Tuesday, February 11, 2020

The Wrath of Aulicus - Ghosts of Saltmarsh, Chapter 24

As the sun set on the fourth day of their journey, Stephen DeManis became more agitated and exited, "We're close! We're close!"

The trees around them became more pallid, more ashen. There were fewer leaves and the branches resembled clawed fingers. The sound of frogs and insects disappeared. All was eerie silence. The water here was more dark red than black.

Through the trees a large earthen mound rose steeply from the swamp. The mound was covered in mud and trees. It would be difficult or impossible to climb.

An ancient stone platform extended from the base of the mound. The platform was 60 feet square. Six massive columns stood like barren tree trunks on the platform. The ceiling they once supported had long ago collapsed and the stone had been cleared away. Dozens of skiffs and rafts were tied to the platform. Where the platform met the mound was a wall embedded with tens of thousands of shells and skulls.

DeManis writhed on the boat in hysterical ecstasy, "We're here! We're here!"


The A-Team:
  • Annor Whalerson - Lawful Good, Human Marine and Fighter from Saltmarsh. 
  • Marlin Whalerson - Chaotic Good,  Human Seeker, treasure hunter, and scoundrel.
  • Auric Ravenson - Neutral Good, Aasimar Shipwright and Cleric of the Raven King.
  • Avastana "Aella" Kádár - Neutral, Half-Elf  Outlander and Sorceress from Ket. 
Suffering the Brain Jellies this Week:
  • Alot Aname - Neutral Warforged Fighter.
A Stealthy Approach
Marlin exited the skiff and climbed the stairs to the stone platform. He stealthily made his way between the columns, carefully examining each column and the floor in front of him for traps.

He got close enough to the rear of the platform to notice that the wall that appeared to be embedded with shells was in fact a facade of animal skulls and shells suspended by dangling strings like a beaded curtain.  He carefully peeked behind the curtain and saw thirteen human fighters, five armed with crossbows, five with spears, and one who appeared to be a leader. Marlin recognized the man - it was Chaswick Headglove, leader of the smugglers who delivered to him the black dragon egg! The fighting men wore a motley assortment of clothes. The crossbowmen wore the rough leather armor of a brigand while the spearmen wore chain mail and the livery of the King of Keoland - they were survivors from the expedition from Burle! Each of them had a dead look inside, as if they had been brainwashed.

The bandits were standing at the rear of the room. Near the beaded curtain were three large pools of water. At the back of the room was an altar adorned with a statue of a black dragon's head, its mouth agape. Marlin retreated to the skiff to report his findings. The A-Team formed up in a straight line. They hurriedly crossed the platform and burst through the curtain ready for a fight!

Here Come the Ravens
Annor burst through the curtain of skulls and was immediately assailed by six crossbow bolts.
The rest of the A-Team assumed defensive positions behind Annor. The six spearmen closed the distance and attacked Marlin, Annor, and Aella.

Aella waved her hand and a peal of thunder struck three of the spearmen. Auric prayed to the Raven Son and summoned forth a miraculous swarm of celestial ravens. The ravens circled Auric like a tornado. The celestial ravens pecked and bit at all of the enemies within fifteen feet of Auric while ignoring his allies. Many of the bandits were killed outright.

Annor charged the back of the room and hewed a bloody swath through one crossbowmen after another. He quickly dispatched Chaswick Headglove in one-on-one combat.

The A-Team stood alone in the room surrounded by the slain bodies of their enemies. Auric's ravens continued to silently encircle him. There appeared to be no other exits from this hall.

DM Note-
I asked for a volunteer to roll percentile and tell me if the result was over 50. Aella's player volunteered. She announced a result of 68. I sighed and said, "Okay, here we go."

Enter Aulicus
The party froze as they heard a heavy rumbling sigh emerge from the rear wall. A booming gravelly voice demanded, "Who dares disturb my slumber?"

A massive head appeared through the facade of skulls and bones on the back wall. It was apparently another curtain of skulls and bones concealing a large passage cut into the earthen mound.

The head was that of a black dragon. Its eyes were clouded. Its face was aged and covered in scars. The dragon was missing scales and the tips of its horns were dulled with use and nicked from old attacks.

DM Note-
Aulicus had a 50% chance of sleeping through the previous fight. Aella's role indicated he had been awakened.

The old blind dragon sniffed the air, "Who are you? What have you done with my servants? Why are they all dead and lying in pools of blood?"

The party stood silently. No one dared speak.

Auric finally answered, "We have come to kill Sakatha."

The blind dragon considered this for a moment, "Sakatha serves me well. I shall not allow this. Prepare to die!"

DM Note-
I wanted to give the players an opportunity to fast talk their way out of this situation. Aulicus is blind and a little senile and was prepared to accept just a bout any bullshit answer. 

"We have come to kill Sakatha", while truthful, was the wrong answer.

In the original module, Aulicus is a straight-up very old average black dragon. In 5E even an Adult Black Dragon is a CL 14 monster. 

I softened him by making him geriatric. He was old. He was blind so I changed his blindsight to 30 ft and gave him Disadvantage on all attacks anyway. He limped, so I changed his movement to 20 ft. He was missing a wing so I took away his flight. I also gave him 75% maximum hit points so he had only 100 HP. His damage, however, was all still full damage.

Alas, Poor Auric
The party reeled with fear and panic. Annor and Marlin took cover behind the nearby altar. Auric and Aella froze in place, paralyzed by fear.

The dragon moved into the room, sniffed the air and said, "Do not think you can hide from me behind my altar. It will offer you no shelter!" He looked down over their cowering position and breathed a stream of hot acid onto Annor.

Annor screamed but so too did Auric who, through a miracle of the Raven Son, was absorbing much of Annor's wounds into himself.

Aulicus heard Auric's howls and turned towards the priest. He moved towards Auric and blindly walked into the swarming celestial ravens. The old blind dragon winced and howled in pain.

Aulicus bit and tore at Auric. The priest did his best to deflect the attacks.

Annor threw his small hand-axe at the mighty dragon while Marlin shot several crossbow bolts towards it. But the attacks did not deter the dragon.

With a final chomp the dragon bit Auric around the head and shoulder. His claws dug into Auric's sides. In one gory movement he ripped Auric apart, his limbs flying across the room, as he gulped down Auric's upper torso.

DM Note- 
Bite attack reduced Auric to zero hit points. Auric is daying.

The first claw attack is automatically a critical. Any damage Auric suffers while dying automatically causes two failed death saves.

The second claw attacks is also automatically a critical and Auric automatically suffers two additional failed death saves. There was very little left of Auric.

Death of Marlin
As Auric fell the celestial ravens vanished.

Marlin, hiding behind the statue, unfurled a scroll and began reading. He held his hand up towards the air as magical flame formed around his fingers. As he finished the incantation from the scroll, he pointed his fingers at a spot just behind the dragon. The dragon was engulfed in a fiery explosion!

The dragon roared in pain. Aulicus immediately turned its attention to Marlin, "You cannot hide from me pesky bug! I may not be able to see you but I can still destroy you!". Aulicus' maneuvered around the statue and confronted Marlin. The dragon's toothy maw closed around Marlin, biting him as he ripped into him with his talons. Marlin crumpled under the assault and fell down unconscious. With no priest to provide a miraculous recovery, Marlin lay on the floor and bled. He eventually died after his life blood drained from his body onto the floor.

Death of Annor
Aella tried to remain on the opposite side of the room from the dragon. She took cover behind one of the three water-filled pools.

The water in the pool next to which she stood rose up and took an amorphous rippling form. The animated water coiled around Aella but she was able to twist and dodge out of the way. She quickly moved over to the other pool. To her dismay she was attacked by another watery creature residing in the second pool.

Annor ran to her aid. His mighty flamberge sliced through the water in a powerful stroke. The animated water turned its attention from the half-elven sorceress to the human warrior. Annor found himself enveloped by the animated water, unable to breathe.

The blind dragon Aulicus closed on the struggling form of Annor, biting down on him and tearing him asunder with his terrible claws! Annor exploded in a bloody catastrophe!

Aella's Escape
Aella was the last member of the A-Team standing. She took a deep breath and focused her courage. She unleashed a powerful witch-bolt spell onto Aulicus. The dragon screamed and collapsed. Aella felt hope well up within her - the dragon was near death!

Aulicus dragged himself back onto his feet, inhaled deeply, and sprayed a stream of acid onto Aella. She screamed in pain. She turned and fled through curtain of skulls onto the platform. She took shelter behind one of the stone columns.

Aulicus gave chase, dragging himself slowly onto the platform. He sniffed the air behind each column. He was methodical and deliberate.  He called to her, "Where are you going little mouse? Come face me so that you might join your companions in death!"

Aella had been holding her breath. She was injured. She knew she wouldn't last another ten seconds with the dragon. She finally took a deep inhalation and moved away from her hiding place. She was out of her primary magic. She had only her minor magical cantrips at her disposal.


Versus a dragon.

It was all or nothing.

She pointed at the dragon and a bolt of fiery magic streaked from her hand. It struck the dragon in the mouth, igniting the acid dripping from his jaws. Aulicus was surprised by this and instinctively swallowed. The burning acid was sucked into the dragon's body where it ignited the acid within. Smoke and flame began to emerge from the scars and gaps in Aulicus' scales. A great swelling moved from the dragon's lungs up its throat and into its head. Aulicus tried to swallow it back down but it was too late. The dragon's eyes bulged wide before its head exploded on its neck! Burning acid sprayed all over the platform as the decapitated dragon fell lifeless onto the stone.

Aella had won!

Rest and Treasure
Aella poked at the smoking stump of the dragon's neck with her staff. It sizzled in the acid.

"Well", she said to herself, "I guess I'm not taking the head back to town as proof of my deed."

She looked around. Alot Aname stood mutely on the skiff still holding the pole.

She sighed and went to the back of the hidden chamber. She checked on Marlin. The others had been literally disintegrated but she had hope Marlin might still be alive. Alas, he was gone. Perhaps she could return his body to Saltmarsh and have the priest of Procan perform a miracle and raise him from the dead. She did the math. She wasn't sure she'd make it in time.

The curtain of skulls and shells that had concealed the entrance to the dragon's lair had been blown away by the fireball. She cast a minor light spell and followed the passage into large cavern. The cavern reeked of acid and her eyes stung. In an alcove in the rear of the cavern was a pile of treasure - the dragon's hoard!

She was exhausted. She had no more magic and she knew she wouldn't survive another fight. Should she just grab what she could carry and leave or stay and take an inventory of the treasure? Maybe she could transport it out of the swamp on the skiff.

She went back to the skiff and addressed Alot, "Hey, Beep Boop. Do the brain jellies keep you from helping me carry stuff?"

The warforged silently laid down his pole accompanied her into the dragon's cavern.

A while later she had gathered all the magical items and mundane equipment she could recover from her fallen companions. She had made an accounting of the approximate amount of coinage and gemstones present in the hoard. There were also weapons and armor but she had less interest in those.

She heard a scraping noise from the outer hall. She stopped what she was doing and crept behind a tattered remnant of the curtain of skulls and shells. She saw the dragon statue move aside revealing a secret passage!

A male human poked his head up and looked around.

He reported what he saw to someone below him that she couldn't see.

"They're all dead! Even Aulicus! There's going to be chaos among the lizard clans! What should we do?"

"We should inform Mordrin and Gormundel immediately."

"Wait!" said the man looking around, "I thought I heard something! You there, come out!" He looked right at Aella.

Aella emerged, pretending to be frightened and lost. The man climbed out of the secret passage. He wore the livery of the King of Keol.

"What happened here?" demanded the guard.

Aella said "I'm not sure. I got lost in the swamp and I came across all- this. I- I just need to return home. I need to get back to Saltmarsh immediately. Can you help me?"

Although he seemed to believe her story, the man said, "Look, we can't let you return to Saltmarsh. I better bring you to Mordrin immediately."

The guard's companion joined him on the platform.

She resisted, "NO! No! I need to get back! Say, What if I tell them about the dead dragon? The people will - uh - they'll be afraid of anybody who could kill a dragon?"

The facade started to crack. The guard had become confused by her fluidly changing story. "No, no we really don't want you to do that. No, I think you're coming in here with us."

The two guards grabbed her and wrestled her into the passage.

Unnoticed by the guards, Alot Aname stood silently in the back of the cavern staring at the cave wall.

To Be Continued...
DM Note- 
Aella's player rolled really well for deception and I was prepared to give her a LOT of leeway in her story. But her "I was just walking by and found it like this" and her request for them to help her leave was just too much.  I was expecting her to try to infiltrate or even pretend to be a bad-add don't mess with me story or something. But I just couldn't find any way to work with what she gave me. 

Next week - Introducing the B-Team!

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