Tuesday 12 March 2019

THE CRYSTAL SEAS... Episode 5: The Tomb of Bardol

SPOILER ALERT: This episode contains segments from Tomb of the Iron King by Paul Ste. Marie, available for download at Dungeon Masters' Guild

As the hour drew late, the Prince decided to withdraw for the night, and the PCs were summarily ejected from the Palace. Donna Serafina remained behind, but informed them that there steeds had been taken to the Lighthouse, the inn at which they had stayed a few nights before.

Horace vaguely recalled that Sister Meerak - his new-found comrade in the Knights of the Diamond Sigil - had an identical twin sister, and that she was the proprietor of the afforementioned inn. Like Meerak, this woman had once been a mercenary alongside Burzum, and would be attending the funeral in the morning. The party had already made plans to embark on an expedition to the tomb of an ancient king, Bardol the Fell-Handed, the following morning. Nonetheless, Horace and co would precede this expedition with a short journey from the Lighthouse to the Shrine, leading any of Burzum's mourners along with them.

The dwarf did not see the sister before going to bed, but was pleased to find that he now had a room of his own, upstairs, as did Ursula and Analicia. As was typical for the elf, Analicia was keen to stay up all night, but her colleagues were - typical for non-elves - exhausted by the dramas of the preceding few days.

Analicia found that the Lighthouse was heaving with the incessant murmour of many tongues. the interior was dimly lit by small lanterns at each of the inn's low tables, and a sweet, fragrant smoke hung in the air. To a man most of the patrons sat on cushions on the Lighthouse's floor were human, and male at that. The light-skinned northerners, mostly merchants, she surmised, kept to themselves, whilst dark-skinned southerners formed their own cliques. In a quiet corner the party's retainer, Kuriakos aka "Teddy", lay hunched and miserable, attempting to sleep.  Analicia turned her attention to the bar, with a small sigh.

Just as her friend Horace had done before with Meerak, Analicia found herself in a mixture of awe and contemplation as she beheld Meerak's identical twin. The woman was over six feet in height, and possessed of a powerful, muscular frame. Her enormous head had a high brow, strong cheekbones and bright, Hazel eyes... yet her nose and mouth were something of mess, to an elf maid like Analicia, anyway.

"What can I get you?"

"One... beer.... uh... one butter beer, please!"

The proprietor raised an eyebrow, before calling out to one of her servant boys:

"Get the lady a butter beer!"

...prompting a confused look from the boy.

So Analicia came to know Madam Grraak: she was a tough, no-nonsense woman, born into slavery, once a mercenary but now a veteran soldier trying to live out her days in peace as proprietor of the inn. She explained how she and her twin had been close to Burzum, and all had been comrades-in-arms. She asked about the circumstances of Burzum's death, and offered sympathy, but seemed slightly incredulous at the tale of a giant fire-spider.

Presently, the boy returned with a mug of beer mixed with melted butter. It tasted revolting.

Analicia found out one or two rumours: firstly, there were a LOT of foreigners coming in search of lost magical treasures and relics of the fallen Thranian Empire. Secondly, Madam Grraak made specific mention of a sinister man, clothed like Ursula in yellow academic robes, to whom she had taken an instant dislike. The chatted idly a little more, before Analicia retired to her chamber to meditate.

6th Sositi
At dawn, Teddy had already gotten the horses ready to leave by the time the adventurers were risen. As they munched on a simple breakfast of bread and soup, mourners began to arrive. Like Burzum, Meerak, and Grraak, the former mercenaries were enormous and athletic, whether they were men or women. Mostly they shared Burzum's dark complexion, but some possessed the peculiar sallow-yellow/ochre-green of the twin sisters, alongside their unusual facial features and enlarged teeth...


Horace felt sure these men... if they indeed were men and women... were the orcs of legend he had so much about. Hew swallowed hard, before presenting himself to a large group of such individuals.

"I'm a dwarf." He said.

The largest of the "orcs" laughed heartily, before asking where he had hidden his beard. He shook Horace's hand. Horace met about twenty or so of the "orcs", who each shook his hand, and offered their respect to a fellow warrior who had fought at Burzum's side.

The parade of mourners wove through the gridded streets of the artisans' district, through the fragrant food markets, and on to the dilapidated slums and palatial temples of the Holy District. Presently arriving at the shrine managed by Sister Meerak, the party saw the two "orc" twins together for the first time:
Wow! You guys could be sisters!
Each of the mourners genuflected before the prostrated corpse of Burzum the barbarian, before retreating to some simple tables outside on the street, to drink beer and share tales of the Burzum of old. The party paid their final respects to the man they had known for only a few days, headed out of the city and onward to the village of  Kuth.
"Long live Burzum!"
"You haven't been to many funerals, have you, Analicia?"
By dusk the party - consisting of Kuriakos (Teddy), Analicia, Horace, and Ursula, as well as their trusty steeds and their lone camel, Chanel - had arrived at the village of Kuth. As ever, the residents greeted them cheerily in their incomprehensible Kyran dialect, and showed the PCs back to their familiar barn. They feasted on spicy goat curries and flatbread, and slept on beds of straw.

7th Sositi
"You know, it would be appropriate for us to leave them some money, for their hospitality, I mean."

Teddy obviously had no idea that just a few nights ago, Ursula had paid for their short stay with an enormous ruby, leading to them being considered honoured guests for life. Unaware of local customs, Analicia acquiesced:

"Huh, I guess so... do you think three gold would be sufficient?"

"More than enough,I'm sure."

Definitely more than enough... don't worry, Analicia, I'm sure the gents will cover you next time...

And so the party began the trek southwards, towards the legendary Tomb of Bardol. Ursula estimated that they would arrive before dusk the following day, necessitating a short rest before they would begin a preliminary recce. She was not convinced the tomb would hold much for them: it was, after all, extraordinarily old and bound to have been looted and/or decayed beyond much more than curiosity value. The real prize, for Ursula, lay beyond, in the small mountain range overlooking the Ezran oasis: for there was the ancient Sunless Citadel.

Night fell. The party camped in the desert. Though the temperatures had dropped significantly, they were not otherwise disturbed.

8th Sositi

They part rose and immediately began to press on. Once again, they day passed without incident, but by nightfall they were still yet to arrive at the tomb. Ursula bid them to continue as they had already arrived at the foothills, and she was convinced the tomb was somewhere nearby. By torchlight she searched the brush, before happening upon a cleft in the exposed rock face of a hill. At the rear of the cleft two openings were found, emitting an eerie green glow...

Two narrow gaps at the back of the cleft open into a 15-foot wide corridor dimly lit by a flickering green light emanating from torches along each wall. The corridor extends 30 feet before opening into a larger chamber. Roughly 25 feet from the entrance, a second, smaller corridor branches off to the right. 

Stepping inside, Analicia narrowly avoided crushing the remains of a long-dead adventurer underfoot. Ursula began to poke him with her staff, uncovering a bone-white cylinder from within the remains of his rotten clothing. Taking a closer look, Horace revealed the cylinder to be some kind of scroll-holder, within which he found a map of the very tomb they were exploring:

Map adapted from Tomb of the Iron King by Paul Ste. Marie

Ignoring the peculiar green light spilling from the torches lining the walls, the party ventured to investigate the corridor sneaking away to the right, happening upon a granite slab where the map had indicated a door... Teddy was instructed to open it, but initially it would not budge... until he realised it was a sliding door, and the chamber beyond was revealed....
This 15-foot by 20-foot chamber is dominated by a large rectangular stone table in the center of the room. The tabletop is covered in large stains which seem darkest near a narrow groove etched along the tabletop’s edge. The table is tilted at a slight angle.  Broken pottery lay scattered about the room, much of it gathered into an oblong mound covered with scraps of cloth and straw. Near the debris, a flagstone has been pried from the floor and a crude firepit gouged from the earth below.  In an alcove set into the far wall, a door leads to another chamber.

Ursusla began to investigate the table, uncovering some intricate carvings - almost like hieroglyphics - etched into the stone. As she began to make rubbings with her papyrus and crayon, Analicia stumbled backwards into an enormous rat, which immediately retreated to the pile cloth and straw scraps, causing a terrifyingly skinny old man to emerge from his hiding place, clutching a human thigh bone as a club.

"You... need to go... don't stay here!"

The party attempted to press the bedraggled hermit for information, but he merely rambled about life and death and his own private search for truth. Analicia attempted to comfort him, but he told her he was fine as he was: mad, half-starved, staring death in the face.

"There is evil here, great evil..."

"Then why do you remain here?" said Horace.

"To stare it down, to feel it threaten my heart, to resist it, to come closer to oblivion."

Teddy whistled nonchalantly and began a cursory inspection of the door in the far alcove.

Ursula looked up from taking rubbings from the stone:

"What do you mean, evil?"

"The king, buried here - Bardol... an ancient one. As evil as he was in  life, so to he remains in life."

There was a pause, broken by Horace:

"What do you mean?"

"His ghost... still here... still here is his ghost..."

Teddy scoffed, but no-one else said a thing.

The door was slid open to a storage room, revealing:

This small chamber is littered with debris, the remains of two wooden shelves, their contents - various embalming oils and herbs - scattered among broken tools and the fragments of canopic jars.  

Analicia retrieved a vial containing some kind of tincture, which a quick sniff told her was probably a healing potion. Reaching inside one of the canopic jars that remained intact, she found the mummified heart of a long dead something or other... casting it aside, she addressed the group:

"Shall we investigate the rest of this place then?"

"Be warned: the door is sealed. It requires the password..."

"Which door?" 

"Burdinazko erregea"

"Bird neck oh ga ga ga?"

...but Horace knew the words, for they were in his tongue: Iron King. He looked at the table, which Ursula had deduced was an embalming table, for the treatment of corpses before they are laid to rest...or not, as the case may be... it was about large enough for a human man, but would be a tight squeeze... a dwarf, on the other hand, would fit the table nicely...

The entry corridor opens into a great hall 25 feet wide and extending back 55 feet. Three crumbling pillars support a high vaulted ceiling some 25 feet high.   Eight niches are evenly spaced along the walls: three filled with rubble and five that each hold a five-foot tall skeleton clad in rusting chain armor and holding a spear and shield. Rotting tapestries hang between the niches, whatever heraldry or scenes they once depicted faded away long ago.   The last 10 feet of floor rises in three broad steps to a dais stretching across the entire width of the hall. Two huge stone skulls stand atop pedestals in the rear corners of the dais. The eyes of the statues glow faintly with a reddish green light.

Horace went to a nearby niche to inspect one of the dwarven skeletons, Ursula to the sealed door the hermit had warned them about, and Analicia had climbed the steps to get a better look at the-

"Giant skulls with rubies for eyes!"

Ursula was not impressed by Analicia's find:

"Come on! Stop messing around! We're here to find historically significant artifacts, not loot the tomb!"

Analicia was already trying to prize one of the gemstones out with her bare hands. Teddy remained stationary, shaking his head in incredulity.

"I don't recognise the design of this armour at all," said Horace, "and it looks truly ancient!"

"That's very nice," said Ursula, "but can we get this door open now please!"

"Are you sure you don't want to have a look at these rubies, Ursula? They might be magical - see how they glow!"

Ursula spun around at mention of the word "magic" and almost sprinted over to her colleague.

"Really? They are glowing rather dramatically."

Analicia smirked a little as she removed the small hammer she'd found in the cellar of the Wizard's Tower brewery, and began to gently tap at the hilt of her dagger, the tip of which was wedged between the gemstone and the orbit of the huge skull sculpture's eye socket.

"Shouldn't take too much..."

With a single tap the ruby was released from its setting. This was followed by a clattering noise, startling Ursula greatly, but not enough to distract her from attempting to remove the other eye from the skull.

Analicia, on the other hand, was terrified. She beheld a sight that chilled her blood: one of the ancient skeleton had turned its head to stare straight at her, its right arm raised above its head, now bereft of the spear it had been holding. Unable to scream, she merely turned and fled. She tried to run as far away from it as possible, skipping down from the dais and across the room, but was immediately on the receiving end of a second spear, this time true to its mark, perhaps because it was thrust into her not thrown... the assailant was a second animated skeleton that had attacked her as she ran by it!

Still horribly afraid, Analicia stabbed wildly at the skeletal warrior with her dagger, missing completely.Horace had already run to her side, and with one fell swing of his mighty warhammer the skeleton was utterly obliterated, the rusted chain armour caving in along with most of its rib cage. Ursula is trying to remove the other gem. Oblivious to the chaos around her, Ursula was still trying to remove the second stone, when the first skeleton crept up behind her and smashed her over the head with each shield.

There were three further skeletons in the chamber, and one of them had already joined the fray, and again Analicia found herself wounded by an undead spear. The two remaining skeletons elected to attack Teddy: one in melee, the other launching its spear. Teddy was able to evade both attacks, and dispatched the minion that had been harassing Ursula with his scimitar. Three of the undead horrors remained

Trying to pull herself together, Analicia once again slashed and lunged at the third skeleton, but her shattered nerves rendered her attack utterly ineffective. The mage Ursula uttered some words of power, summoning three missiles of magical force and launching them at the foul undead beings. They swayed from the sheer power of the impact, but none were taken out of action. Horace's warhammer was not so true as it had been before, and his target was able to duck out the way of his low, before plunging its spear deep into Analicia's side. For the third time since arriving in the southern lands, Analicia dropped unconcious, fighting for her life.

The skeleton that had launched its spear at Teddy saw fit to deal with the dwarf that had previously annihilated its comrade: without any weapons, it threw itself at Horace and grappled with him, attempting to bite at his face. Analicia's last thought before she swooned into unconsiousness:

"I always said he'd look more handsome with a nose jo-"

The final skeleton charged at Teddy, and the two combatants exchanged blows with scimitar and spear respectively, though neither made any significant impact.

With Analicia clinging on for dear life, Ursula took steps to bring the encounter to the close. Yet again she conjured three magic missiles, yet again the skeletons reeled from the impact, weakened, but not yet slain. Horace escaped from the grapple, and Teddy's scimitars tore into the fifth skeleton, though again it remained on its feet. The three undead lashed out with spears and fists, but none of the three remaining were able to land a blow on Horace or Teddy.

Ursula drew her arcane focus from her pocket, and mumbled some equally arcane words of power. A molt of flame manifested at her fingertips, and with a determined flick of the wrist she hurled it towards the skeletons, though it sailed harmlessly overhead and fizzled out in a dim corner of the tomb. Horace uttered a prayer to his god, and with a gasp Analicia recovered from the brink of death, almost fully healed. Her would-be murderer focused its efforts on slaying her saviour, but Horace evaded its spear. He was less fortunate with the unarmed grappler, who once again threw its arms around him, gnashing with its ancient teeth.

"Hold on, Horace! I'll save you!"

Analicia drew her rapier from its scabbard and thrust it at the confusing mess of dwarf and skeleton currently locked in a wrestling match. She utterly missed the undead, but sadly pierced Horace's chest, puncturing his lung. Gagging up a plume of blood, the dwarf keeled over, apparently dead.

Teddy's scimitar decapitated his opponent, and sighting Horace collapsing in a bloody heap, attempted to cart wheel through the congested melee and finsish off the remaining opponent. Somehow he was caught on his own mail coat, and stumbled rather than tumbled through the fray, as finally Ursula was able to land one of her fire bolts. The skeleton was engulfed in flame, and fell to the ground in a flaming heap.

As Analicia tended to Horace, Teddy brought hos dual scimitars to bear on the remaining skeleton, eradicating it forever. Horace tasted the cool liquid of the healing potion soothing the hot blood in his throat, as he came back to his senses, still bloodied but not yet beaten.

Teddy surveyed the carnage: the remains of five dwarven skeletons, one of which was still alight, were scattered across the chamber, which was still suffused in a dim green glow from the peculiar torches on the wall.

"What the fuck just happened?"

"I know, right?" Ursula seemed almost excited. She began asking if she should take the remains back to the camel, for further investigation. No-one said anything. Teddy turned to Analicia:

"...and what were you doing to Horace?"

Analicia shrugged, meeting the incredulous stare of Teddy, but also the faint half-smile of Horace.

"I was only trying to help..."

"Well," said Teddy, "if you ever have the chance to help me... don't."

To be continued...

This episode featured an adaptation of Tomb of the Iron King by Paul Ste. Marie, available for download (pay what you want, suggested contribution $1) here

View the Crystal Seas Campaign Kill Chart!

Monday 11 March 2019


I recently completed a design-your-own pantheon challenge for the folks over at r/dndbehindthescreen. I'm not sure if I'm 100% happy with the outcome (I think I failed to make the pantheon sound original or even vaguely interesting!) but I was happy with the uh... metaphysics of it!

I'm making the pdf available here if you are interested, and it will be permanently available in the sidebar->

Sunday 10 March 2019


The following is a play through, of sorts - a solo adaptation of WotC fifth edition module Out of the Abyss. The purpose of this exercise is to attempt an ad hoc adaptation of exisitng content to a homebrew setting, whilst also investigating how much of this resources might be adaptable to my own campaign world. The module is available for sale at here.

Available to buy here 
There's no such thing as solo "play"... it's an exercise in writing, rather than a game, 
but that doesn't mean it can't be fun...

This shouldn't need saying but SPOILERS! RIGHT AHEAD!


Bao woke, his head buried in his manacled arms, upon the cold stone flor of the slave pen. How ling had it been? Perhaps four days, maybe more, maybe less. He was counting only the number of servings of broth he'd received, which he'd overheard one prisoner describe as "daily sustenance". He groaned in pain, his wounds from the bruising encounter that brought him were still sore. He wanted nothing more than to die.

<Looks like the pretty one is waking up> said a thick, female voice, speaking the language of the Gizaki.
<Pretty, huh. Maybe. Think the Mistress will take a shine to him>>
<Ha! Think he's skin is too colourful, wouldn't you say? look at that! it's like polished bronze, or gold even! You ever see such a thing?>
<Nope. Must be a southerner, Eldeth>

Bao winced. In spite of his discomfort, his self-pity, and his lingering injuries, he hated to be mistaken for anything other than what he was.

<I am NOT from the south, Gizaki; I am from the east.>

There was a long silence.

<Gods!> said the female named Eldeth <He speaks dwarven!>

There was a round of nervous laughter, first from Eldeth, before being joined by that of her partner, and then a few more chuckles joined the fray.

<He's been listening all along!>
<Hope he knows I didn't mean  any of that!>
<Hope he can take a joke!>

That nervous glee was short-lived, however, as a pale, angry elf rattled the bars of the slave pen's gate with his sabre:

"Quieten down in there, surface-dwelling scum!"

The prisoners obeyed immediately, falling into a hushed silence. As much as a minute had passed before anyone stirred, and again it was Eldeth. She had quietly sidled up to Bao, who had not yet lifted his face up from the dirt.

"You speak the dwarven tongue, boy, and you call us by our True Name. How is this so?"

Bao lifted his tired head and beheld the female for the first time. She did not look like the Gizaki he had met before: with her round, pale face and orange-coloured hair she looked more like a human westerner than. She even spoke their tongue, which they imperiously called "common", much to Bao's chagrin.

"Please," he said, "I speak the common tongue but inelegantly. I much prefer speaking with you as before."

<Very well, although it is odd for me to speak like this with a human. Tell me, do all of your people learn Hizkuntza, or were you taught to speak it by a dwarf?>

<Both, of course! said Bao, after some hesitation. he found the question confusing. It seemed Eldeth found his answer likewise. <That is to say, all my people - well, educated ones at least - learn Hizkuntza... it's the language of our liturgy. And of course, the best teachers are native speakers so->

<There are Gizaki - dwarfs - in your lands?>

<But of course? Why would->

Again, any further attempts at conversation were once again interrupted by the rattling sabre of the wan elven guard. 

"Right! You! You! And.... you! Come, you've got work to do!"

Automatically, Eldeth lifted herself up and headed towards the gate, alongside two even more diminutive creatures. The elf guard led them out, before locking the gate behind them.

Once more, Bao was alone with his thoughts, with his guilt. It was an odd comfort, this blanket of misery, but it was no more or less than he deserved. Had it not been for his own miserable shortcomings, he would not have found himself in such a pathetic situation... and were it not for his own failures, hos three companions might yet live. He rolled onto his back and released a pained groan.

"Don't worry, human. Plenty more pain where that came from."

Bao did not recognise the voice, but he did not care. It continued to taunt him, but its guttural, snarling interpretation of the western tongue could do him no worse injury than he had already caused himself. 

What had become of him? he wondered. What now for the eager apprentice, the disciple of battle, the warrior-poet, now that he was a prisoner, a slave? Better to have died: his critics would have been right about his "fighting style", but at least any doubts concerning his commitment would have been put to rest.

The taunting voice came at him again:

"So you only talk with dwarfs, is it? Don't like how I speak your tongue, ay human?"

This caught his attention. He brought his gaze to bear on the source of the voice, and beheld a hunched, muscular figure.

"Huh, that got your attention, did it boy?"

The creature's voice was a low growl. Bao tried to pick out more details in the dim light of the distant torches, but he new none. Bao was already weakened, and knew better than to pick a fight with an opponent about whom he knew nothing. He turned away.

"That's right, coward! Turn away! Run away just like-"

The words did nothing to Bao, but as he rolled over, he was shocked to hear a sudden, high-pitched squeal being emitted from a large, white mushroom:

"I'm... sorry?" he said, in spite of himself.

It's okay, people haven't been paying me much attention of late.

Bao did a double take. The voice had appeared, spontaneously, inside his own head, in response to his almost involuntary apology.

"I'm going mad..."

"Yeah you are!" said the snarling voice.

"Ten gold says he kills the mushroom before himself!" came another voice from the darkness, though Bao was not sure where. It was followed by laughter.

"I'll take that bet," said the voice who had been chatting in dwarven to Eldeth earlier. More laughter followed, and more voices. Bao merely covered his ears.

Don't be sad, they're just trying to make themselves feel better. Everyone's scared.... you're not mad, by the way.

The large mushroom seemed to be staring at him the entire time. He resisted a strong desire to answer the voice in his head with a direct, audible question to it.

I know, few surface-dwellers get to see my kind. We do live above sometimes, though. Hey, can I show you a secret? 

Bao had not removed his hands from his ears, but the voice ran clear and true in the space in between them. He watched in awe as the mushroom appeared to uproot itself, and walk away from him on two stalks. After a few steps, it seemed to turn around:

Well, are you coming or what?



Saturday 9 March 2019

THE CRYSTAL SEAS... Episode 4: The Palace of Prince Atembe

The Royal and Ancient City of Jehemen.
5th Sositi

The sun rose on a new day. Though the somber mood that had fallen since the death of Burzum still lingered, it was lightened somewhat by the task of naming the party's newly acquired mounts. Analicia grabbed the chestnut mare with the white muzzle, naming her Chà Bông (presumably a name from an ancient language). Despite its great size, the white stallion previously earmarked for Burzum proved a most suitable mount for Horace, and it was decided that he be named Skyler. Horace also named the pack-camel Chanel, owing to her fragrant odour. Ursula was left with the brown colt and the dappled-grey mare. She took the latter as her mount, naming it Nicemare. She also named the colt Knecht.

The party waved a solemn goodbye to the villagers of Kuth and began the long trek back to Jehemen. Unlike the outward trek, the journey home passed without incident... though there seemed to be more travellers than before. Upon arrival at the formidable Eastern Gate our heroes were greeted by a huge crowd, as guards seemed to be paying particularly close attention to those entering and exiting the city. The party approached the gate unperturbed.

Perhaps they should have been perturbed...

Still mounted, the party found themselves surrounded by a platoon of the Prince's guards armed with particularly long spears. It seemed they were on the lookout for a pale-skinned, blue-haired, antler-wearing elf, who apparently had attempted to sneak into the grounds of a noble house, then tried to lasso the guards at the gate...

Initially, Analicia attempted to make a break for it, but she was unable to control Chà Bông, who nearly threw her from the saddle. The guards closed in, speartips glistening in the orange light of the setting sun.

Analicia attempted to bluff her way out of it. Horace looked around for Ursula, but the yellow woman was nowhere to be found. The Captain of the guard was losing his patience. Enter Horace:

"As a cleric - a priest - of the All-Knowing One, the Iridescent Dragon, The Life-Giver, the...."

"Your god has no authority here. What happens within these walls is the responsibility of His Higness Prince Atembe. This is our jurisdiction."

The captain and the dwarf regarded one another for a few moments.

"The Prince is a fair  judge. You have my word your... companion will come to no harm as long as she cooperates."

The dwarf sighed. They were outnumbered nearly ten-to-one, and it seemed that Analicia was not protesting her innocence of the crime, rather that she had some right as a noble elf to be spared the indignity. He place his holy symbol around her neck.

"Take this."

Analicia was confused.

"What the hell am I supposed to do with this? I'm not into your Go-"

A brace of guards closed in on the elf-maid, and secured shackles to her wrists.

"This is an outrage! I should be carried like a princess, not led through the streets like a common criminal! If this was in Freeeport things would be very different! Just you wait until Donna Seraf-"

 Analicia was gagged and led away. The Captain continued to press Horace.

"Where are you staying?"

After some deliberation, it was agreed that Horace would pay a visit to the Shrine of the The Holy Order of the Knights of the Diamond Sigil, taking Burzum with him. He was escorted by a small retinue of guards, though he was not quite sure why. A red-haired man began walking in-step beside him:

"It's me."

The red-haired man had Ursula's voice, and was wearing Ursula's clothing.

"I'm going to follow Analicia and make sure she's okay."

The red-haired man disappeared into the crowd...

Horace, Knecht, Chanel, Skylar, Nicemare and Chà Bông arrived at an unassuming building in the heart of the temple district. They had traversed an area of immense poverty and suffering, where slum hovels rubbed up against the walls of palatial temples, the steps of which were thronged with the diseased and the dying. Horace sighed when he beheld the symbol of the Diamond Sigil - a dragon, wrapped around a gemstone - for though once it had signified focus on hope, he suddenly felt somewhat bereft. His escort of Royal Guards left him alone outside. Entrusting his mounts to the care of some street children, he entered the shrine.

An intimidatingly large woman stood before him. Though enrobed in the clothing of a cleric, she was tall and muscular, with a high forehead. Her cheekbones were sharp and her eyes bright and wide, the colour of amber, but her face was somehow... disturbing. Her teeth appeared to fight with each other for space in her mouth, with her lower canines protruding slightly from her bottom lip, as though she possessed miniature tusks. Horace was not entirely sure what humans were supposed to look like - he had already witnessed such variety- so he could not truly say if she were ugly or not. The woman seemed sure of her opinion concerning the dwarf:

Meerak, half-orc paladin. Original concept art by Justin Sweet, used without permission.
"Hello handsome. What can I do for you?"

The dwarf was unaccustomed to such informality from a fellow of the Order, so he fumbled his words for a minute before explaining he was a Brother Knight, and that he sought her assistance.

"Where's your holy symbol then?"

Horace winced. He had entrusted it to Analicia - for what? Good luck?

Over a cup or two of mint tea Sister Meerak filled Horace in on a little of the background. She explained that were Analicia a prisoner of the Merchants' Guards, she might have been able to assist Horace... but the Prince's own guard company were beyond her influence, fiercely loyal to the city's ruler. When Meerak asked about the status of Horace's "dead friend" she was dismayed to discover that it was Burzum, who had in fact been not only a former comrade-in-arms, but also her lover.

"Before I become a Holy Knight, I was a mercenary: like Burzum, I was a freed slave, repaying the debt of freedom as a soldier of fortune. All members of this order have their pasts, do they not?"


Meanwhile, Analicia was granted a tour of a far more salubrious side of the city. Crossing the noble district she had attempted to gatecrash but a few nights before, Analicia found herself being led to the vast gates of a huge palace. White, crimson-veined marble formed a four metre high perimeter fence, heavily manned by guards in polished silver armour, hoplites with horsehair plumes erupting from their silver helms. The gates opened to a huge garden, nestled within which was a white marble palace capped by a golden dome.

Ananlicia's jaw dropped for a moment, before remembering she found such ostentatious displays of wealth to be of poor taste... she would have done things very differently... nonetheless, the elf maid was grateful to be led into a private chamber, beckoned by servants to enjoy her first hot bath in weeks, and was then invited to re-clothe herself in either an elegant, ivory coloured gown, or the fine silk shirt and pants worn by the Prince's guardsman. Surprisingly, she opted for the more feminine of the two outfits, and was paraded into a vast, regal hall. A man sprinted from the far end of the hall, apparently having got out of a huge throne in order to do so, clasping his hands together gleefully.

"Ah ha! An elf!" cried Prince Atembe, gleefully, before becoming slightly downcast. "You.. you are a... female elf?"

"Can you not tell?"

"I don't know... I had heard rumours of these... androgynous elves... I was... curious... no matter!"

"Have you not met an elf before?

"Only one... extraordinarily beautiful, and very clever. An incredibly dangerous combination in anyone, but especially so in a woman..."

As they walked around the gardens, drinking elven wine, Analicia learned much about the eccentric man. Not yet thirty, yet a major political player, he was his father's youngest child, born to his least-favoured wife. When his father died, Atembe had to battle his stepmother, Jalawale, to secure the throne. His first royal decree was to have her beloved Royal Gardens torn up and re-landscaped. He had not exiled her, but wanted her to know he still held power over her.

"I don't even care for gardening. It's just that she loved it so much..."

"What do you love?"

"The sea. I love ships, sailing, strong, young men... but mostly, the sea itself."

The Prince went on to explain how he had served in the Royal Fleet for many years before he assumed the throne, and he missed it terribly. Managing his polity was proving to be more trouble than he had bargained for...


Back at the Shrine of the The Holy Order of the Knights of the Diamond Sigil, Horace pondered his next move. Sister Meerak had already sent word of Burzum's death, hinting that maybe she could get a group of her former comrades together and do something about the Analicia situation. But it would not be necessary. The dwarf heard the sound of a horse-drawn carriage pulling up outside.

Ursula's back in yellow!

It was the yellow woman.

"Uh... I was told you'd be here," said Ursula, abrupt as ever, "I sort of ran into one of our bosses..."

A stunning elf maiden, a little shorter than Analicia and with darker skin and hair, but somehow incredibly captivating to look at, strode into the room in a long red and black lace dress. She smiled brightly, fanning herself, as she addressed Horace:

"So: do you have your sword or hammer or shovel or whatever it is your people hit things with to hand?"

Horace stammered. The Lady sighed:

"You wish to help your friend, do you not?"

Horace nodded.

"Likewise. Analicia is very precious to me, both as a clan member and as an... investment. You need to come with me at once."

Rough sketch of Donna Serafina De La Vega

Meerak watched, dumbfounded, as Ursula and Horace filed neatly behind the exotic beauty, the party of three clambering into her carriage. Meerak shook her head, patting Burzum's corpse firmly.

"Well, my old mate, looks like we have a funeral to arrange."


Ursula and Horace witnessed the same scenes as Analicia during the approach to the palace: crowded, dusty slums gave way immediately to the palatial residences of Jehemen's upper echelons: wealthy merchants, foreign dignitaries, and the noble Jehemeni families all held not insubstantial parcels of land on the approach to Atembe's seat of power. The streets were paved with stone, and the walls were either brilliantly whitewashed stucco or even more brilliantly white marble. Stately sycamores cast deep, dappled, cool shadows across the streets, softening the albido effect caused by the incredible sun. The huge oaken gates were thrown open, and their carriage trotted up to the palace itself.

They did not have to wait long: barely had they alighted before the Prince and Analicia came into view, arm in arm, giggling wildly.

"But of course, I would have to kill you!"

"Hahahaha!" laughed Analicia..

"Stop laughing, I mean it, I hate sycophants. Who is this... I don't believe it... the woman I warned you about..."


"Mother!" said Analicia, upon sighting her mentor, Donna Serafina.

"You know each other?"

And so, mounting incredulity gave way to wine and song, as the party was reunited under the eaves of the home of Jehemen's most powerful man. Traditional music was performed by the Prince's court, followed by an enchanting song from Donna Serafina. Ursula mostly sat in silence, as Analicia - and to a certain extent, Horace - charmed their host.

Clarity was provided as to the purpose of their mission. Donna Serafina explained how important the whole of the south was to the north, and how the "historically sensitive" materials , if in the wrong hands, would cause havoc and chaos. The south was once the seat of a powerful empire that dabbled in even more powerful magic, the relics of which were scattered throughout the region.

Donna Serafina elucidated:

"And so we have a convergence of interests: the colleges, the Holy Order, and my own dear family - The Varanesi Elves - are all keen (perhaps for different reasons) that these artifacts are recovered and returned to the north were they can be... studied responsibly."

No-one was really sure what these artifacts were, nor how many of them there were, just that word was out and now there was something of a gold rush afoot. As an aside, Ursula explained that her interests were mainly historical, especially the history of languages, and that she had become a wizard ("Uh, actually I prefer the term magic-user...") almost by accident. She held no interest in arcane mastery, it was just a side effect of uncovering historical data. The Holy Order had offered Horace's services as they were keen that magic use in general not get too out of hand, preferring spellcraft and the like to be performed within a purely religious context, and then, mostly for healing purposes.

"Oh, I was terribly sorry to hear of your dead soldier," said Donna Serafina, "you really should get him replaced." She cast an expectant glance over at the already yawning Prince.

"How many men do you have?" said Horace.

"Well, let me see... we have at least 500 here, right now... not here here, but patrolling the city, manning the walls... of course, I have a garrison either side of the..."

He caught himself for a moment.

"Ha! Of course, I don't need to tell you my entire military structure, do I? If you need help, I can spare you ...." and for the first time, his handsome features contorted into a rather ugly sneer, "...the disgraced one... KAMATE UWALLA! D'GRISHU UNG BAT HUM!"

The Prince clapped his hands together,and an unassuming, if somewhat shamefaced guard presented himself before his Prince.

"Your highness."

"Here," said the Prince, not addressing the soldier directly, "is a man who was once my most trusted guardian. Now, he is disgraced."

Analicia's pointed ears pricked up:

"What's his name?"


The Prince practically spat the four syllables onto the floor.

"That's difficult to say," said Analicia, "can I call him Teddy?"

"He was a great fighter once, but he's no good to me now. Perhaps he can do some good for you."

An awkward silence descended, before the Prince erupted into a fit of laughter:

"In which case, bring him back to me!"

Laughter rang out, but the loudest laugh of all came from the Prince, and long did it echo into the night.


Friday 8 March 2019


I heard we're not supposed to call them dwarfs...

That's a human word, for human aberrations. Dwarfs are neither human, no aberrations. They have their own dwarfs, incidentally, which they call ipotch ("dwarf"), but us humans call gnomes...

They're not dwarfs, they're kizagu (person), they don't speak dwarvish they speak Hizkuntza (speech) and they write Idazketa (writing). They like to keep things simple. And pure. Racially pure...

They love gold though, right?

Yes and no. While humans and elves recognise that the Kizagu have an almost insatiable hunger for all that glitters, they do not do it to adorn their homes or craft fine jewellery (they are likely to do that with silver). Gold has deep religious and cultural significance, and they hoard it deep in the heart of their citadels. Those far-flung dwarven territories which remain have been all but depleted of their natural reserves, and the only reason dwarfs trade with humans is so that they can continue to bolster their legendary coffers.

There is a good reason for this of course...

...they're collecting them for ancient, sleeping dragons that live in the heart of every clan stronghold?

Uh... what? Wherever did you get such a crazy idea from! As we all know, dragons have been extinct for millennia! Admittedly, the Kizagu are considered to have originated during the reign of the dragons, and according to elven legends, dwarfs once rode on the backs of dragons in their war with the giants... and, of course, said dragons were rumoured to have created the dwarfs in order that they could mine the gold they craved in order to fuel their inter-planar ambitions...

...but such talk is mere speculation! There is no real evidence dragons existed at all, let alone remain hidden in the hearts of Kizagu strongholds buried deep beneath ancient mountains!

What about those little dragon-men merchants talk about?

You mean those travellers' tales of diminutive reptiles walking on their hind legs, carrying short swords and speaking Hizkuntza? Kobolds? Fairy tales to make dwarfs seem more magical than they really are! Kobolds certainly are NOT a part slave/ part pet race created by dwarfs to look after their sleeping dragons...

That's disappointing! You'll be telling me the dwarf-maids don't have beards next!

Another overstated phenomenon. Perhaps dwarf maids might be statistically a little hairier than human women (and good luck getting hold of those statistics), but most females are not capable of growing anything like the impressive beards which males wear as a sign of status, so they do not try. However, elder females usually fasten or braid their long hair at the chin, creating a weak illusion of facial hair, and a significant symbol of sage (and thus status) within dwarf society.

Dwarven society is relatively equitable in terms of gender. Obviously females carry and give birth to all children, but child-rearing duties are shared between couples. Raising a child is seen as one of the five parts of eginbahar (duty) and is known as erditza to both males and females, even though the same word is used for the act of childbirth itself.

Beards and hair are very important. Dwarfs consider it a crime to cut hair, neither should it be washed in anything but water. Dwarfs that are ostracised or otherwise expelled usually endure the ritual of having their face shaved. It can take such a long time to grow back that a dwarf might not be permitted to rejoin society that for many decades.

A dwarf with no beard? Well I never!
You've probably met more than you realise. A dwarf with no beard looks like a short, stocky human. Of course, they carry with them the weight of millennia of dwarven culture, which some suspect is what makes them so stooped in stature in the first place.

The weight of dwarven culture? Go on...
The Kizagu life is one of duty: to their dragon-gods, to the Kizagu "nation", to their clan, and lastly to their family. There is no place for individuality, it being seen as an immature state all must pass through before realising their own significance in place of the greater goal of the dragon-gods.  Before turning fifty, each Kizagu embarks on bidaia (voyage)-

Shut the front door! Dragon-Gods?
Oh, sorry... I mean... gods. There is NO connection between the Kizagu and dragons, I assure you!

Well okay then! You were talking about bidets or something?
Bidaia. It means voyage. Each dwarf must go on this in order to sow any wild oats, get any lingering doubts out of the system and to see some of the world before hunkering down for a couple of centuries engaged in repetitive, constant labour with no end in sight apart from death. Most Kizagu will travel around their immediate locale for a year or two, sharing their craft skills as a journeymen. A few will venture a circuit around the whole nation, perhaps picking up an entirely new trade. Rarest of all, a young dwarf of certain pluck might even go so far as to venture into the world of humans. Most come back fairly quickly.

Like a rumspringa
Exactly like that. Please understand that for most Kizagu it is a harrowing experience, even if they spend the entirety of their "voyage" in a neighbouring village. The majority of Kizagu are incredibly conservative. Even Kizagu notions of individuality would seem bizarre to a human, and go so far as having a meal at a slightly earlier time than usual, or arriving late for an appointment, or not wearing a hood over one's head when outside.

Dwarves don't really have an internal monologue. Instead, they experience a kind of logos - a guiding consciousness that speaks to them and directs their actions. It is perceived as being the voice of their clan dragon family NOT-dragon god. Mental illness, in dwarf culture, is NOT hearing voices.

So they're all automatons?
Not at all. Though they are slow to react, dwarfs have strong emotions and form attachments that last centuries. They feel love for their people and family, fear for the security of their borders, and hope for the future of tthe Kizagu and their sleeping dragons. The voice they hear is their own consciousness, but they are detached from it, much like early humans are suspected to have been.

Dwarfs which experience this inner voice as though it were their own, however, are the ones least comfortable in dwarf society. Maybe only 1 in every 1,000 births are afflicted by this "illness", and these are the ones most likely to leave dwarven society permanently. Curiously, this afflicts nearly all the ipotch (gnomes), which is why they form their own communities outside of the Kizagu realms.

Those dwarven mercenaries in the north: they're all crazy?
By human standards, I don't know, but in the Kizagu culture these people are perfectly normal. These are not individuals who have rejected dwarven society, but are completing one of the six duties of dwarf life: zerbitzu (service). Dwarven mercenaries earn good money for their clans, which they take in the form of gold. They usually return to their homes after a year or two.

Of course, many of the dwarves employed in this way become progressively more outgoing and boisterous, using alcohol as a coping device for life outside their clan strongholds. This behaviour is not "normal" by Kizagu standards, although it has created a popular misconception of dwarfs as ale-swilling tavern-hounds. Alcohol is restricted to ceremonial uses only, and is ironically utilised in a very sober fashion

Anything else I should know?
As befitting a people who live for several centuries and spend their entire lives working with their hands, Kizagu craftsmanship exceeds nearly all human efforts, and thus commands a high price. If you are willing to make the trek into the highlands, you can pick up masterwork items for a very low price, as long as you pay in gold. Do not expect to receive a warm welcome, however: you will be sequestered in a utilitarian building and contact with other dwarfs will be strictly monitored. The Kizagu regard all foreigners as mildly contaminated, and some clans even don ceremonial robes (similar to those worn during funerary rites) when dealing with outsiders. Legends of rambunctious great halls and free-flowing ale are pure mythology.

Some dwarves venturing beyond their borders do so as part of their zerbitzu, and not just as mercenaries. Many are archaeologists attempting to recover lost dwarven knowledge in abandoned cities and strongholds of yesteryear. Some are slayers, travelling across the wilderness in search of the ancestors of their ancient enemies, the giants.

Dwarves do not eat mud and rocks, they have similar nutritional requirements to humans. The lower foothills are home to rice paddies situated in artificial terraces or steps, and represent the main source of carbohydrates. Meat is rare, and consists of yak or mountain goats, which are herded. Most of their protein is grown in the form of special fungi, tended to by their kobold slaves mushroom farmers.

Kinda interesting, but I was hoping you'd tell me about the legend of the golem...
Well this has never been verified, and may just be xenophobia on the part of humans... but their is a particularly unsettling myth that persists amongst humans about their dwarven cousins, and that is of the golem.

It is said that each dwarven child is presented with a clay effigy of themselves at birth, which they keep about their person all through childhood. When they embark on their bideia, it is placed in the vaults of their clan until they return. The returning dwarf is then supposed to present the effigy simple gifts of metal and precious stones from its journey. The effigy is augmented each year, on the anniversary of the dwarf's return, with souvenirs of the dwarf's experience. Usually these are simply pieces of clay or stones.

When a dwarf dies, they are buried in a sarcophagus guarded by the figure they have been building since childhood. Legend says that the dwarf's spirit sleeps inside this golem - which by now is nearly as big as an ogre - and in times of great distress, these golems can be animated by dwarf magic. Thus, alongside their armies of hammer-and-axe-wielding berserkers and troll-slayers, there is a sleeping horde of giant-sized clay-and-metal golems equal in number to every dwarf that has ever died.

Of course, it's probably just a myth...