10.2. A Den of Vipers

10.2. A Den of Vipers


Alexis

Alston

Asura

Berkin

Charli

Jasper

Rock

Session Date: February 25th, 2021
Dale Reckoning: 18:00, 1524 DR (Year of the Captive Harper), 25 Hammer (25th of Deepwinter).

C. The Art Auction

i. Do Your Biddings

While the agents were able to take their sheathed weapons in with them to the auction itself, the receptionist balked at the snake wrapped around Jasper’s large form.

“I’m afraid there are no…animals allowed on the premises,” the man said, his false grin indicating he wasn’t sure if the snake was actually a Yuan-ti in disguise. “There have been incidents of damaged books or pieces of artwork. I hope you understand.” Luckily, it was simply enough for Rock to duck outside and re-enter in her Tabaxi form.

The auction itself was being held in a room at the back of the library/museum. There were eight other bidders present awaiting the commencement. Charli noticed that, judging by their clothing, the participants came from such lands as Turmish, Chondath, and even Thay.

The first item was a large clay urn of simple and unremarkable design. It didn’t look like a tutor’s first attempt, but it certainly had been crafted by no master. In fact, some of the clay underneath the lip was still wet, suggesting it had been produced in a rush.

Still, bidding for the item began at 400 gold pieces and quickly rose. The bidders all seemed equally engaged in the process, and the item eventually sold for 700. Alexis made certain to take part for show.

Alston had ritual-cast his Telepathic Bond immediately before the event, and the agents still enjoyed the benefits of private communications. “Are these objects stand-ins?” Jasper wondered silently. “They’re certainly not valuable enough to warrant this kind of bidding. Everything here seems very suspicious.”

Alexis’s magical sight studied the next piece of art displayed: a rather mediocre oil painting of the ships outside Hlondeth. He noticed there was no telltale magical aura indicating a cursed item. At the same time, however, he saw no ambient magic leaking through the painting from the environment around it. The effect was like sitting in front of a campfire as someone stepped between you and the warmth of the flames.

“Lead-based paint,” Charli declared, when Alexis had reported his experiences. “And I’d bet that urn was made from lead-infused clay. They’re casting veneers over the actual items to shield their magical auras and selling them as mundane items. And you can bet everyone here knows that.”

Rock eyed the oil painting carefully. It used a very thick and heavy canvas. She recalled that tapestries were one of the Jhaamdath items that Medusanna had mentioned, and she guessed that artifacts were being cut up, broken apart, and sold piecemeal. (To be fair, this occurred often with mundane treasure hoards as well.)

Alexis cast a silent Augury to check the danger of the oil painting; after all, Medusanna had reported many as being “cursed.” Receiving a reassurance from his patron that he would not be in danger if he touched the item, he joined the others in bidding in earnest. Obtaining one of these auctioned items for himself would be tangible evidence for their investigation.

Among the lot of them, the agents only had 1,300 gold pieces in buying power. However, fortune was on their side, and few seemed interested in the painting. Alexis was able to close the bidding with a final offer of 1,000 gold pieces. The agents were now the proud owners of a black market artifact.

The final item was a rather bland wooden carving of a dragon. Nothing about the item itself suggested Jhaamdath connection…but the agents noticed it came in an oversized metal carrying case, likely made of lead as well. Whatever was actually being sold was probably in a false bottom of the case.

The carving began high but sold quickly for 1,100 gold pieces. Charli took careful note of who won which items. There was a tiefling noble from Thay, and a Chondathan from just across the bay. Rock meandered close enough to each to memorize their smells, should she encounter them again.

Under the Hood: Auction Mechanics

CLICK TO EXPAND

Mechanically, I could have pre-chosen arbitrary opening bids and max bids for each of the items beforehand, but I wanted to preserve a sense of chance and tension for even myself as a DM. Here’s what I did:

  • Set the starting bid for an item with percentiles dice against a possible max of 1,000 gp, rounded to the nearest 100 gp. (For example, rolling a 42 would mean the starting bid would be 400 gp.) Ensure each starting bid is higher than the last.
  • Roll percentiles for each bidding round on a particular item, against a DC of 10 times the total number of rounds bid on a specific item. Success means someone matches the bid. (For example, if this is the first bidding round, the DC for the percentile is 10. If it is the fifth, then it is 50.) If a player matches the bid, include theirs in the total number of bidding rounds and roll again.
  • If an NPC wins an item, roll a d8 to randomly determine which of those present was the winner.

The players in this session were pretty lucky when it came to purchasing the painting. Though bidding began at 900 gp due to a high percentile roll for initial value, two successive rolls for bidders’ reactions were low, meaning no one was willing to go past 950 and no one wanted to match Alexis’s 1,000 bid. The players were able to come away with a haunted painting of their own for relatively cheap.

ii. Dampened Spirits

Disaster struck, however, as the auctioneer attempted to place the wooden figurine back in its lead carrying case. His fingers slipped, and the box fell from the podium, coming apart as it hit the ground. From within, an ancient clay tablet was now visible…a tablet that had broken in the fall.

There was a explosion of wind as three spectral forms erupted from the shattered artifact. The quality of the air in the chamber shifted; it suddenly seemed as if the agents were standing at the bottom of a pool of water, hearing distant voices calling from above the waves. The ghosts floated more delicately than others the agents had encountered, and their hair drifted on invisible currents. These were spirits that had died in the magical tsunami that had destroyed the ancient kingdom of Jhaamdath itself.

The specters began to chant in unison, and what felt like a psionic spike passed through Alexis’s brain. He quickly cast Comprehend Languages from a scroll, learning that the ghosts were repeating the phrase “Protect the Gate!” in the ancient Jhaamdath language. This was likely their final thoughts as they died.

These were potent undead. The space around them rippled with refractured light. The auctioneer, who was standing far too close, grabbed his throat and gasped like a beached fish. Nearby, the oil painting of the ship seemed to react to the ghosts’ presence; the water within seemed to crest and bob, and a looming tidal wave threatened to swallow the vessel depicted.

There was a “drowning field” surrounding the ghosts, a powerful psionic emanation recalling the Jhaamadath’s last moments.

This was not their only threat. As the auctioneer attempted to flee, the closest apparition drew a giant spectral sword and cut him in half. They’d been guards in their ancient lives, and they would continue to fight even in undeath.

The Shield Guardians that had been quietly standing watch moved into action, each casting a stored spells at the ghosts. Alexis recognized them as Compulsions, excellent for crowd control in hectic circumstances…but entirely useless against ghosts, who were immune to such effects. Still, the metal juggernauts lumbered into action, dealing slow but steady damage with iron fists.

As the other bidders screamed and fled, the agents swung into action like well-oiled machines. Alexis flipped back the hood of the cloak he was wearing, revealing a Cap of Water Breathing beneath. (He had learned a warlock invocation to grant himself underwater breathing when he’d been in the Underdark, but lying to his friends about his secret ability had never sat well with him. He’d decided to retain the ability, but utilizing magical equipment to do so.) He’d not expected it to be a crucial item, but it could prove pivotal in these circumstances.

There were still civilians in the room, and Alexis did not want to reveal his sorcerous abilities. Onlookers might deduce he’d been an undercover agent, instead of simply a mundane bidder. Instead he yelled, “No, not my painting!” to excuse his lingering presence. He also made use of spells that were not obviously connected to him, like Chill Touch.

The other adventurers engaged the ghosts and soon realized the difficult nature of this fight. The drowned spirits emanated a twenty-foot drowning aura around them, and they’d been trained as effective fighters. Charli was more nimble than resilient, and he immediately found himself in mortal danger when one of the ghosts positioned itself to keep him in its aura. Fortunately for him, Alexis shoved him out of the dangerous area just before Charli would have blacked out from asphyxiation.

Under the Hood: Drowning Mechanics

CLICK TO EXPAND

Rules as written, drowning is not a real danger in 5th edition. In this campaign, a few changes were made to the mechanics to make it a more credible (but manageable) threat. Instead of being able to hold their breath a number of minutes equal to one plus their CON modifier, players now have their CON modifier number of rounds before falling unconscious and failing death saves. However, one round spent outside the drowning aura was enough for them to “take a breath” and reset their individual timers.

To apply this to the example of Charli’s character, he had a CON modifier of +1. At the beginning of his second round, he was standing in a drowning aura, using up the one round he could hold his breath. He retreated from the ghost, but the ghost followed him. Had he begun his next turn still in the aura, he would have dropped unconscious and failed his first death save. Two more turns like this and he would have been dead, despite being at full hit points. Luckily, Alexis swooped to the rescue.

That being said, Charli still proved instrumental in the fight. Recalling the rites he’d learned from the ritual book granted him, he chanted a short banishing prayer, meant to help guide lost souls on their way to the afterlife. The Raven Queen responded, and a spiritual draw on the specters hampered their movements and lowered their resistance to spells.

The agents hit with attacks intended to wound or rot before recalling ghosts were affected by neither. They switched to more appropriate weapons. Rock withdrew a blade that glowed with the sun, and the runes on Jasper’s sword flared into fiery light at his command. (He also used his runes to direct magical protection for his allies, but the ghosts often hit too hard or fast for it to matter.)

Luckily, the Shield Guardians were immune to drowning and were sturdily-built, and they soaked up many of the attacks that might have gone to the agents.

The team of agents and constructs slowly whittled their way through the ghosts until only one remained. Sensing its eminent demise, the specter cried “DO NOT LET THEM ENTER THE SANCTUM!” and swung its greatsword with suicidal abandon. Jasper, the unfortunate target of two mighty blows, fell to unconsciousness. (A Mass Healing Word from Rock was able to get him back on his feet, but the moment had shaken him.)

Wishing to take full advantage of the situation before authorities arrived, Charli maneuvered to the unguarded artifacts still intact. He deftly inserted both the clay urn from the first auction and the painting they’d already won into his Bag of Holding, making sure not to break either of them in the process.

The clay tile from the dropped metal case, however, was definitely shattered beyond use. Charli noticed that it was only a fragment of an image – likely from a much larger fresco that had adorned a room somewhere. There could be hundreds of similar tiles somewhere in the city, being slowly disguised and auctioned off over time. It was also unlikely that the “Gate” the ghosts referred to were any specific item here today.

The final defeat of the last errant ghost would not be the end of the agents’ woes. As they packed their equipment and hurried for the exit, they were met by an armored contingent entering through the front doors. It seemed the receptionist had gone for help at the first sign of fleeing patrons.

Unlike the malison operatives that had accompanied Medusanna in her disguised form, these clearly displayed emblems of the city guard on their armor. The captain, leading the group, pointed his finger at the agents and spoke loudly.

“Halt, in the name of the law!”

It was clear that, in this situation at least, the words were backed up by actual legal authority.


Alexis

Alston

Asura

Berkin

Charli

Jasper

Rock

Session Date: March 8th, 2021
Dale Reckoning: 18:30, 1524 DR (Year of the Captive Harper), 25 Hammer (25th of Deepwinter).

D. Double Duty

i. Taken for Questioning

Immediately, Charli moved his Bag of Holding out of sight and sprinkled some Dust of Disappearance over it. (At first he fumbled the action, but he was able to recover quickly and successfully hide the purloined items.) The invisibility would only last for a few minutes, but it might be enough to find a more permanent hiding location; after all, it contained both the vase and the painting from the auction.

Berkin took a step forward to address the elven captain with his eloquent language. (Remembering that kobolds were an enslaved race here, Alexis stood next to him to give his words credence.) Berkin gave a brief summary of what had happened in the auction room, being sure to emphasize that the group of them had personally dispatched the threat of the three specters, and should therefore be not so much suspected as commended.

Berkin also was sure to make no mention of Charli’s thefts.

Luckily, even with the initial distrust due to his race, Berkin’s words were persuasive, and the Captain nodded his understanding. Then, receiving a report from a few sergeants who’d quickly secured the premises, he pointedly asked, “And what exactly happened to the items that were on sale today?”

The agents glanced among themselves uneasily. The goods were magically hidden, but only for a few minutes more; and having stolen goods found in their possession would not do them any favors.

The captain of the guard sighed and massaged his brow. “I’m afraid I’ll need to ask you to accompany me to the local guard station, in order to make a formal report of the situation.”

There was perhaps thirty minutes left on Alston’s Telepathic Link, and they quickly hatched a plan. Maintaining his alternate persona, Alexis stepped directly before the guard captain and the auction’s manager. He complained in as much of an irate manner as possible of the dire threats to life and limb that he had just undergone, that he had been wounded due to the negligence of those operating the auction, and of how those he represented were certain to hear of the dreadful manner he had been treated and accosted that evening.

As he did so, Rock dropped her wildshaped bear form (used previously during the combat to withstand sturdy blows). Charli handed her the invisible bag of stolen goods, and she wildshaped again into a large viper. Since she was a druid, she could choose to meld the item into her new form, much as she had done with the staff in Korvicros’s vault. Though this alerted the guards that the animal in their midst was really a wildshaped druid, it still kept the plunder secret.

The agents accompanied this “Captain Yinlar” to the nearby city guard station, which revealed itself to be more of a prison than just a police barracks. They noted that the auction manager had not come with them to the station, as he was (reportedly) gathering the names and contact details of everyone else there that evening for the investigation.

Once inside the welcoming chamber, Captain Yinlar instructed the group to remove all magical items and effects from their persons (save, perhaps, fitted armor) and place it with the guard behind the desk. Much like those stationed far back in Songhal, the guards here used devices to identify magic auras. Although here they were wands that hummed when in the presence of magic; and unlike in Songhal, it seemed, the devices actually worked.

“Oh,” he said, indicating the snake around Jasper’s shoulders, “and we will need the druid to drop their wildshape as well.”

“Are we under arrest?” Berkin asked. “I feel like we’re being treated like criminals, even though we’re the ones that actually saved the library.”

This was instantly a point of contention among the agents. While Alexis, who was doing his best to stay on the good side of resident authority, had already removed and placed his items in a box with the desk guard, others were far more hesitant. Charli, for example, still wore a Hat of Disguise to conceal his existence in the city. Rock, should she drop her wildshape, would reveal the bag of stolen goods.

Luckily, Captain Yinlar’s next action would prove to make the point moot. He moved his hands deftly and muttered mystic phrases. A blanketing aura fell over the agents’ minds as the captain instructed, “I’m sure if you all keep your hands at your sides and try no sudden or aggressive movements, I don’t see why we can’t discuss this matter like gentlemen in my office.”

Rock instantly recognized the attempted spell as another Mass Suggestion, likely used by the guard captain for de-escalating dangerous situations.

Yet as the spell tried to take hold of their minds, it met a sudden obstacle and fell back again, like an ocean wave breaching itself against an immobile cliff. Rock realized that Medusanna’s Mass Suggestion had already laid claim to their minds, and that it would not be so easily undone by a simple captain of the guard. Vexing as Medusanna’s action had been, there was no denying it had shielded them from some further complications.

It seemed Captain Yinlar was unaware that his gambit had failed. He easily motioned them to follow him to his private office (magical items retained), where his guards remained outside. For the moment, it was just he and the agents.

“Now, then,” said the captain, once they were comfortably seated (or standing), “please state for the record a true and honest account of the events of this evening.”

Following Berkin’s earlier lead, Alexis reiterated that they’d been potential buyers who’d simply been in the right place at the right time to prevent further disaster. Suddenly he felt a Charm Person directed at him, as the captain quietly worked some personal magic. However, Alexis fought back mentally; he was just able to evade its power.

Again, the captain seemed ignorant of his spell’s failure. Of course, the agents were well beyond Captain Yinlar’s abilities, thanks to their extended adventures in the world…but they could guess how his talents made him valuable as a captain of the guard, both in mass riot control and in specific interrogations.

For now, it would work in the agents’ favor. Captain Yinlar seemed confident that he had bent their wills momentarily to his own, and that whatever Alexis said would be open, truthful, and without deceit.

“Do you have anything to add to that statement?” Captain Yinlar asked. Alexis shook his head, and the captain accepted his response. However, the elven captain had a few more directed questions.

“What happened to the artifacts?” The agents claimed ignorance. Everything had happened so fast, and there were so many people running everywhere. Perhaps someone else had stolen them; perhaps the ghosts had destroyed them.

“You’ve never met each other before today?” This question was directed mostly at Alexis, who Yinlar (incorrectly) assumed was under the sway of two simultaneous spells. Alexis deflected that he had not seen them much prior, and that he had stuck with the group when he’d seen their fighting prowess. The captain seemed to buy the lie.

“You seem very capable…adventurers, if I might use the term. Whom do you represent?”

This question took the group a little longer to answer. Alexis had established as early as the afternoon docks that he was visiting Hlondeth on behest of a wealthy client. After telepathically considering a few different names to throw out, including Rose Keep, the White Stag of Songhal, or even Korvicros, Alexis decided to state “a wealthy individual with a high responsibility in the banks of Lyrabar.”

Captain Yinlar raised his eyebrows at this. Anyone who lived near the Sea of Fallen Stars had heard of Impiltur’s recent financial straits, yet here a bank executive was reported spending large amounts of cash on obscure artifacts.

Jasper spoke up. “Where did you get the idea we were ‘adventurers’?”

The captain gestured, palms up. “Most people, when they encounter the drowned specters of Jhaamdath…don’t live to tell about it. Not only did the lot of you survive, but you dispatched them handily. Obviously, you’ve had adventuring experience.”

Wheels began clicking together in place in the agents’ minds. No wonder the guard captain and his men had been on the scene of the auction so quickly, and were so eager to whisk them to the station for debriefing. Captain Yinlar was receiving benefits from an arrangement, probably payments under the table, to ensure the auctions were being run smoothly and quietly, out of public view.

“That being said,” continued the captain, “if you feel yourselves up to the challenge, I’m aware of where you might find additional…employment that uses your sets of skills. Since each of you attended the auction and are aware of the value of these items, I’ll speak plainly. A new vault has been located beneath the city of Hlondeth, full of ancient Jhaamdath artifacts. However, groups of monsters have moved into the area, proving too difficult for even our most veteran mercenaries.

“If you were to…remove these threats from the area, you would be doing us a great service. And, of course, you would have permission to salvage any magical loot or treasure you come across in your expedition – save, of course, any Jhaamdath cultural artifacts.”

The agents instinctively turned towards Charli, who was (thanks to his background) the best judge of character of the group. The Yuan-ti narrowed his eyes slightly, then thought back, “He seems to be on the level.”

“This would certainly put us on the right track to fulfilling Medusanna’s mission,” Alexis commented. “It’s highly likely this is the source of the artifacts she’s been trying to find.

“I’d be happy just being paid extra for something we were planning to do anyway,” commented Rock.

“Excellent!” said Captain Yinlar, once the group had agreed to help. However, they were still injured from their run-in with the ghosts and needed some time to recuperate. Turning down the captain’s somewhat dubious offer of the bandages in the nearby torture chamber, they instead opted for a night at a local upscale hotel.

ii. A Nighttime Vissitor

Alexis double checked that his 1,000 gold pieces would be kept safe until the investigation was complete, and that they would be returned to him if his purchase was not recovered. (Of course, he did not mention the fact that his group was already in possession of his artwork.) After this, the group retired to a nearby hotel of sufficient prestige, paying twenty gold for the entirety of them.

Once safely locked away from prying eyes in their shared room, the agents unpacked their ill-gotten gains. Charli withdrew his Thieves’ Tools and, with some magical bolstering from Jasper’s Storm Rune, Berkin’s Bardic Inspiration and Skill Empowerment, and a little of his own Guidance, he effortlessly removed the lead clay and paint obscuring the actual artifacts.

*DM’s Note: With all his bonuses combined, Charli’s player didn’t roll below a 40 on either check.

The others whistled at his impeccable workmanship. “Well, it looks like you have another career lined up, if this Shining Blade thing doesn’t work out for you.”

Charli’s restorations had revealed a much older, but clearly much more refined, Jhaamdath urn. The tapestry beneath the oil painting seemed a cropping made from a much larger piece, crudely excised with a sharp instrument. Freed of their dampening coats, the items shone with an arcane necromantic glow that Alexis could discern.

Next, Rock wanted to Identify the items (and her most recent artificing experiments had shown her how). However, she needed a pearl worth 100 gold pieces, which she didn’t presently have. Luckily, she was wearing a Robe of Useful Items and, after turning out each of her pockets, one proved to hold ten gems of sufficient value. Luck was on her side, and one of these gems was precisely the sort of pearl she required.

The items proved to be of no particularly noteworthy status, apart from being representations of Jhaamdath culture. However, Rock intuited that they’d been infused with the dying screams of a psionic civilization – those created when the ancient nation had been destroyed by the magical tsunami. While the psionic residues left in these objects were not souls themselves, they could still call to recollection the last moments of a doomed civilization – particularly if the objects were broken.

Alexis idly contemplated the practical application of these artifacts; after all, more than one noble was willing to pay good money for a specimen. For now, all he could guess was that there must be some way to harness the brief yet powerful blast of psionic energy released whenever one of the artifacts was destroyed.

As they settled for the night, Charli led them in a discussion of what the specters had meant with the words “gate” and “sanctum.” Alexis noted that while the words could have meant a physical gate, such as the gates of the city, they could just as easily have meant a planar Gate…or even a gate such as the one they’d found guarded in Stardeep.

While not technically required to in the specific wording of Medusanna’s Mass Suggestion, the agents nevertheless decided it wise to keep their benefactor apprised of their progress. Rock crafted a Sending:

at Sapphire Hotel and Spa STOP
have info and delivery STOP
please meet STOP
tomorrow captain guard escorting to sewer to show more

The message apparently did its job, for during Charli’s midnight guard shift over his sleeping comrades, a serpent coiled up around the bars of their window and transformed into a halfblood malison.

“Captain Mandrilsu ssent me,” it hissed, apparently referencing Medusanna’s alter ego. “She ssaid you had a delivery.”

Charli again told the events of the day, this time neglecting no detail, however insignificant. When he was done, the malison accepted the artifacts. Unlike Rock, it could not meld any held items into its new form when transforming into a snake, but it had other plans.

Placing the tapestry into the urn and then rolling them both inside a hotel sheet, it simply walked out of the hotel. Very few in Hlondeth would try accosting a Yuan-ti, and it only needed to ensure none would recognize the items it carried.

Rock woke as the door closed behind it. While Charli agreed that he would wake Rock the next time this occurred, he asked that he be allowed to sleep the night out, were the situation reversed.

The only other nighttime event of note was that Rock’s Mimic quarterstaff got hungry and ate one of her sentimental keepsakes in her bag – an old leather collar.

iii. Return to the Sewers

Session Date: March 8th, 2021
Dale Reckoning: 10:00, 1524 DR (Year of the Captive Harper), 26 Hammer (26th of Deepwinter).

The next morning, the agents reconnected with Captain Yinlar, who led them to a sewer entrance elsewhere in the city. “The vault is not far from here; the sewers here connect into the old Jhaamdath ruins beneath the city. Continue west from this point until you find a door that no key can open. This is the entrance to the vault only recently opened. To pass the door, you must speak to the statue next to the door. You must use the following words in conversation with it, in any order, but never adjacent to one another: chosen, silver, and fire.”

The elf captain also warned the agents that they would face progressively difficult foes in their journey, from aggressive versions of local fauna, to psionically-warped denizens that had spent too much time in the ruins, to even creatures not native to this plane.

Initially, the passage through the sewers seemed uneventful, until a large serpent-like creature arose from the waters in front of them and shivered. Alexis had only enough time to recognize the movements as the somatic components for a Flame Strike before the ceiling above him seemed to open to the sky. He, Charli, and Jasper were subjected to powerful radiance.

Backing up from the new threat to regroup, the party was hit by a second Flame Strike, from a second serpent that had arisen behind them. A tiny kobold skeleton that Rock had reanimated with a Night Caller evaporated under the assault.

Not only were the creatures spellcasters, but highly venomous. Charli would have been grievously injured had he not been immune to the effects; instead, all he felt from a successful bite was a bit of lightheadedness as the copious amounts of venom temporarily thinned his blood. Additionally, their hides were fairly tough, and the group had difficult making their attacks connect.

Jasper engaged the first serpent and cut into it with his black greatsword; runes of fire exploded alongside magical wounding effects, and he was able to quickly stack injuries upon his opponent. Charli further supported by lodging a well-aimed strike directly in the beast’s eyes. As it attempted to withdraw from the vicious counter-attack, a final thrust from Jasper succeeded in felling the monster.

The second serpent, seeing its mate’s demise, shivered again, attempting to cast a Shield of Faith. Recalling that he and Rock had already missed multiple times, Alexis countered it. In response, the monster bit into Rock and injected her with another dose of poison; only a quick reaction by Jasper and his Storm Rune prevented massive injury. Then the creature dipped back beneath the sewage to reposition itself.

The party had trouble tracking the monster in the muck, despite its size. And when it reappeared, they continued to struggle making their attacks hit. The agents looked for ways to turn the battle in their favor. Charli’s Rope of Entanglement failed to take hold; but when Rock wildshaped into a Giant Toad, which was as much at home on land as in the water, the sudden change seemed to spook the beast. It quickly withdrew, leaving the party alone.

The agents found a disused room where they could take a short rest. Rock helped drag in the body of the first felled monster, and the adventurers immediately took to studying it.

Alexis deduced that these were some form of Spirit Naga, apparently corrupted in living too close to the Jhaamdath ruins. Arranging the city in his mind, Charli further realized that a pure westward trek would carry them directly under the Cathedral of Emerald Scales, where High Priestess Medusanna presided. This elucidated a number of points. First, it would explain the origin of these Spirit Naga; they had likely been guardians of the Cathedral’s lower levels, before the sewer’s currents and psionic corruption had turned them.

Second, it would illustrate precisely why Medusanna was personally invested in the investigation of these artifacts. If the vault was beneath her Cathedral, then the grave robbers stealing the artifacts might as well have been stealing directly from her.

Charli used his knowledge of poisons to extract some of the poison glands from the dead Spirit Naga’s body. It was a difficult task, and an unfamiliar specimen, but he was able to come away with a single powerful dose that he could later apply to his bolts.

Under the Hood: Extracting Poisons

CLICK TO EXPAND

The Dungeon Master’s Guide lists an abortive collection of poisons, many of which are simply too expensive for regular use. For Charli’s character, I enacted the following rules for salvaging poisons from venomous creatures that he might encounter in the wild:

  • Player’s character makes a Survival (WIS) check, DC 10 + CR of the monster. The character receives one dose for a success, plus an extra dose for every 5 that roll exceeds the DC. (A roll of 26 on a DC of 15 would yield three doses.)
  • The poison received is good for one application on a standard melee weapon, or three for arrows or bolts (as per rules for Basic Poison vials). Rules for potency also apply, meaning they must be used within one minute or lost.
  • The poison’s specific stats are the same as those of the creature’s block.

In this particular case, this meant that Charli was able to receive three bolts’ worth of the following poison, but they would all need to be used in a single encounter:

Spirit Naga poison: the target must make a DC 13 Constitution saving throw, taking 31 (7d8) poison damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one.


Alexis

Alston

Asura

Berkin

Charli

Jasper

Rock

Session Date: March 22nd, 2021
Dale Reckoning: 11:30, 1524 DR (Year of the Captive Harper), 26 Hammer (26th of Deepwinter).

E. More Sewer Monsters

i. Psionic Scares

Charli (with his darkvision) and Alexis (with his torch) did a bit of scouting around the disused room they’d used for their breather. There were rents in the subterranean walls; other streams had worn their way through the stones over time, creating additional gullies in the dark. It seemed the sewers of Hlondeth had been erected over naturally-flowing underground streams, whose currents would help flush refuse out to sea. And these streams did not always flow where intended.

The party continued west. Movement soon showed in the corner of their vision, coming from within a dark, abandoned room. A beast of many tentacles pulled itself from the fetid water and lurched at them.

Alston considered what he knew of arcane monstrosities; and while he did not recognize this creature specifically, the phrase “star spawn” rose to his mind.

The agents combined their abilities to catch the monster in stacked fields of effect. Alston filled the room with a Sickening Radiance, while Alexis threw an ineffectual bottle of Grease beneath the many tendrils and activated his Shielding Aurora to hold the monster at bay.

The creature hit back, its long tendrils flailing. It was able to make simultaneously swings against Jasper, Alexis, Charli, and Alston, but only Jasper was hit. Knocked down temporarily by the blow, Jasper regained his footing and punched the aberration right back into the radiant glow it had scuttled out of.

The monster was large and menacing, and it wasn’t falling quickly to their blows, but the agents had not been presented with any real threat yet. This changed, however, when Rock heard the scrabbling of tiny claws, as some creature wormed its way out of a crevice nearby. This new being seemed pulled from her nightmares. The wavering outline of its form shifted, and Rock, Charli, and Jasper were all subjected to sudden waves of fear. Some of the agents were able to resist better than others; Jasper in particular was left with a pounding migraine.

Whatever this new creature was, it was strongly psionic.

Jasper knew that they’d not be effective when fighting against two enemies on two sides, and he began activating the runes he’d carefully inscribed on his equipment. Flame roared from his Fire Rune, and a Storm Rune cut through the star spawn’s ability to resist his Wounding effects.

Alexis salvo’d the star spawn with a volley of Eldritch Blasts as he backpedaled; this retreat may have saved his life. The new psionic nightmare, instead of attacking any of the agents, instead directed a strong psionic strike at the aberration itself. Its stratagem became apparent when, rathan than taking psionic damage, the star spawn instead reflected it immediately against all adjacent, giving them no opportunity to dodge or resist.

This was unfortunate for Jasper, who was hit full in the face with the redirected attack. He became suddenly convinced that his arms had been violently torn from him, and his eyes gouged out. He crumpled to a knee, roaring in sudden agony. It would take what seemed an eternity of pain before he’d recomposed his mind and regained control of his senses.

Charli, having already applied significant damage to the star spawn with his crossbolts, managed to down it with an application of his homemade poison. The agents turned to finishing the second attacker quickly. They soon noticed that what they appeared to be fighting was only an illusion created to frighten them; as such, only about half of their attacks struck true, the remainders passing harmlessly through the apparition. And with each hit, the image changed, attempting to copy some fear lurking deep within the agents’ psyches.

Sensing it was being overpowered, the creature began lashing out at multiple attackers at a time, before retreating into one of the gullies carved out by the underground streams. However, Rock would have none of this, and she followed quickly after it. The beast fell to the swift strokes of her Sun Blade.

In death, the monster turned out to be not much larger than a teddy bear, and of roughly equal appearance. Likely, it had used its psionic ability to appear larger and more threatening, in order to survive in these treacherous sewers. This fact did not allay Rock’s fury, however, and she proceeded to turn its corpse into a fine paste.

“Psionic artifacts, and now psionic creatures,” noted Alexis. “I feel as if we are on the right track here.” Rock confirmed his suspicions, once she’d finished her messy “inspection” of the corpse. It seemed this creature, and possibly others, had been altered over time by their proximity to the psionic artifacts of Jhaamdath. Like the naga from earlier, they’d been corrupted and transformed into something newer and altogether deadlier.

ii. Chaos Frogs

Upon inspecting and passing through a wooden door directly across their path, the party found the scenery changed. Instead of (relatively) new sewers, they found themselves passing through ancient stone ruins. The arrangement suggested that they traveled not through the streets of the ancient city, but instead from room to room within a labyrinth of ancient homes. The houses themselves must have been buried via some titanic cataclysm, and they meandered through their hollowed forms.

Of course, that “titanic cataclysm” had been the magical tsunami that had ended the Jhaamdath empire.

A name presented itself to Charli: “Lirremar.” Of the original “Twelve Cities of the Sword” that the Jhaamdath had established, only this one had been built far enough away from the Vilhon Reach to not end completely beneath the waves. Only here would adventurers not need diving equipment and preparations for water breathing. As it was, the ruins below Hlondeth were still just beneath sea level, and the agents splashed in water that ranged from a few inches to a foot deep.

It was fortunate that Rock had spent some time casting restorative magic on her friends, as they were again quickly beset by enemies. Two large amphibious creatures that each stood on two legs ducked out from the gloom at them. Instead of rending them with claws, however, they began the encounter with multiple spells.

What concerned Rock more than the Cloudkill being leveled at the group was the fact she recognized these creatures; they were Slaad, and they were not native to the material plane of Toril. Instead, they hailed from locations like Limbo. This implied that either they’d been directly summoned by a powerful spellcaster, or that they’d “fallen in” through a crack between the planes somewhere.

Alexis had been unable to land his Counterspell; Rock acted quickly, and a Gust of Wind carried away the noxious fumes before they’d affected the group. She was not, however, able to prevent the Fireball that engulfed her and Jasper from the second foe.

While Rock used her Gust of Wind to forcibly push the second foe into a corner, Alexis and Charli noticed something troubling about the first. Though not completely shrugging off their attacks, the skin of the slaad was gradually knitting itself back together after each injury. Alexis switched from using a Witch Bolt to Chill Touch to counter this steady regeneration.

Unfortuantely, the slaad was just as dangerous a melee fighter as it was a spellcaster, and it began tearing at Alexis with its teeth and two claws. And though Rock used a Thunderwave to further jam the second slaad into a corner, it replied with a second Fireball that burnt her and Jasper.

Charli and Alexis had both withdrawn from the first slaad, not wishing to be the target of its vicious claws; Jasper took their place. However, he had been pummeled by three powerful spells at this point, and his endurance was running low. Calling on his Hill Rune, he gained resistance to physical attacks and stood toe-to-toe with this enemy.

Still, it was a desperate fight, and Jasper was forced to use his last rune (a Cloud Rune) to redirect one of the successful strikes to a nearby creature. Unfortunately, only his allies were within eyesight, but Charli gladly took it (sidestepping a great deal of the damage in the process). Realizing the battle could still easily be decided one way or the other, Charli grabbed the naga poison he’d recently extracted and began applying it to his bolts.

Rock cast another Mass Healing Word and shifted into a Crag Cat, to better hamper the second foe. As she resisted a Fear spell from the second slaad, Jasper cut down the first with a practiced procession of heavy blows.

With Rock resisting most of the attacks the slaad threw at her, it was not difficult for her party members to regroup and surround the final enemy. It quickly fell to their combined attacks, none the least of which was a bolt from Charli, covered in a powerful poison it had no resistance to.

Still, the last two combats had spent their energy, and the party withdrew into a nearby room to rest for another hour. This time, Rock attempted removing some of the slaad hide for possible use in crafting boots or gloves, but her efforts were for naught. The shifting, slippery skin of the chaos-infused outsiders was alien to her, and she was not able to extract any usable portions.

However, judging from their surroundings, it seemed they were getting measurably closer to their final goal of “the door that no key can open.”

Under the Hood: Scaling Encounters

CLICK TO EXPAND

Eagle-eyed observers will notice a Green Slaad also hidden in the above images. I had three opponents in total prepared for the battle; but when I found the combat challenging enough with two, I removed the third without ever introducing it.

Scaling is a crucial element of any D&D combat. Start your combat off with (at most) an equal number of opponents to your PCs, then introduce additional enemies from the wings if the battle seems too easy. CR (Challenge Ratings) for monsters assume they are – individually – essentially speed bumps for a party of four adventurers of equal level.

My personal rule of thumb for number of enemies is explained by this chart:

Number of EnemiesStated CR of EnemiesExpected Combat Experience
Fewer than PCs by 2 or moreAnyProblematic (see below*)
Fewer than PCs by 1Lower than level of PCsSmashing Grunts
Fewer than PCs by 1Equivalent, or greater than level of PCs by 1-2Happy Medium
Fewer than PCs by 1Greater than level of PCs by 3 or moreChallenging and Thematic: “Boss Battle”
Equal to number of PCsLower than level of PCsKilling Henchies
Equal to number of PCsEqual to level of PCsDifficult
Equal to number of PCsGreater than level of PCsDeadly
Greater than number of PCsLower than level of PCsTense Crowd Control
Greater than number of PCsEqual to or greater than PCsExpected TPK

As you can see from a cursory glance at the table, I generally plan my battles with N-1 number of enemies, with a CR either equivalent or somewhat above the party’s character levels. *Even a “boss,” unless it sits a comfortable 10 CR levels above the player’s character levels (or has numerous legendary and lair effects), can often be beaten through sheer action economy. Make sure he has some buddies to help clog up the field.

If you find your players are mulching your monsters within the first round or two of combat, have a few more “trickle in” from the sides to even up the action economy. This will also force your party to play a longer game, as they understand expending all their abilities in the first two rounds will come back to haunt them in the third, fourth, and fifth rounds.

Conversely, if the battle is too difficult, pull your monsters’ punches. Have them not use all their attacks, or use less effective ones. Have them stand still on the battleground, instead of moving around to chase and flank targets. Secretly decrease their hit points.

To recap and apply these ideas to the battle at hand, I had a CR 10, 9, and 8 monster prepared for the encounter, which should theoretically have fallen under the “Happy Medium” category. However, in practice, the slaad were able to get off three strong area-of-effect spells and split the PC party with their ambush. I “dialed back” the difficulty so that the combat would not last longer than it did. (As it was, the two slaads still lasted 90 minutes.)


Alexis

Alston

Asura

Berkin

Charli

Jasper

Rock

Session Date: March 29th, 2021
Dale Reckoning: 13:30, 1524 DR (Year of the Captive Harper), 26 Hammer (26th of Deepwinter).

F. High Wire

After resting, the agents continued directly westward, or as directly as the labyrinth of interconnected houses allowed. As they entered a room with connections to three other spaces, a small impish creature burst from the dark, waving a spiked chain menacingly and cackling with enthusiasm.

Not wanting to take any chances, Berkin immediately downed it with a Psionic Blast. But it was only the first in what would be a long line of foes, and others scampered in directly behind it from both the west and south connections. A Fire Bolt flung past Berkin’s ear indicated they had more than just spiked chains at their disposal.

On the heels of the imps came humans in peculiar garish outfits. They juggled knives and blew fire, as one might if they were members of a traveling troupe. However, these were no blunted show knives, and their fire burned with intense heat.

Alexis cast a Shield and a flying dagger ricocheted away from him. Charlie and Rock shielded their faces against a blazing conflagration from the fire-eater. Whatever circus these performers hailed from, it cared little for the physical safety of either its participants or its audience.

Rock had her own tricks, however; and instead of blowing fire, she blew acid over a nearby imp and performer. The caustic liquid quickly dissolved the imp; as it died, however, it cackled shrilly with unsettling delight. Rock couldn’t help but feel a little unnerved at these assailants that, in addition to their disregard for personal safety, seemed to revel in their own pain.

As Charli downed the fire-eater with a crossbow bolt, Berkin and Alexis killed a third imp with a combination of a Thunderwave and Eldritch Blasts. But the horde of enemies showed no signs of abating. Rock moved into the western chamber to use her trusty Sun Blade just as a new type of foe appeared. The man attempted to delve directly into Rock’s mind and awaken a rage of bloodlust within her, but she managed to shake off its effects.

Unfortunately, Charli was not so lucky; when a similar spellcaster appeared from the southern corridor, he suddenly became a Yuan-ti of two minds. In one, he was a man filled with a murderous need to pummel anyone standing close to him. In the other, he was able to coolly regard himself as if from a distance, noting that his actions were not completely his own. Perhaps it was possible to outmaneuver these psychological effects?

Swinging ineffectually at a fourth imp harassing his kneecaps, Charli growled a warning to his friends to keep their distance. Then he retreated from the battlefield, where he would be able to recollect his thoughts – and where the only visible targets would not include his friends.

Alexis heard his friend cry out but didn’t understand the reason; and after downing the knife juggler with an Eldritch Blast, he ran to help his ally. His scroll of Magic Missile sent three darts of force into the spellcaster, distracting him from his arcane magic and freeing Charli’s mind. A Shielding Aurora followed, to dissuade anyone pursuing the Yuan-ti.

The knife thrower managed to knick Rock with one of their blades, but a quick Hellish Rebuke soon reduced them to ash. Still, new types of whirling, dodging performers were cartwheeling into the fray, and Alexis now had to contend with a high-wire balancer, dancing across a flaming wheel of spikes.

The trapeze artist struck Alexis with what should have been a felling blow, but Alexis was barely moved. The warlock reflected that, as unnerving as these assassins were, they probably did not have the benefit of having honed fighting skills on numerous adventures. Indeed, they did not seem very cognizant of everything on the battlefield (or did not seem to care), as the assailant remained within Alexis’s glowing aurora long enough to be burned.

A second fire-eater attacked Rock from the western corridor, and she responded again with a Caustic Brew, catching three targets in her spew. Strangely (and yet, keeping with precedent), none of those she covered with acid took the time to scrape the burning liquid from their skin. Instead, the pain seemed to energize and motivate them.

Alexis noticed this same strange behavior among the foes he battled; the spellcaster who’d originally affected Charli’s mind now cast a Thunderwave that affected both him and an adjacent imp.

Seeing no apparent end to the thronging masses of attackers, Rock shifted to her Bear form.

Berkin’s sharp ears heard, behind the keening of the circus performers, slow and heavy footsteps. Something large was approaching – something that likely guided this hellish troupe. Relaying this observation to his friends, he hit an imp and fire-eater with another Thunderwave, launching both fifteen feet backwards through the air. The imp died in a giddy shriek – but luckily, Berkin’s blast had thrown its maddening effects clear of his friends.

The surviving troupe members seemed very impressed at Berkin’s flamboyant dispatch of the demon, and they applauded in delight.

Alexis’s burning aurora felled the last imp standing, and Charli reappeared from the room in which he’d momentarily hidden himself. Another careful crossbow bolt killed the spellcaster that had previously invaded his mind.

The battle was far from over, however, as a large horned figure finally strode into view towards Charli and Alexis. If the high-wire performer had any fear of the two agents, it was dwarfed by its terror of the demon, shying away from the spear used to goad it into battle.

Refusing to be the new bear act for their little circus, Rock squeezed her way through the five-foot-wide doorway and positioned herself between her friends and the remaining performers. Quick bear claws and teeth tore a second spellcaster apart, and the last fire-eater ran to hide in a nearby room. However, Rock would not be so easily dissuaded, and she outmaneuvered her opponent, attacking through a rent in the wall that didn’t hamper her enlarged form.

It would soon become apparent that this new demon overlord was at least as strong as his entire troupe put together. It pointed a finger at Charli, again filling the rogue with an unreasonable desire to punch things. However, the demon’s ten-foot-tall form was confined by the restricting ruins they fought in, and it struggled to fit itself through the doorway into Charli’s room.

Berkin ran to help his friend, but his friend had a warning.

“I’m going to attack you, Berkin,” Charli said glumly, raising his fist, “but it’s not because I want to.”

“What?” the kobold asked, before Charli’s open palm slapped him across the face. Luckily for Berkin, Charli was not physically strong, and the strike left little more than a smarting nose. In the next instant, Charli had shaken off the demon’s magical compulsion.

Despite the demon’s natural resistance to magic spells, an Ego Whip settled on its mind. Berkin smiled triumphantly as he finished the spell; in addition to being at a severe disadvantage in attacking and resisting effects, the demon would not be able to cast any more spells.

His smile ended when the demon, against all luck and odds, put its spear directly through his tiny chest. Berkin convulsed once and went limp. With him went the spell that had restricted the demon, and the creature laughed in contempt.

Fortunately, there was more than one member of the party who could heal. Thanks to his dabbling in clerical magic, Charli knew something of the art, and he quickly extracted a scroll of Healing Word, using his familiarity of the barrier between life and death to amplify it. The effect did little more than restart Berkin’s heart, but it ensured he would not immediately pass to the Shadow realm.

As Alexis finished the last entertainer with Eldritch Blasts, Rock dug deep within her mind. While not as practiced as Alexis was in the mental arts, she could form a single spell without the need for verbal or somatic components. Concentrating carefully, she summoned up three identical images of herself; these would help in the coming final circus act.

Charli felt waves of mind-affecting influence spilling off of this demon; however, unlike the fear that most would have commanded, this one whispered dark suggestions of rage and fury. Having already fallen twice to the sway of madness, Charli retreated until the feeling dissipated. (The effect also seemed lessened if one was not directly in line-of-sight with the demon.) Luckily, Charli’s crossbow could still cover the distance to his target, and he yelled his stratagem to the others.

As the Yuan-ti distracted the demon with a poisoned bolt (the poison itself doing nothing against a fiend), Alexis grabbed a scroll of Misty Step from his pack. With it, he jaunted past the demon to where Berkin lay gasping and, grabbing the tiny figure by his clothes, hoisted him into a nearby chamber and out of sight of the demon.

As soon as he was able, Berkin cast a Cure Wounds at the highest level he could, restoring half his health. He was out of the woods, for now.

Knowing that success in this final fight relied on her ability to draw the demon’s mightiest attacks, Rock stood on her haunches and roared a challenge at her foe. Fittingly, thanks to some Bardic Inspiration that Berkin had lent her earlier, her taunt succeeded, and the demon’s attention was drawn specifically to her. It squeezed through another doorway and into her chamber, where she kept it hemmed against a wall.

DM’s Note: A house rule states that the Intimidation skill, so as to not simply copy the Persuasion (CHA) skill, can instead use STR, DEX, or CON as the associated attribute, as long as the player explains what physical show of bravado is being performed. Luckily, Rock received benefit both from her bear form and the bard’s bonus.

The demon’s enraging aura did little against Rock; with the rest of her group staying out of sight except for the precise moment they launched their salvos, the demon was her only target. Similarly, the demon’s size did little for it, as it was at a disadvantage while squeezing; and even when it did seem to hit true, its blow would only dissipate one of the Mirror Images that Rock used to shield herself.

Rock decided to press her advantage and un-wildshaped. She then tossed one of the magical, one-time-use pits from her Robe of Useful Items under the demon. Though its movements were no longer hampered, it could not easily escape via the narrow passages left to it.

With their quarry cornered, it took only a few moments for the agents to pile on enough damage to kill it. It was not unlike killing a very large, ugly fish in a pit-shaped barrel.

The agents would need a long rest after this, and they decided to use the same small, defensible room from earlier. Before they did so, they searched the bodies of the peculiar circus performers. They discovered the following items (later Identifying the potions during their down time):

These trinkets could have been props used in the twisted trapeze artists’ spectacles; they might also have been effects from audience members who had not survived the show.

Along with the items, each of the assailants carried an identical sigil – some demonic symbol, perhaps of a lord they worshiped. With her burgeoning knowledge of fiends from the Outer Planes, Rock was able to ascertain this described no well-known demon from the realms connected to Toril. Was it possible that, whatever this “Gate” was, it was allowing creatures to spill from places even further than the slaads from Limbo?

Only time would answer that question.

Dale Reckoning: 00:00, 1524 DR (Year of the Captive Harper), 27 Hammer (27th of Deepwinter).

At the far western edge of the Lirremar suburbs, another entrance led into a single, tall, and well-preserved space. Unlike the crumbling houses they’d meandered through, this structure seemed almost pristine, and likely the best starting point for collecting intact Jhaamdath artifacts. It also was not half under water.

In fact, there were several large urns along a wall near them. While they did not shine with the same necromantic glow as the art auction items, they obviously hailed from the same era of history.