced to take the reins of authority for the monarchy as steward.

1. The Outer City (North)
Horek is a city that is built upon its institutions and bureaucracy. One needs a passport to be allowed entrance into Horek. Water is limited and only so many people will be allowed into the city each day. Those waiting and those without proper passports wait outside the city walls in a ramshackle tent city. A few inns and taverns provide rest for weary travelers. Several fenced in animal yards host woolly rhinos, merychips, giant monitors, and aepycamelae, the primary beast of burden in the desert.

Teams of men work around the clock pounding giant pylons into the earth. The vibrations of the pounding keep predatory land-sharks and purple worms at bay.

The North Gate
2. The North Gate
A wide flight of stairs leads to the northern entrance to the city. The top of the stairs are flanked by gargantuan statues of resting griffons. A nearby crane lifts pallets full of cargo from the base of the stairs to the level of the entrance for easy entry.

3. The Traveler's District (North Gate)
Just inside the north gate are shops, taverns, and inns that cater to the weary traveler. Barkers compete to earn the business of new arrivals. Stalls line the way selling water, wine, and fresh fruit. Shops selling travel equipment, rations, weapons and armor also cater to travelers preparing to exit the walls.

4. Residential Tenements (aka the Warrens)
The buildings of the residential blocks are haphazardly stacked atop each other like massive piles of boxes. Lighter brick buildings are built atop ancient multi-story tenements made of dense basaltic stone. Tents and awnings covers the roofs where most residents sleep during the warm summer nights. Some structures reach a hundred feet high or more. Ladders, stairs, rope-bridges, and sky-bridges connect the upper levels of these chaotic buildings. The alleys between the residential tenements become a narrow maze filled with shadow and debris and are dangerous to outsiders or the unwary.

5. Noble District
The noble district is comprised of walled compounds, each compound belonging to a wealthy noble or mercantile family.

6. Temple District
The temple district is dominated by the pyramid temple dedicated to Tzann, greater god of the sun, and the attached compound. Other temples include Thumina, goddess of the moon, Darkun, god of the night and shadow, Nil, goddess of death, and Saprin Pang, god of debauchery, as well as countless smaller shrines devoted to other foreign gods.

7. The Market Bazaar
The center square of Horek is filled with tents and awnings, beneath which can be found the wares of traveling merchants from throughout the wasteland. Spices, gems, dyes, cloth, sugar, salt, flour, and other goods can be bought and sold here.

8. The Gate of Azi Dahaka
The western gate is devoted to a long winding stair that leads up the slope of a ridge that extends from the Great Wall mountain range like a finger. At the top of the stairs, halfway up the mountainside, is the temple of Azi Dahaka, where zealous monks pray day and night to prevent the awakening of the three-headed dragon god Azi Dahaka.

9. The Palace of the Satrap
The hereditary ruler of Horek possesses the title of satrap. The satrap lives in an opulent palace within a walled compound at the western edge of the city. The palace grounds contains exquisitely cultivated gardens and a menagerie of strange and exotic beasts. The satraps palace is a towering structure with verandas that provide stunning views of the western wastelands.
Satrap of Horek
The city guard of Horek, under the leadership of Captain Subhadar, are headquartered within the walls of the palace ground.
Subhadar, Captain of the Guard

10. The Prison of Zothalech
The prison of Zothalech is an ancient fortress that is now used as a prison by the matriarchy of Kalmath. The prison towers a hundred feet and its dungeons extends far below ground. The lowest levels of the dungeon contain the oubliettes, some of which are inhabited by being which were once humans, thrown into the pits and forgotten, who have gone mad, become blind, and turned to cannibalism to survive.

11. The Fortress of Amoth
A legion of the Kalmathi army is garrisoned in the walled fortress of Amoth. The legion is under the command of General Zagt.

12. The Currency Exchange
Like most cities in Agartha, the currency exchange is run by the gnomish banking guild. The Currency Exchange is a massive marble structure with tall columns and statues of the gods of wealth, along with busts of former leaders of the guild. Merchants and traders deposit precious metals and currency within the vaults of the gnomes in exchange for a book of bank notes which can be spent anywhere in the city. The gnomes also offer loans and invest in business opportunities.

13. Slave Tenements
The western portion of the city is also the poorest. Here the residential tenement blocks are devoted to the slaves who work for the wealthy merchants and nobles of Horek. Slaves are branded and are not allowed to exit the city gates unless accompanied by their master. The slave tenements are also home to the various competing thieves' guilds of Horek. The most powerful gangs include the Stalking Tigers, the Scorpions, and the Sand Sharks.

14. Merchants' Compounds
During the height of trade with the dwarven mines of Xanthus, a section of the city was demolished and re-built as compounds for wealthy merchants. These wealthy merchants are awarded the title of Magnate and are considered lesser nobles within the court of the satrap.

15. The Traveler's District (South Gate)
Similar to the district surrounding the north gate, the area just within the south gate is devoted to shops and services that cater to travelers arriving and leavin through the gate.

16. The South Gate
The south gate is a mirror of the north gate. Travelers coming from and departing to realms to the south west, including the heart of Kalmath, the ancient remnants of Nedula Madhya, and the Gulf of Khari beyond. In previous generations, traders would travel to the dwarfish city of Duirnhold via the Stairs of Duirn.

17. The Outer City (South)
Like its twin outside the northern gate, the area outside the southern gate is composed of several taverns, inn, and stables that serve travelers waiting to gain entry through the south gate. Dozens of caravans camp in tents outside the gate.

Teams of men work around the clock pounding giant pylons into the earth. The vibrations of the pounding keep predatory land-sharks and purple worms at bay.

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.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

"The A-Team", Chapter 3 of Deception Pass

The party rescues some more prisoners who form a way cooler new party that the players wish they could play, all while taking on a charming vampire (or is he?), setting off some clever traps (or are they?), and meeting a defenseless old man (or is he?). Nothing is as it seems in the Secret Citadel of the Shape-Shifting Cyclops!

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)
Thaddeus, Under-City Scout from Swallow (Human Level 5 Ranger) 
Gravy, Priest of Thumn (Human Level 4 Cleric)

Not Appearing This Week:
Balatan of Clan Brocktaw, Bronze Draconic Priest of Bahamut (Dragonborn Level 4 Cleric)
Ser Valerius and the Dragon
Sablius the Bronze Dragon
While the party rested overnight in a side chamber, each member took a turn standing guard with the young dragon Sablius. Sablius had been artificially aged from a hatchling by the evil Oni named Krugli. The dragon had the body of a nearly adult dragon but the mind of a six-year-old. The party had originally planned to clear the lost citadel in order to make it a safe home for the naive and impressionable dragon. However, Valerius was having second thoughts. He did not feel the remote location made a safe home. As soon as they left, he was certain that other forces like the oni would come and take advantage of the dragon. 

He offered to give Sablius a home in the manor he was going to build in Wince. There he could be protected, could have a safe place for his hoard, and could consume the occasional livestock. He made his case to Sablius. Valerius was very persuasive and was obviously becoming a strong father figure for the dragon. The dragon agreed to accompany him back to Wince.

He told the rest of the party of his plan the next day. Princess Murti exclaimed, "Seriously? We're THIS close to the Western Gate! Now you're going all the way back to WINCE?! That's farther back than when I met you people! I just need your help to get through the Defile. Once on the other side, it's only one or two days south to Horek! There we can free my imprisoned royal guard and I can re-take my throne in Kalmath!"

Valerius explained, "I'd like to help you, but I have bigger priorities than the internal politics of Kalmath. Once we get out of this citadel, you can re-join Knott, Jilani, and Babu, along with those guards we freed, Willie and Drew. They'll take you the rest of the way."

Princess Murti sighed exasperatedly and rolled her eyes in defeat.
Princess Murti of Kalmath
From the burial shrine of the dwarfish hero Oron, they explored more of the lost citadel. They found the upper floors of the tower and their commanding views over the Defile of Castragon far below. They asked Sablius if he could fly. Sablius, excitedly taking everything in, replied, "I've never been into this room before! What's 'fry'?"

In another tower, they located a trap door and a chute leading to the lower floor. Valerius and Absolom climbed down the chute. On the lower floor of the tower they could see three ballista pointing towards the entrance door, set to fire at anyone that opened it. They cut the string and climbed back up the chute, only to have the rotten ladder rungs disintegrate under Valerius' weight. Valerius fell with a thud. At that, Gravy lowered a rope and the pair climbed back to the top. 

They then carefully re-entered the shrine with the statues of the dwarfish gods with glowing eyes and three ogre carcasses and descended the stairs. 

Amilia the Scullery Maid
Using Thaddius' map of the citadel, they found their way to the great hall where they hoped to study the battle plans drawn on the wall map. They were surprised to find a young human woman setting the table. The woman was as startled as they and made to run. They quickly calmed her and showed her that they meant her no harm and wished to talk. She hesitated and the party began to speak with her. While doing so, they inspected the adjacent kitchen, noting that a door in the south wall was barricaded shut with boards.
Amilia the Scullery Maid
The woman's name was Amilia. She was a scullery maid from Flinch. She was accompanying a merchant caravan through the pass when the caravan was stopped by ogres led by a vampire, her master. She told them that she cooks for five other servants: Ashlor, Hugo, Nevra, Willie, and Drew. She also prepared meals for the masters: a vampire, a cyclops, a minotaur, and two dwarfs. She knew nothing about the battle plans, but she could summon her master if they had more questions. In fact, if the party wished, she would take them to her master's quarters upstairs. He would be most interested in meeting the new guests. The party agreed to accompany her, noting that vampires do not need to eat.

The Vampire
Amilia led them upstairs via a wide spiraling ramp. Once in the corridor leading to her quarters, Valerius stopped her. He instructed his lion and Sablius to stay back in the antechamber with Balatan, Princess Murti, and Amilia. The rest of the party advanced cautiously.

They entered Amilia's quarters to find a dormitory with six beds. A tall gaunt ashen figure with blood-red eyes stood in the center of the room. He was carrying a spear with a long curved blade. In a strange halting voice he spoke to them, "Ah, unesspected guests. Plead, come in. Come cloter toe I may pick with du."
the "Vampire"
Valerius rushed in, attacking with his flaming sword. Absolom and Gravy followed suit, surrounding the "vampire". Valerius first attack caused the vampire to glow brightly. Unable to turn invisible, the vampire gave up on his ruse and turned back into a horned blue giant oni.

The vampire-oni tried repeatedly to charm Valerius, eventually succeeding. Unfortunately for the vampire-oni, Gravy had prepared a blessing to restore Valerius to his senses. The oni then used his icy cone of cold on the party and tried to escape, but was cut down before he could make it to the door. Upon the vampire-oni's death, Amilia started as if coming out of some kind trance or charm. She promptly thanked her rescuers. 

Entering the room into which the oni tried to escape, they triggered a automatic reloading arbalest rigged to a rotating turret. Whichever door opened, the arbalest would rotate and fire. The trap was ineffective and missed and was quickly destroyed. Within the room the party found 17 trunks and chests. 14 of the trunks were filled with trade goods seized from caravans. Three of them were locked. Valerius threw two of the chests against the floor and walls until they smashed open. In the first chest they found a pile of gold coins. In the second was 100 gemstones. Thaddius, annoyed at the commotion and noise, opened the third with his thieves' tools, revealing 30 wooden carvings and scrimshaw. While counting the gold, two of the coins revealed themselves to be cleverly disguised golden beetles that crawled over Gravy, trying to bite him. Gravy eventually crushed each bug.

The Secret Exit
The party then took another corridor, filling in the blank areas on their map. They crossed the entrance hallway and found secret stairs down to the defensive octagon below. They took another door and another corridor, turning left, and through a door at the end of a hall. Opening the door triggered a heavy blade to swing down and hit Valerius square in the shoulder. 

Inside the room was a four-poster bed and piles of paper but was otherwise abandoned. The party searched the room and found a hidden footlocker. Absolom, using Thaddius' tools untrained, was able to open the footlocker. The locker began shouting "Help! Help! Help!" which it repeated a total of 25 times. The party readied itself for battle but no one came. 

Within the footlocker they found several spell books, a dirk with a black blade, and a satches of gems and coins. 

The papers on the floor included merchant log books and a manuscript written in an exotic alien language.

Gravy also found a secret door leading down a long corridor to a dead end. Thaddius approached the dead end, only to collapse a false floor and pitch forward into a thirty-foot pit lined with spikes. The injured Thaddius was helped out of the pit by Gravy. Absolom, meanwhile, located a lever that reset or deactivated the false floor. Once made save, the party crossed and located the hidden door at the dead end of the corridor. Behind the hidden door was a small room and a ladder leading up. At the top of the ladder was a hatch. Thaddius opened the hatch and the party was outside on the side of the mountain. There was no obvious path down to the stairs but the two towers could be seen about two hundred yards down-slope.

The party back-tracked and exited the sleeping chamber. They took another corridor. A side door on the right was locked. Thaddius tried a key found on one of the dead oni and the door opened. Inside was another sleeping chamber, a matress on the floor, some blankets, and a trunk. Within the trunk was some lamp oil, ten gold bars stamped with an exotic seal of some type, some loose coins, and two sealed wax scroll cases. Gravy found a secret niche in one of the walls of the room. Within the niche was a fine hammer of dwarfish craftsmanship, a phial of liquid, and a bag of gold coins. 

The Fochlucan Bandore
The next door down at the end of the corridor was closed. Thaddius listened closely and heard the sound of some twangy stringed instrument and strange haunting mournful singing. They cautiously opened the door and found an old man sitting on a tatami mat and playing some type of long lute. The man stopped playing and looked up. He was blind but he smiled at the newcomers.
Just an old blind man.
Valerius instructed his mount to protect Sablius, Princess Murti, Amilia, and Balatan in the hall, several dozen feet back. Valerius, Absolom, Thaddius, and Gravy then entered the room, spreading out to occupy each of the corners.

"Please, please, come in. I so rarely have guests! I normally play for my masters. Would you like to hear me play for you?"

The party hesitated. Was it really just an old man, another slave? Was it an oni in disguise?

Valerius was the first to respond, "Later, old man! First, answer my questions!" With that, he called upon the goddess Justica to compel the old man to speak only the truth! The old man was unperturbed and inscrutable.

Valerius asked his questions, "Are you one of the oni?"

The old man replied, "I am but a simple old man, playing his fochlucan bandore."

"Are you some other type of shape shifter?"

"That's a very strange question."

"Is this your true form?"

"This is what I am. I am but a blind old man."

"Answer my question with either a yes or a no! Are you an oni?"

"How very rude!"

"Yes or no!"

"I don't know how to answer your question. It's very confusing."


"I.. I..", the old man rolled his blind eyes and cursed, "畜生! Ohhhhhhwoooooo!Waaaaaaooooooo!"

The old man gave up his disguise and turned into an oni. He instantly turned invisible. The party split up, each taking a different corner. Absolom called upon the goddess Justica for aid. Miraculously, a corner of the room was illuminated with sprinkling gold faerie dust, revealing no hidden oni.

Suddenly, from another corner came an icy blast! The oni was once more visible. Valerius and Thaddius engaged the blue creature in melee. The oni waved his hand and darkness fell upon the room, making it difficult to hit the creature. The oni turned into gas and tried to escape into the hall. Valerius caught up with him and, with a holy strike blessed by Justica herself, the Oni was forced back into his solid form. No longer able to take gaseous form, the oni found his way blocked by the dragon and leonine mount that filled the corridor. He was trapped!

The Rod of Wonder
The oni then turned and pulled a strange rod out of his robe. The rod was clockwork, composed of many rotating metallic gears, rings, and puzzle pieces. The oni rotated a gear and slid a fitted piece into place. The round metallic orb at the head of the rod began to glow.
The Rod of Wonder
He turned the gears and rings and pointed it at Valerius and to everyone's surprise, Valerius sprouted leaves all over his body like a bush!

Valerius and Thaddius pressed the attack. The oni used his wand again, this time pointing it at Thaddius. The oni shouted, "Zzzzap!" and mimed firing some kind of discharge at Thaddius. The oni then bellowed laughter in some kind of believed triumph! Thaddius was otherwise unaffected. Absolom, back in the room, realized what had just happened and shook with laughter of his own.

The oni once more spun and rearranged the various bits of the wand and suddenly the room filled with monarch butterflies, blinding everyone save Absolom!

No one seemed to be able to hit the trapped Oni. The oni again reconfigured the mechanical rod contraption, once more filling the room with darkness. The darkness could not save him, however, as he was eventually defeated by the party, with Gravy delivering the killing blow!

The party then sat down and rested while they waited for the butterflies and darkness to dissipate.

Inside the room, they found that the old man was sitting on a locked chest. Gravy looked under the tatami mat and found the key that opened the chest. Within the chest they found some gold, gems, a quiver of silver-tipped arrows, a pouch containing a few pinches of some kind of silvery powder or dust, and some pieces of clothing.

The Silent Guard
The party returned to the burial chamber of Oron the Dwarf and inspected a door they passed earlier. Valerius opened the door and a cloaked figure behind a table fired a crossbow at them, missing. Valerius and Absolom called out to the shadowy figure, insisting that they meant no harm and that they were here to help. No one responded so they cautiously and slowly entered. They found the robed figure to be nothing more than a dummy, a mannequin connected to a crossbow rigged to fire at whomever opened the door.

The room was filled with junk. Forty minutes of sifting through the junk yielded two sacks with gold and silver, seven bejewelled swords, a tarnished silver place setting for six, and a purse filled with coins.

The A-Team is Formed
The party returned to the lower level via a different staircase. At the bottom of the staircase was a hidden door that opened into the defensive octagon. The bodies of the two guards caught in the fireball the day before were gone. Off to one side they found a small niche, a guard post. Within they found one of the guards resting, recuperating from being blasted the previous day. He reached for his weapon but the party took no offensive action and explained their purpose, apologizing for the day before.
Ashlor of Horek
Calmed, he introduced himself as Ashlor, a half-elf warrior from Horek, banished for his support of the royal family and his defiance against the Vizier. He was an adventurer who came to the citadel to rid the Defile of the ogres that menaced it. He failed, was captured, and ultimately charmed and put to work guarding the entrance. He explained that the fireball the day before broke the charm and that he and his colleague Homer, also a warrior, faked their deaths hoping to escape the oni. They rested in this niche overnight. When he woke up this morning, Homer was gone.

Suddenly, Ashlor recognized Princess Murti. He immediately fell to one knee, bowing, and pledged his blade to her cause! He was instructed to stay with her and the rest behind the party.

The party then explored some empty rooms including an well filled with water and phosphorescent slime, two unused barracks, and a garbage heap which they judiciously avoided. Inside one room they surprised a young woman wearing wizard robes. The woman was watching out a spy hole into a corridor outside the room. Valerius and Absolom becalmed the woman, showing her Amelia.
Nevra of Thither
The woman revealed that her name was Nevra. She was a wizard of some repute from Thither who was captured by the ogres when she tried to cross the Defile alone. She has been here several weeks, where she has been placed on guard duty. She came to her senses a few hours ago when the charm suddenly ended. Valerius asked her to join Princess Murti, Ashlor, Amilia, Balatan, and Sablius at the rear of the party, and help protect the princess and the dragon.

The group of rescued slaves of the oni were quickly becoming a party of their own. A young bronze dragon, an exiled princess, a half-elf adventurer and warrior, a female wizard, and a dragon-born priest, banded together! The party started referring to the new party as "the A-Team" and to themselves as "the B-Team", suggested that they were merely henchmen for the other, more interesting group of adventurers.

Nevra told the party what to expect and filled in their map. She told them to avoid one corridor and its pit traps.

The "B-Team" then proceeded down an unexplored corridor which led to the entrance tower. Valerius opened a door to the right and was immediately attacked by a jittery goblin, one of the guards at the entrance. Valerius moved into the room and engaged the goblin in combat, the other goblins, trapped in the room, fought viciously for their lives, but were ultimately defeated by Valerius, Absolom, and Thaddius.

The Last Report of Gramble
The "B-Team" then explored some more empty rooms before returning to the storage room outside the dungeon. They moved some furniture and found a door, likely leading to the room behind the barricaded door in the kitchen. They nervously proceeded with caution.

In a small room at the end of the corridor they found the long dead remains of a dwarf warrior. Suddenly, before anyone could act, Valerius seized as if gripped by a giant fist. He then hunched over into a crouch and shouted, "The citadel is under attack! I must report immediately to my commander!" and ran off down the corridor.

The party gave chase. Valerius reached the barricaded door and found it locked. He slammed into it with all his strength and burst it from its hinges. He then ran up the ramp and into the chamber of old man-oni with the lute, his blue bulk lying in a corner.

Valerius called out for his commander, "Sir, it is Gramble! I must report that we are under attack by the wizard Taskern! To arms!" but no answer came. Thaddius, Gravy, and Absolom caught up with him. Valerius, mad with fear, saw the humans as threats, "Intruders! Invaders! What have you done with my commander? I will kill you!"

With that, the possessed Valerius rushed at the party. Absolom called upon the power of his goddess and cast out the spirit within Valerius. The spirit left Valerius and fled to the back of the room.

Gravy then stepped forward, and as confidently and as dwarf-like as he could manage, said, "Gramble. I am your commander. Report!"

Gramble, confused but convinced, gave his report. With his final task fulfilled, the ghost faded from existence.

Ogres in the Cellar
Confident that they had cleared the upper two levels of all inhabitants, the party decided to descend the ramp. They had earlier detected the strong musky smell of ogres in that direction and saved it for last. Thaddius roved ahead stealthily. There he saw ten ogres, some sitting, some sleeping, some fighting. They were in a large mining chamber that seemed to have no other exits. He returned to give his report.

Valerius noted that the ramp leading down was weak and shored up by hastily placed support timbers. He reasoned that the removal of the timbers would cause a cave in that would trap the ogres. Weary from their day of exploration and fighting and low on energy, the party opted to collapse the tunnel.

Afterwards, both parties left the citadel and descended the long flights of stairs that hugged the side of the cliff. Sablius was like a cat let out of the house for the first time. He was frightened of the sky, cold and white with occasional flakes of snow, and the vast spaces around him. Eventually, the reached the road at the bottom of the defile. It was mid-afternoon. They rejoined Knott, Babu, Jilani, Willie, Drew, and even Homer, who had camped here while they waited. There was no sign of the gnome they released from the dungeon the day before. In fact, no one had seen the gnome since they were released.

The entourage now consisted of 11 people and a dragon. The group decided to escort Princess Murti the final few miles to the Western Gate, where they camped for the night. The A-Team would continue the journey with the princess while the B-Team would head back to Wince with Sablius. As they settled in for the night, the red sun setting across the forbidding wasteland to the west, Valerius talked of leading a force of men to re-settle the Secret Citadel, and once more establish law and order within the Defile of Castragon, but that would have to be an adventure for a different day!

"Stop it!"

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Photos from last Friday's game

The party enters the room with Sablius (sadly unpainted), some goblins, and a magic minotaur!

Trevor (Thaddius) rolls two twenties simultaneously! The big red one lights up.

Balatan, Valerius, and Celestial Lion are fighting the  magic minotaur! Absalom and Gravy are, for the moment, down for the count. Note the goblin-cicles which were turned into frozen terrain by a Cone of Cold.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

"Sablius", Chapter 2 of Deception Pass

After defeating a shape-changing Oni, the party head upstairs to discover a group of ogre guards led by a fire giant. They finally find Princess Murti in the company of some goblins, a giant minotaur, a devious dwarf, and a young bronze dragon named Sablius! Not all is as it seems in the Secret Citadel of the Shape-Changing Cyclops!

The party:

Absolom, Justicar (Human Level 4 Cleric/Level 1 Monk)
Thaddeus, Under-City Scout from Swallow (Human Level 5 Ranger) 
Gravy, Priest of Thumn (Human Level 4 Cleric)

Balatan of Clan Brocktaw, Bronze Draconic Priest of Bahamut (Dragonborn Level 4 Cleric)
Ser Valerius, Armiger Errant, Executor of Justicia (Human Level 5 Paladin)

First, A Flashback
It was four months ago. Aline was absent-mindedly shopping in the bazaar of swallow. She came across a mysterious tent. Upon entering the tent, she was surprised to discover it larger on the inside than on the outside. A bearded old man doddered on a bench. The shop was filled with curios and artifacts, so she perused a while. She turned around and was shocked to see the old man standing behind her. He held out his hand, saying, "Aline, these are for you."

She held out her hand and took the two round stones offered to her. The old man said, "Give one to a friend. Someday you will need help. On that day, call upon that friend, and he will appear."

She examined the the stones. They were ordinary river rocks. She looked up and the old man was gone! In fact, the entire tent was gone! She found herself in an empty stall in the middle of the market, surrounded by people. 

Time passed. A few days ago, she met Valerius, proud defender of justice and paragon of virtue. She slipped one of the stones into his pack. 

Today, Valerius was in Swallow. He was attending the trial and sentencing of the villain known as the Spider. Valerius was confident in his conviction and was certain that justice would be served this day. 

Speaking before a private ceremony in the Temple of Justice was Zhamach, the assistant to Magistrate Orthat. Zhamach performed the ceremony of truth. He grabbed the dark elf Spider by the sides of the head, and stared intently into the villain's eyes.

Zhamach, Priest of Justica, assistant magistrate of Swallow
Zhamach had insisted on the closed proceedings. He did not wish to alarm the townspeople by revealing the existence of the dark elf race. Valerius insisted he be able to attend and Zhamach found no way to deny the paladin. In front of his trusted confidants within the Temple of Justice, Zhamach declared that the Spider was guilty of the crimes of which he had been accused. However, after praying to Justica on the matter, he announced that the sentence of death was to be commuted. The Spider would be taken to the dungeons beneath the Temple of Justice and held there against his will for the remainder of his natural life, where he might learn the error of his ways and one day repent.

Valerius was outraged, but kept his calm. He betrayed none of his emotion to his superiors. And suddenly, surprisingly, he was standing in a dark room of dwarfish manufacture in the company of his oldest friend Absolom, as well as his colleague Thaddius, the newcomer Gravy, whom he had met twice in Flinch, and the dragon-born priest Balatan, who had journeyed with him from Flinch to the Wave Echo Cave mine and back again. The slain body of a dead man, ten feet tall with blue skin and stubby ivory horns, lay sprawled and dead amid half-a-dozen scattered suits of dwarfish armor.

Meanwhile, twenty-three miles away in Swallow, Aline was standing in the inner sanctum of the Temple of Justice, perhaps more bewildered than the startled priests and curates assembled around her.

An Oni Among Us
After exchanging greetings, the party filled Valerius in on the current situation. They explained that they wished to save Princess Murti and that she had been captured by these mysterious blue ogres. 

So apprised, Valerius sat and meditated in order to summon his holy mount, a celestial lion! The majestic beast's appearance was heralded by mighty roaring and electric guitar and was backlit by glowing smoke effects and lasers. It was very impressive! The lion was white and as large as a pony. Little vestigial wings, like those of a dove, sprouted from its shoulders.
Valerius and his resplendent Celestial Lion Mount

Ogres and a Fire Giant
They continued their quest to rescue Princess Murti. They explored a hallway and found a set of stairs leading up. They took the stairs and entered into a large room, and ancient shrine to lost dwarfish gods. The room was illuminated by the glowing eyes of the two statues that bore silent witness over the tall chamber. Within the room were three brutish ogres wearing chain mail. They were on guard and watching the exits. A large gong stood on the far wall.

The party rushed in, ganging up on the nearest ogre. The second ogre rushed to the aid of his colleague while the third sounded the gong in alarm. All three ogres were quickly dispatched when, suddenly, a large door down a corridor between the statues was thrown open.

Down the hallway came an enraged fire giant carrying a blue flaming sword. The team assembled to meet this new threat. The fire giant responded by firing a cone of frigid ice from its sword of azure flame.  Three members of the party were caught in the blast but survived.

Valerius, riding his leonine mount, charged and engaged the giant in battle at the entrance to the room. The giant clutched its necklace and threw a small fireball into the room. Valerius called upon the holy power of Justica to land a branding smite upon the giant. The giant began to glow. Sensing trouble, the giant tried to escape. It turned to flee down the hall but the rest of the party surrounded it. 

Suddenly, the party was engulfed in darkness, a magical darkness that filled the corridor. The party attacked the hidden giant ineffectually. Then, just as suddenly as it appeared, the darkness vanished, leaving naught but a puff of smoke where the giant had stood.

Valerius quickly rushed down the hall to where the giant was headed, hoping to catch a glimpse of where it may have gone. He let his lion lead the way. The lion turned back to the corridor. Valerius then charged back into the dwarfish shrine.

Suspicious, Thaddius took another look at the puff of smoke. It was still there. It was not dissipating. Thaddius called the other back. Together they threw attack spells at the puff of smoke until it exploded, leaving the charred body of a blue giant with horns dead on the floor. Thaddius had seen through its clever ruse!

Meanwhile, back in the shrine, Balatan had seen the door through which they entered open and close by invisible hand. When the puff of smoke was killed, leaving the dead giant, a great howl of anguish filled the chamber. A side door then mysteriously opened and slammed shut. 

Certain they were on the trail of another invisible giant, they gave chase. They hustled down a corridor but stopped short at a closed door. Wary of a trap, they inspected the door first and entered cautiously. There they found a room filled with weapons and practice targets. After ensuring no invisible beings lurked within, they continued on through another door, taking a corridor to the left.
The Secret Citadel of the Shape-Changing Cyclops!

Opening the next door, they found themselves in a long high chamber, the burial vault of an ancient dwarfish hero. The room was well lit and filled with goblins! Among the goblins was a dragon, twenty feet long with bronze scales! Next to the dragon was a ten foot tall minotaur wielding a silver wand in one hand and a rod made of a thigh bone and covered in leathery skin, stretched taut with black staples. At the head of the room was Princess Murti, blindfolded and gagged, her wrists manacled above her head and chained to a post. A pile of coin and treasures were piled knee deep around a sarcophagus on a raised dais. 

The minotaur pointed his wand at the intruders and addressed the dragon, "Intruders, Sablius! Here to take your gold! You must kill them, Sablius! Do not listen to their lies, KILL THEM!"

The party rushed into the room and engaged the goblins. The minotaur pointed his wand at those in the hall and bathed them in a cone of ice and frost. The dragon followed up by breathing forth a bolt of lightning that incapacitated Absolom and Gravy! The cold and lightning also eliminated over half of the assembled goblins. The minotaur followed up with a bolt of lightning of his own, fired from the silver wand.The bolt struck Valerius and Thaddius!

Balatan tried reasoning with the dragon, speaking to it in draconic, appealing to their mutual heritage. The dragon simply looked at Balatan like he had no idea what he was saying. Balatan was forced to defend himself from the dragon's claws and bites. Balatan, however, was unable to land a blow against his foe.

Valerius and his lion entered into melee with the minotaur while Thaddeus went to save Princess Murti. Before the ranger could free her, a dwarf appeared from thin air! It was the same dwarf they encountered in the company of the two mercenaries below! Thaddius held off the dwarf's axe while he freed the princess. The princess removed her gag and hood and rushed to help Gravy and Absolom.

Before she could make it, Gravy got a second wind and leapt to his feet! The priest of Thumn then gave a prayer to the moon, revitalizing his companions so they might continue fighting. Absolom returned to his senses and immediately regained his feet. 
Princess Murti of Kalmath
The princess explained that the creatures were called "Oni" and that they were once common in her lands before being driven out. She said the oni were starving the bronze dragon, a type of dragon known for their good nature, in an attempt to force it to eat helpless victims and turn it to evil. For the past several hours, they had been goading the dragon to kill her but it refused.

Sensing the dragon's confusion, Absolom and Gravy began a dialogue with the creature, speaking to it in the Common tongue. The dragon listened to them. The minotaur shouted at the dragon, but could not overcome their words. The dragon stopped fighting. Balatan, meanwhile, left the dragon to join Valerius in fighting the minotaur.

The minotaur struck Balatan with the rod of bone and flesh. The rod immediately drained Balatan of ten years of life! Weakened, Balatan fell to his knees. 

Thaddius moved to help Valerius, followed by the dwarf with whom he was fighting. Now all four were locked in mutual battle! Gravy revived Balatan who stood and re-entered the fray. 

The minotaur fired another lightning bolt, this time at Balatan, Gravy, and Absolom. The bolt took Balatan and Gravy down again! By this time, the dwarf had changed form into that of a massive armored ten feet tall giant! Absolom spoke a prayer of rejuvenation and brought Gravy and Balatan from the brink.

Eventually, after suffering magic missiles and barely avoiding the life-stealing rod, the party was able to defeat the minotaur! The great beast reverted to his true form as an oni and fell dead. 

The armored giant that was the dwarf, desperate to escape and gain reinforcements, flew to the corridor, turning invisible as he went. As he did so, the party unleashed arrows and spells at the fleeing phantom. Luckily, several of their missiles struck the invisible foe and it fell, dead and visible, to the corridor floor!
An Oni in its natural form

The party was exhausted from the long battle. They rested for an hour and bound their wounds. They spoke with the dragon and learned its story.

Sablius was six years old, still a wyrmling. However, the oni known as Krugli, the minotaur, had raised Sablius from a hatchling. Sablius had never seen another dragon and had never left this crypt. Krugli used the rod to artificially age Sablius. He also taught Sablius to speak the common tongue and the foreign language of the oni. He brought Sablius treasure captured from merchant caravans to sate the draconic instinct to hoard treasure. He also brought prisoners, taken captive in those same raids, for Sablius to eat. 

Sablius had no desire to eat these defenseless beings, but Krugli starved Sablius, tortured him, and used his magic charm power upon him and eventually forced Sablius to reluctantly devour his helpless victims. 

However, now Sablius was free. Sablius wished to see the world. Absolom asked if Sablius would like to accompany them to Horek. Sablius refused. He wanted to see the world but did not wish to leave his lair and his hoard. Absolom understood.

The party inspected the hoard but left its treasures to the dragon out of respect. However, Thaddius made an offer of exchange. He offered the mace of Tzann in exchange for a gilt suit of gleaming plate mail armor. The dragon accepted. 

Absolom and Thaddius then removed the sarcophagus lid to inspect the remains of the dwarfish hero interred within. Upon doing so, a loud voice shouted "Thief! Thief! Thief!" repeatedly for a total of 25 times. Wincing at the noise, they inspected the contents. The inner coffin was made of iron and still intact. Atop it were found two short swords, a crystal ball, and two palm-sized river rocks, each inscribed with a magical rune. 

The team decided to rest for a few hours in one of the empty side chambers. A watch was placed outside the door with Sablius. Over the next few hours they identified the short swords as being magical in nature, as was the crystal ball. The two river rocks began floating and hovering around the user's head. One rock magically enhanced strength while the other enhanced charisma. 

The hours passed uneventfully and the team was not disturbed. After a long rest, Balatan found his vigor and vitality returning to normal. Refreshed and restored, the party was ready for a new day.

They decided that they must make this a safe lair for Sablius, they must defeat the remaining foes. Somewhere in this citadel they were told there was a vampire, a fox with seven tails, an old man, and others. Where they in fact oni in disguise? Or where they what they appeared to be?