Saturday, April 17, 2021

Part 19: Things Get Worse Before They Get Worse, And Then They Get Worse


After some more driving the party arrived at their current destination, the Tomb of the Hellriders, in the hopes of finding any sort of clue as to the whereabouts of the Bleeding Citadel and the Sword of Zariel, as well as any information on Zariel's past and clues to help her turn back to the light.

So, bit of info on me, the narrator. I'm not a huge fan of dungeon crawling in tabletop RPGs. It has its place, both narratively and mechanically, and considering I'm such a fan of RPG video games, you'd think that would translate, but my favorite bits of tabletop RPGs are the social and storytelling aspects, and while I'm down with a short jaunt into a dungeon to do some puzzles, kill some beasts, and find some loot, it's not why I play these games and if I'm in the mood for that sort of experience I'll play a video game. It's for this reason I'm not likely to play (or upload a retelling of) campaigns like Dungeon of the Mad Mage or its ilk, and the less we say about the Tomb of Horrors the happier I'll be.

So, it's with that lens that I want to point out that this dungeon was freaking terrifying in terms of atmosphere. And it's not like the encounters within were all that dangerous (spoiler alert for further down in the entry), but throughout most of the place it was just...nothing. Just motionless statues outside, big urns full of the ashes of dead Hellriders and monuments with the names of the dead inscribed thereupon inside, with a couple of rooms with the following description:

As you disturb the ankle-deep mist, it parts to reveal a ritual circle daubed in blood on the floor. Hundreds of slivers of parchment are arranged within it, each tiny strip bearing a name written neatly in blood.

What we were able to surmise was that these names matched up with the names inscribed upon the monuments, and Faust was able to determine that the ritual magic was keeping the souls of those dead from passing onto their eternal reward.

But I'm getting a little ahead of myself, as while exploring, Kalista heard something and raised a hand. "I hear moaning." Sneaking closer, she spotted the source: a chamber full of mummies.

Mummies in D&D can be kind of nasty, as most undead can if you're not careful, and we the party were like, "Screw that," and backed into the corridor from whence we came, knowing full well we'd probably have to fight them eventually but we didn't want to if we didn't have to.

Well, as some of these places tend to be designed, we ended up having to go through the mummy room to carry on, and the party briefly huddled to throw together a plan. And guys, I gotta say, this time we freaking nailed it.

Basically we bunched them all together and used a rather crudely-made explosive device to kill them. I don't remember if I mentioned this earlier, it being a project of Faust's, but he created, for lack of a better term, a Holy Hand Grenade.

Probably wasn't this ornate, but hey, use your imagination.

Basically, it was a bottle of holy water that was attached to an explosive device that would, upon detonation, scatter holy water/steam while also spreading...well...explosion. And guys, it worked. It didn't kill them instantly, but it did such a good job at weakening them that the party was able to steamroll (heh) their way through the fight without much (if any) damage.

Eventually the party found themselves in the chamber with the aforementioned monuments as well as...well:

Adorning the wall across from the steles is a carved relief showing a solemn, blindfolded angel on the back of a mammoth with feathered wings. The mammoth is reared up on its hind legs, and the angel holds her sword high. All around them are the broken bodies of fallen knights and devils.

How's that for some awesome heavy metal imagery?

Kalista was the first to open her mouth. "Is that...?"

Faust nodded. "Zariel. Astride a rather imposing Lulu."

Kalista examined it more closely. "Doesn't she seem...I dunno...a little lonely?"

Seliph folded his arms. "Looks that way, but I guess that's what this place does to you."

Rylee frowned. "All this, and she's still doing everything she can to avoid the one creature that would still call her a friend." 

"Such a waste of loyalty...still, there must be something we can do," Seliph muttered, mostly to himself.

Kalista repeated her suggestion from before (that I neglected to mention), "We should at least go burn those slips of paper."

She suggested that before when we found the ritual rooms but it was pretty unanimous that, without any context for what they were doing, that would be an extremely bad idea. However, since Faust took some time to investigate the ritual circles and the monuments, he figured out that burning the paper and scratching the names from the monument would be the only way to release their souls.

Kalista offered to return to the further room and burn the stack of papers there, requesting that Seliph go along with her so she'd "feel safe"

Anyway, after all this was taken care of, the party reconvened in the room with the monuments, where another secret door was found leading to a small, cramped chamber full of books belonging to a man named Olanthius, formerly a Hellrider. From the book:
  • Olanthius never recovered from Zariel’s capitulation to Asmodeus and subsequent transformation into a devil. He blames himself for not seeing warning signs of Zariel’s fall from grace early on — her single-minded determination to slay demons at all costs.
  • Olanthius took his life rather than face damnation, but he was transformed into an undead monster by Zariel to serve her forevermore.
  • Olanthius describes Haruman, his one-time comrade in arms, as a heartless man bereft of compassion — now a devil bent on punishing anyone who stands in Zariel’s way.
  • Olanthius mourns the deaths of his fallen warriors and feels powerless to help them.
  • Olanthius speaks well of General Yael, whom he clearly respects and secretly adores. In one journal, Olanthius hints that he knows where Yael hid the Sword of Zariel but fails to note the location.
However, as is typical in these stories when the heroes find some information they’re not supposed to have, the party’s reading session was interrupted by loud footsteps echoing from down the hall.

Faust let out a curse, and the party quickly looked at one another.

"We should hide!"



"I could try to sneak by."


This went on for a bit before we decided to have the two warlocks cast Invisibility on the party sans Kalista who thought she should be able to sneak by whatever it was that was coming down the hall.

She was not.

A demonic (well, devilish) growling voice rang out, demanding:

"Who has defiled this sacred space?"

Kalista's skin turned a shade paler as she tried to slip by the source of the noise, a Death Knight. Naturally, this sight was terrifying, even moreso when it addressed her personally, completely unfazed by her attempt at stealth.

The Death Knight demanded to know why she was here and how she got in here. Certainly one person can't have come in here by herself?

Unsure of how to lie her way out of it, she told the complete truth: she and a group of her friends were seeking out the Sword of Zariel to either defeat or redeem Zariel and save the city of Elturel.

"Show me these friends of yours."

After an awkward few seconds of back and forth between the invisible party members about whether or not the scary looking figure could be trusted and him threatening Kalista's life if they didn't comply, the party revealed themselves to the Death Knight, who introduced himself as Olanthius, and he wasn't happy that the party went through his diaries.

He explained that he could help them find the Bleeding Citadel, where the Sword of Zariel rested within what could only be described as a scab on the surface of Avernus, but he needed the party's help, and they were short on time. Essentially, his agency was limited due to his very nature as a Death Knight, revived to serve Zariel and defend the tomb that the party just defaced, and the limited time problem?

Zariel was already making moves to drag Elturel into the River Styx, where all of its inhabitants would die and immediately be reborn as devils in service to her.

Gee, thanks for leaving out the part about the time limit.

So, that favor Olanthius was asking? He needed a diversion. So he teleported the party to a location known as Kostchtchie’s Maw, a crevasse in the surface of Avernus named after the demon lord imprisoned there.

So the party lowered themselves into the Maw by hiding themselves within Sissy's patron's jar (a nifty little skill she had just picked up, and yes, her patron genie was literally living inside a Mason jar) while Faust rode his familiar, now taking the form of a Beholderkin, into the crevasse.

Some fighting later as Kostchtchie had some guards who really didn't want to let him go, and the party was now stuck trying to figure out their way back out of the Maw. And thus began the awkward "night" of camping in the Maw while they waited for Sissy's ability to restore itself. Oops.

Don't worry, it gets worse!

How? Well, as the party was making their ascent, they noticed a row of people wielding bows and crossbows on each side of the Maw, waiting for them to slide into view (thank goodness someone passed that check), so Faust directed his familiar to lift them further down away from the two groups of enemies.

Even worse? Since this was technically between two sessions and we'd forgotten we teleported, we got to the rim of the Maw to realize that we didn't have the Demon Grinder. Like, shoot, that's not good, right?

And since we've had another session after that (most of the next bit is just fighting) we're going to be paraphrasing a lot.

Well, turns out it wasn't too far away, as the party saw a cloud of dust barreling towards them.

The party quickly went invisible again, before they realized that the cloud of dust was a very unimpressed Olanthius, who quickly berated the party for taking so long to hide. He said that since the party had already taken eight hours to free Kostchtchie (who was now rampaging across Avernus) and time was of the essence, he brought the Demon Grinder for them, all they need do is follow him to the scab where the Bleeding Citadel lay.

And seriously, this place is disgusting to think about. From the book:

A great, disgusting scab the size of a large hill rises up from a stinking swamp of blood. The domed top of an alabaster temple pokes through the scab. Many black iron chains of Avernus converge on the building, attaching within the grotesque mound.

You see, scab is a very accurate term, as when the Sword of Zariel was cast down to the surface of Avernus, the Citadel sprung up around it. But this being Hell, such a sacred place is an unnatural occurrence, and the land of Avernus was trying to heal around where the "gash" was.

So the party began to dig their way into the scab from the top, guided by Lulu who was able to intuit her way through in the most direct route to the actual entrance to the Citadel (which is my way of explaining away how fast we went through this part of the dungeon).

Turns out they weren't the only ones there, as demons under the rule of Yeenoghu were also trying to get into the Citadel, leading to some fights and what may be one of the craziest moments we've had so far in this campaign.

You see, the party got the drop on a bunch of demons at the bottom of a fifty foot drop, including a Nalfeshnee. Faust and Sissy were able to snipe them from their little perch before the Nalfeshnee teleported up behind the group, where Seliph turned to 1v1 something he probably shouldn't have, but some great damage rolls later and the Nalfeshnee went down.

And then Seliph got the great idea to do a fifty foot flying press onto one of the enemies below.

So...there's no hard and fast rule on how much fall damage to deal so most people default to 1d6 per ten feet, which has potential to be painful, but for high level adventurers with good luck it can be pretty negligible (which this fall was).

This turned out to be a good stroke of luck as not two seconds later Seliph took a couple really bad hits as the fight was winding down, though not as bad as was taken by the others who attempted leaps (who not only missed their attacks but also took more damage from the fall)

Anyway, this fight ended and the party opened the door to the Citadel, where their wounds from the last few fights were healed. From the book again:

A bright white light burns away the blood and grit staining your clothes. Restorative energy brings life to numb muscles as the glow softens to reveal the interior of a sun-kissed cathedral. How light passes through the scab and into the stained glass windows is a mystery only magic can answer.

Pillars line a path from the door to a raised dais carved with Celestial runes. Embedded in a stone atop the dais is a glowing longsword.

Insert music from either the Temple of Time from Ocarina of Time or the Sanctuary from Link to the Past, but yeah, the party slowly made their way to the sword when...

The translucent image of a woman in her thirties wearing plate armor and bearing a thin scar on her cheek appears before you. As she points toward the hollyphant, Lulu’s eyes turn pure white. A whisper fills your ears and says, “I remember!” A wave of radiant energy erupts from Lulu’s body and in that blinding flash the ghostly warrior, the hollyphant, and the Bleeding Citadel disappear.

The solace of the cathedral is replaced by havoc, screams of panic, and acrid smoke. You stand at the edge of a small town of burning cottages, fields, and trees. A broken sign on the ground reveals the settlement’s name: Idyllglen. Shrieking townsfolk run from cackling, snarling demons and gnolls.

Lulu quickly explained that this was her memories from "that day", and indeed, the party themselves were able to piece together the similarities between this and when they entered Lulu's memories before, only things seemed much more real here.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand they found themselves being attacked. As the party fought their way through the various monsters, they came upon an upturned cart with a few dretches trying to smash their way into it. Things got worse when one of Faust's spells went wild and destroyed the cart, revealing a woman hiding under it.

A dretch reared back, ready to strike the killing blow, as Sissy teleported close enough to knock the woman out of the way, shortly before another group of spells cast by Faust slew the rest of the dretches.

Things seemed to be turning in the party's favor, when...

A chorus of screams rises up as people, sheep, and pigs scamper through the town, chased by a demon with the lower body of a great serpent and the upper body of a six-armed gnoll clutching a wicked sword in each of its clawed hands.

This guy...this guy was something else. The fight didn't last super long (as tends to happen in D&D when you have a group of level 12 adventurers focusing down something) but it got kind of scary as he was capable of doing six attacks in one action. Well, seven, including its tail whip attack, which in D&D does more than just lower your defense.

It feels weird paraphrasing this fight so much considering it literally took an entire session, but seriously, this fight was something else, but after much back-and-forth the beast (known canonically as Garoknul) was eventually forced to retreat.

The party took a brief second to catch their breath before...

Five guards wielding spears advance from the north. Splattered head-to-toe with black ichor, they gaze at you with hungry eyes.

This...was awkward. These were just normal guys who were being coerced into violence against their will, and the party realized this. That said, Faust cast a spell that was meant to incapacitate them, however it ended up killing four of them, after which he was overcome by a sudden wave of exhaustion--punishment from Lulu for killing the soldiers--to the point where it looked like his lack of sleep since they arrived in Avernus had finally caught up with him (something I've joked about with his player, who is notorious for not getting enough sleep)

The party did what they could to restrain the final guard while Rylee could figure out how to save him. Once that was taken care of...

A woman’s voice enters your mind. “Nice work. Take a break. You’ve got an hour before the really bad stuff happens.”

Natuarlly...the party's reactions were...well...

And that's where we left off. With things about to get much worse. Though considering this is supposed to be Zariel's start of darkness, I suppose that makes sense.

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