Friday, 31 May 2019

Level Zero - Nobles & Gutternsipes

Every city at some point in its history, upon reaching a certain size, comes to realise its most tragic feature is the vast number of dirty, poorly behaved, terribly educated children occupying its streets and causing more than merely minor mischief. There is no romance to their often all-too-short lives, for theirs is a lot of unrelenting suffering: a daily battle for survival in an unforgiving landscape. 

The city of Tethis, nearly 900 years since the collapse of the once-great empire, was at that point in its history: swollen and cracked from corruption, teeming with hordes of unwashed urchins. These children formed their own gangs or tribes... some even assembled murderous cults of personality, and launched holy crusades against rival factions.

The question for which no-one had an answer was where the children had come from. Myths abounded, of course, ranging from the unlikely (they are all the bastard children of the House of Thrane) to the absurd (they are really rats assuming human form). The prosaic truth would never be accepted, by virtue of the mirror it held up to all of Tethis' citizens: these were all children who had been abandoned by, or fled from, families who were incapable of raising them. What's more, the culture they had developed was tacitly encouraged by some of the less scrupulous merchant families: some of the children's' gangs helped to run racketeering and smuggling on their behalf ,as well as supplying fences with reliable goods. Some of those merchant families, though lowly in status, were rich in coin, and they were cunning enough to keep the status quo in place.

Kob had grown up on Tethis' streets but was a teenager now. It was time to think about his future. Sure, he'd made it this far on his own wits, but he had wits enough to know that it was more luck than anything else. And he was grateful for it, too: his profile had been low enough that neither the guard nor the merchants knew his name. Neither renown nor notoriety interested him.

"Once they know who you are, they own you."

Friday, 24 May 2019


When I read through the D&D 5th edition basic rules at the start of this year I was especially pleased to see the role hit dice played in character recovery. Perhaps it was because it fitted succinctly with the notion I had of hit points representing "combat stamina" rather than physical wounds: characters were able to recover their stamina between encounters by resting, but were limited by the number of hit dice they possessed.

All the damage dice used by a 20th level rogue making a sneak attack
When characters level up, their hit dice increase too, thus increasing their max HP... but also their powers of recovery. Characters spend hit dice to recover HP during short rests, and while character hit points are fully restored after a long rest, the character only regains half their total number of hit points. Hit dice are thus a renewable resource that has to be managed, and while I think the fifth edition rules-as-written for rest and recovery are generous, this concept inspired a few ideas.

Trial by Combat

Following some musings on death and dismemberment it was time to have a little play around with the rules in a live situation. It was also the chance for my friend to get some tabletop action, as he's unable to play in our regular campaign at the moment. So I rolled 3d6 36 times and generated six totally random characters for some arena conflict. I used a standard BECMI character sheet (from the red box) and followed the simple character creation steps from the Rules Cyclopedia (roll stats, then choose class). We ended up with a pleasantly random array: 2 fighters, a magic user, an elf, a cleric and a thief. They were all jacked up to second level to give the casters a bit more to do, and all but the mage and the thief were kitted out in plate.

Combat was going to follow the resolution mechanic of basic, but using the initiative-action-reaction of fifth edition (character base speed is 30', characters can make attacks of opportunity). This was to be an arena battle to the death between two teams of three, with the player getting first pick of which characters to use. Scenario one was to use the death/dying mechanic from standard 5th edition rules (at 0hp, players are unconscious and must make 50/50 death saves each turn).

DIY: WELCOME TO THE OCTAGON (yes, that is supposed to be a pit in the centre of the arena)
Following 5e initiative, each combatant rolled individually and a turn sequence established. Team Good Guys (consisting of the thief, magic-user, and cleric) made some cautious movements to re-position themselves. Team Not-So-Good Guys (consisting of two fighters and an elf) went in for the kill. In the first round a big guy with a big sword tore a chunk out of the cleric, while the combination of the elf's magic missile and the other fighter's longsword dropped the thief down to 0 HP, and the first save was made (two more positives and he stabilises, three more and he's out). Last in the initiative order, the magic-user unleashed sleep.

Now, we were using a bit of a mash-up of systems, and had made the decision to use the BECMI spell descriptions without really looking too much into it. Sleep affects 2d8 hit dice of combatants within a forty foot square, who are sent into a magical sleep for 4d4 TURNS (that's old-school turns kids: forty to 160 minutes!) with NO SAVE. The entire opposing team (and also the cleric) were knocked out, leaving the magic-user to go around and stab everyone.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

WHY MEN AND WOMEN WORSHIP WYVERNS wyverns we mean dragons, of course: it's just hard to resist the lure of alliteration.

The short answer is, of course, that dragons represent something terrible and awesome and unfathomable, which is as close a description of a god as one could make. The fact remains, however, that no human has ever laid eyes on a true dragon (unless of course you include the ancestors of the Varanesi and Hylemesi among the humans, as the scholars of the New College do, but then they don't believe in dragons). Humans inherited the belief in these terrible lizards from the kizagu, whose veneration of the mythical wyrms is well documented.

Saturday, 18 May 2019


The mechanics of death are as good a place as any to start with any hack of an existing RPG system where combat is an important aspect. Most old school hacks and retroclones are quick to emphasise the lethality of their system in comparison with modern iterations of the world's most popular ttrpg. High risk of character death encourages more role-play, lateral thinking, and other indirect approaches to obstacles in the characters' path.

Before I layout what I want to do with our house rules, I thought it might be wise to reiterate how player death and injury is handled in a few existing systems and their "hacks"

Friday, 17 May 2019


Why Cantraps?
It's a variant spelling of cantrip, and the one used by Jack Vance in The Dying Earth, so why not.

When I arrived very late to the 3rd edition party Cantrips struck me as a surprising addition. My previous experience having only extended so far as the fabled Rules Cyclopedia of BECMI, I was accustomed to magic users starting out with the power to memorise and cast just one spell each day. 3rd edition provided wizards with a similar power to cast one first level spell/day, but this was augmented by the power to prepare up to 3 cantrips, any of which could be cast an unlimited number of times each day.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Level Zero - Acolyte & Slave

The staff came down with such force across the old man's bare back that it broke in two: a piece of the shaft was sent hurtling into the distance before clattering on the ground, the only sound in the courtyard. The old man lay motionless on the floor as the assembled crowd held their breath. 

For a moment it seemed as though the guard would be satisfied with this punishment: it had been a minor slight, after all, and the offence had been met with exacting force. Davit mouthed a silent prayer for it to be true, for this to be it, for the guard to walk away and leave the once proud old man to wallow in his humiliation. But he knew the look in the guards maddened eyes. His prayers were not going to be answered

Davit turned his face away, locking eyes for a moment with the young woman from the temple. Her narrow, dark eyes fell to the floor in shame. As the guard began to bring down blow after blow upon the prone form of the old man, the young acolyte took a step forward. Davit gripped her upper arm, imploring her not to intervene. She was no ordinary slave like he - she was a Mekonini, a temple had - but she was not immune to the summary justice of the temple's guardsman.

The young woman's name was Aia, and she had been raised in the service of the city's priests. At twelve she was deemed to be of sufficient devotion to merit formal induction as an acolyte of the goddess Ishka. On her seventeenth birthday, just weeks ago, she was ordered to travel to the site of a new temple under construction on the outskirts of the city. Her initial ecstasy upon witnessing the sublime scale of the project was soon to be subsumed by guilt, as she came to understand the extent of human misery necessitated by such grandiose undertakings.

Aia had been without an ally when she first began to experience this crisis of faith, but the slave Davit had been of some comfort her. Now, his hand still clasping her arm, she realised she wanted nothing more to run away with him, to flee the nightmare into which she had casually meandered.

The guard had not relented. Aia had hoped that sooner or later he would, and she  would be able to tend the old man's wounds. But there was heard no sign of this happening now, and she dared not look for fear of what she might behold.

Leave this place

The voice was not her own, yet it had come from within her own thoughts. She glanced up at Davit, who did not seem to have heard anything.

Take him with you. Tonight. Leave this place.

The acolyte felt a new strength rising in her blood. She turned away from the miserable scene unravelling in the grounds of an unconsecrated temple, and taking Davit by the hand, led him to a shaded corner.

"We're leaving."

Aia's voice was firm, immovable.



* * *

Backgrounds for the Realms of the Indigo River:

    Bariya (slave)

  • Your hit die is 1d4
  • You have four hit points +/- your constitution modifier
  • Rolls 4d4 for each stat, no swaps
  • Pick one skill appropriate for your highest stat: this represents your slave profession or trade
  • Role 1d12 to determine the weapon that you stole when you escaped. You do not have competency with this weapon.
    1. Club
    2. Club
    3. Club
    4. Staff
    5. Staff
    6. Staff
    7. Sling
    8. Sling
    9. Sling and club
    10. Bronze dagger
    11. Sling and dagger
    12. Shortsword
  • Your only other possessions are 1d10 copper coins, a set of clothing appropriate to your trade/craft and one of the following (roll 1d8):
    1. A holy symbol
    2. A full wineskin
    3. Five days worth of (stolen) iron rations
    4. A cameo of an ancestor
    5. A gold coin
    6. A platinum coin
    7. Roll once on the trinkets table (5e PHB)
    8. Roll twice on this table; ignore this result and repeats
  • You're free now. Go! Live your life.

    Mekonini (temple hand)

  • Your hit die is 1d4
  • You have four hit points +/- your constitution modifier
  • Rolls 4d4 for each stat in order, but swap the highest score for wis or cha
  • Knowledge of religion and one other (suggested: literature, history, arcana)
  • Possessions: common clothes, ceremonial robes (lowest degree), bronze knife, some holy item, d6 silver coins +d10 copper
  • Your possess one of the following items(roll 1d8):
    1. A healer's kit
    2. A full wineskin
    3. Ten days worth of (stolen) iron rations
    4. A cameo of an saint/god/demon
    5. 1d6 gold coins
    6. 1d4 platinum coins
    7. Roll once on the trinkets table (5e PHB)
    8. Roll twice on this list, ignore this result and anyrepeats
  • You have forsaken your temple, which makes you either an apostate or a heretic. Which one is it?

Tuesday, 14 May 2019



Currently we're running a 5e sandbox campaign in the homebrew world of the Crystal Seas. The setting was conceived as a low magic, sword and sorcery environment in which PCs scoured the wreckage of several ancient civilisations for magical artefacts, either for their own use or to sell to the highest bidder. 

Such a setting and tone would, at face value, best suit an old school system, but the players had already invested some time in familiarising themselves with the free basic rules of fifth edition, so we kicked off the campaign with that rule set. It's been a lot of fun so far, and I hope to continue exploring the world with this group. However, eight sessions in and I'm beginning to think how different this campaign would be with a few modifications to the rules (I believe it's popular to use the term "hack" these days, though for some reason that trend upsets me).


There are some elements I really enjoy about 5th edition: 
  • Combat: especially action/reaction and bonus actions; grid-based tactics
  • The advantage/disadvantage mechanic
  • Streamlining of ability scores, saving throws and skills
  • Ascending armour class
  • Proficiency bonuses
  • Lair actions and legendary actions for certain monsters
  • Spending hit dice to restore HP
  • Ritual spellcasting
Some elements I'm not so keen on:
  • Powerful cantrips
  • Number of classes and subclasses/archetypes: there seem to be a lot
  • Feats (although this is an optional rule)
  • Rapid level progression early on
  • HUGE number of hit points
  • Availability of magic (every class can cast spells, if certain choices are made)
Some elements about which I'm ambivalent:
  • Backgrounds. They're good for helping the player come up with character ideas, and it's nice how they tie in to proficiencies, but the consequent flaws and traits etc. take up a lot of space on the character sheet.
  • Short rests. I like the spending of hit dice to regain HP, but for some class features (arcane recovery; warlock spellcasting), short rests can lead to a devaluation of magic.
Some things I'd like to add:

  • randomised magical effects during spellcasting
  • hit point caps
  • 0-level characters
  • Wounds and serious injuries

Inspired by Giffyglyph's Darker Dungeons  we've made a few amendments to how death, rest and recovery are handled but nothing too extreme. However, at this stage further adjustments will start to upset the continuity of the campaign, and an itch persists that wants scratching.

Consequently, and mainly as a thought experiment, I'm working on my own amendments (to throw on the pile of other hacks), but attempting to more fully ground it in the setting.

Posts concerning this project will be tagged O5R


Arnold Kemp's GLOG, the most interesting, idiosyncratic and inspirational B/X homebrew there is
Five Torches Deep, a 5E/OSR hack
A mashup of B/X D&D and 5E by u/DataL0r3
The very healthy and active OSR subreddit r/OSR
The largely inactive 5e/OSR subreddit r/dndO5R
The sub concerning Giffyglyph's Darker Dungeons r/darkerdungeons5e

Monday, 13 May 2019


The following content borrows heavily from the 5e update for The Sunless Citadel, available in Tales from the Yawning Portal. There will be spoilers, although the module has been adapted for our Crystal Seas Sandbox. If you intend to play The Sunless Citadel, please look away now!

10th Sositi

The party were woken by their new guide, Zadu, before dawn had broken. Making their way to the south bank of the lake at Okraha, they found their mounts as they'd left them: tethered to individual posts with a healthy supply of grasses and seeds. Between the mounts, the servants of Belphegor slumbered in black heaps, apparently oblivious to the powerful stench of animals and their dung.

By the time the sun had risen, the party were already marching southward across the desert. Ursula explained the purpose of their journey: to explore the sunken citadel, a temple complex located in the Blue Mountains of the Ezran oasis. Apparently it dated back to the age of the Aniasi - the elven civilisation preceding the humans of the southern continent. Zadu knew his way their as he had already led Dr. Maus and his party back from there previously. Apparently, a third party had already ventured there, and Maus had been scheduled to rendez-vous with them, although details were sketchy...
Chanel in the Desert of Tears
Throughout the day, Zadu would occasionally scamper over dunes tyo scout ahead, or bid them remain still when an unusually large silhouette would appear in the clear sky, but the day otherwise passed uneventfully. At night, Zadu would prepare camp, and secured it with Kuriakos' assistance. 

11th Sositi

Horace and Analica continued their journey to the Blue Mountains through the Desert of Tears, towards the Sunken Citadel. Ursula was beginning to look a little pink, in spite of her best efforts to keep the sun off her skin. At night, Bolg snored loudly.

12th Sositi 

Rising in the morning, the group were able to spy low moutain range emerging on the southwestern horizon. By midday the ground had begun to ascend towards the peak, and Zadu had made out the traces of an ancient road, leading into the mountains. By mid-afternoon that same road had cut into a ravine within the mountains, and the party continued in the shadow of its high stone walls. 

Presently, they arrived at a larger rift within the rift, flanked by a series of ancient, crumbling marble pillars. A rope was tethered to one of the pillars, leading down into the rift. Zadu and Bolg set up camp at the top, while one by one Kuriakos, Horace, Analicia and Ursula descended into the darkness. The rope brought them to a broad ledge, from which emanated a switchback series of stairs. In the darkness, they could just make out the outline of a vast fortress: the sunken citadel.

The fortress had all but sunken into the bedrock, but across the crumbled remains of an ancient courtyard, a circular tower loomed housing a wooden door. Boldly - recklessly - Analicia bounded forward, triggering a pit trap that opened up just beneath her. Dropping ten feet, Analicia's lightning reflexes enabled her to catch he edge of the pit. She gently lowered herself down, discovering the bodies of two creatures similar in stature to Dr. Maus' assistants mouldering in the trap. One was relatively fresh, the other was but a pile of bones. She looted the corpses and scrambled from the pit.

Somewhat more cautiously, the party edged their way around the pit and eased open the wooden door into the circular tower. Four corpses in the advanced stages of decay, closely resembling Dr. Maus' assistants, littered the scene, as though they had been slain in battle. Kuriakos studied one closely: it possessed a bold head, fanged mouth and large eyes and ears but was otherwise humanoid.

"Orok." said Kuriakos, although these creatures did not resemble the Oroks they had met in Jehemen at all.

There were no items on the bodies.

Continuing onward, the party ventured through the southwestern door, opening up into a twenty foot wide hallway. Crumbling masonry and rubble littered the southern extremity, whilst a single door stood closed on the western wall. Ever intrepid Analicia cautiously prodded the rubble with her rapier, only to be surprised by a giant rat, which sprang up and made a futile attempt to chew of her face.

Caught momentarily off guard, Analicia equivocated long enough for Ursula to eradicate the vermin with a mote of fire flicked from her finger tips. Analicia was able to cast aside her embarrassment, however, when her skills with the thieves tools were put to work on the sealed door on the west wall. An ancient enchantment powered the magical mechanism, but even this seemed no match for her nimble fingers, and with a resounding *click* the door was opened.

There was an audible hiss and a puff of dust as the door opened into an ancient chamber. A mouldering, ancient odour wafted up to their nostrils. On the north wall were mounted three shattered crystal spheres, whilst a single,l intact sphere sat on a pedestal in an alcove on the south wall. Ursula approached the sphere, gingerly, but as soon as she was within five feet of the object, an eerie music sounded. For a moment a peculiar feeling of submission washed over her, but she snapped out of her moment of reverie, too late to realise that her three companions were already under the influence of a cruel magic, and were wandering mindlessly from the chamber.

Ursula called out after them, but to no avail. They drifted back through the crumbled hallway, back through the ruined tower, and out through the door through which they had entered...

Straight into the pit trap by the door.

There was a sickening crack as they fell ten feet into the pit below, but the enchantment was sufficient to mask the pain they would otherwise have felt. Lying in a broken heap on the floor Horace, Kuriakos and Analicia were happy to remain, blissfully intoxicated by the magical music.

Fortunately for them, Ursula came to their rescue, smashing the crystal sphere and freeing them from the charm. Groggily, the three adventurers scrambled out of the pit, tending their wounds as best they could. Though the hour was already late, they were determined to press on, and uncovered a further chamber, opening up into a musty, twenty-foot long corridor.

No sooner had Analicia set foot in the chamber than a huge crossbow bolt was launched from the wall, piercing her chest. She collapsed to the floor, dying in a pool of her own blood. Horace sent Kuriakos in to retrieve her body, and fortunately he was able to use the power invested in him by his Holy Order to arrest the advance of death. Horace's magic healed the elven maid, not for the first time bringing her from death's door. Tired and wounded, STILL our intrepid heroes pressed ever onward.

After disabling the trap with the last of their iron petons, the group cam into an ornate chamber dominated by a ten-foot tall statue of a dragon, carved from white red-veined marble. Between the knowledge of Ursula, and the backgrounds of Horace and Analicia, the three of them surmised that this citadel was the work of both the ancient Aniasi elves, but an older dwarven civilisation, perhaps the Iron Kings they had previously plundered. 

Their tentative investigations were interrupted when they came too close to the statue: this time, however, it was no trap, but a magical enchantment. The staue's lips began to move, and it issued the following words:

Arribem de nit, sense ser convocats
Desapareixem de dia, sense ser robats.
Què som?

Gauez etorri gara. Inork ez digu deitzen.
Goizean igaro gara.  Inork ez digu lapurtu.
Zer gara?

In high elven and dwarven respectively, it had said:

We come at night without being summoned,
we disappear by the morning without being stolen.
What are we?

In spite of their poor history with riddles, it was not long before they were able to respond with "stars" in their native tongues, revealing, once again, a secret door in the west wall...

This time, Analicia was not the first to enter. Kuriakos sprang forth, as their somewhat indentured servant, drifting around the room and yelling back his discoveries. The ornate hall was grand in design, and featured several statues of honourable elven knights, carved from the same red veined marble as the dragon statue. All was covered with a thin film of dust, like a layer of snow, but the dust had been disturbed more recently. At the back of the hall, a set of three-toed footprints led to the edge of an open pit, filled with spikes, before vanishing.

Across from the pit sat an enormous sarcophagus, carved in the likeness of a dragon. Kuriakos gave the all clear, and the party entered. The usually flippant Analicia felt overcome by solemnity in this tomb of her ancestors, and reverently paid her respects at each of the ancient elven statues. Horace was somewhat suspicious, for he immediately recognised the chamber as being of dwarven design... why then such elven adornments?

Kuriakos and Horace decided to make their way to the sarcophagus by climbing into the pit, edging their way around the three-foot spikes, and then scrambling up the other side. THere was enough space for them to do this two at a time, so Analicia and Ursula waited. As Kuriakos offered a hand to assist Horace, there came an eerie, almost demonic chuckle, and a bizarre, three-foot tall creature sprung from behind a column and began to attack Kuriakos.

Kuriakos was monetarily caught off guard, but sustained no serious damage from the attack, and immediately set about slicing u the monster with his scimitars. He managed to inflict a nasty gash across the creature's chest, which issued a font of foul-smelling, black blood. The creature muttered some infernal curse, before transforming into a bat. It flew into the rafters, laughed that same, demonic chuckle it had done moments before, and then vanished.

Horace and Kuriakos stood their ground for a moment, bracing themselves for a further attack. None was forthcoming. Analicia and Ursula joined them on the other side, and the party resumed their exploration.

The lid of the sarcophagus was bound with several heavy straps, but with Analicia investigating the south wall, there was nobody around to undo the bonds through wit alone. Instead, Kuriakos and Horace began to use brute force, as Ursula looked on, holding the burning torch. All three were oblivious as their elven colleague unveiled a hidden trapdoor, and slipped into a tiny passage way, leading her back into the main hall on the other side of the spiked pit.

"Hey everyone! It's me! I'm over here!"

The party were unmoved, for they had just broken the 3,000 year seal on an ancient tomb, and following a flash of blue light, witnessed the awakening of an ancient creature. Emaciated and worn, and dressed in the raiments of an elven priest, the creature was nonetheless unmistakable to Horace: here was a being of legend, that had plagued his people since the dawn of time.

It was a troll.

To be continued...  

Monday, 6 May 2019

THE CRYSTAL SEAS... Episode 7: Into Okraha

"Are we there yet?"

The journey from the ancient tomb of the so-called Iron King to the village of Okraha had taken a little longer than previously anticipated. With the sun slowly shifting from before them to behind, it was not until it had almost sunk below the western horizon that they glimpsed the Okraha Oasis, distantly glistening in its dying light.

The party scrambled down a rocky gorge which seemed to lead down towards the small lake, around which the "village" of Okraha was arranged. In reality, the village was little more than a scattering of scores of tents, arranged in three distinct groups. On one side various figures clothed in white drifted between the tall palms fringing the lake's banks, their fires for the evening. On the other, a less homogenous group of travellers likewise prepared their camps for the evening. The furthest shore seemed to accommodate the animals of the first group, tended by dark figures in dull-coloured robes.

Before approaching, the lake, however, the party rounded a corner and were surprised to be greeted by a group of four smiling acolytes, clothed in sky blue tunics tied off at the waist with lengths of gold cord. Two youthful men and a woman shared the dark skin and handsome features of the people of the desert, but the fourth figure shared none of these characteristics: the figure had skin the colour of scarlet, bright white pupil-less eyes and two ibex-like horns extending from its head.

The three northerners immediately halted; only the native, Kuriakos, continued, albeit slowly. He spat on the ground, muttering the word Iblisi.

Urusla lent into Analicia's ear and whispered: "I think it means devil."

The group were smiling, unarmed, an appeared to be offering the party various gifts. They continued to approach, though imitated Kuriakos' caution. As they drew closer they suddenly realised they were in the presence of a great monument: so distracted had they been by the unusual creature before them, they had completely failed notice the looming statue behind it, carved directly into the cliff face.

Horace recognised the statue as Ishka, one of the many "old" gods worshipped in the south. She was a goddess of fertility, of love, and of water... but also a goddess of vengeance, lust, and the wanton destructive energy of the ocean.

The devil-creature approached, smiling broadly and with open arms beckoning them.

"Greetings, travellers!"

All could now recognise that this creature, while not human, possessed many female characteristics, and her voice was as gentle and sweet as a young woman's. She was accompanied by one of the young men, naked from the waist up, his shaven head dressed with a golden headdress. He proffered a silver platter, upon which lay several pomegranates cut into pieces.

All but Kuriakos partook of this exotic fruit, and were delighted that each piece contained scores of juicy arils, which were the finest any of them had ever tasted. The devil-creature introduced herself as Tyr, and her companion as Bartolemiu. Tyr invited the party to drink and wash themselves at the spring issuing from the feet of the statue, which they did gratefully. She explained

"We humbles servants of Ishka maintain the shrine at this spring. The spring feeds the lake, and thus the oasis that surrounds it. It was once a quiet place, but as you can see, it is a welcome break for many travellers."

The acolytes explained that although the communities were transitory, they nonetheless coalesced into three distinct camps. The white-robed travellers were humans of Kyran ancestry, desert nomad followers of the New Temple. Most other travellers gathered on the opposite bank, and comprised many different ethnicities and religions, although most belonged to the Thranian ethnic group, human followers of the Old Gods who returned to the desert after the fall of their empire. Finally, at the far side of the lake lived another group of Kyrans, though not followers of the New Temple. They were the servants of the god Belphegor, and maintained the latrines, animals and the graves. 

"The Kyrans are wary of outsiders, but those who serve Belphegor will tend to your animals. Please use the latrines responsibly. Enjoy your stay!"

As they led their animals through the Kyran camp, Horace and Kuriakos discussed the Iblisi woman, with Kuriakos explaining there were many like her in Port Aisha. It was rumoured theirs was an ancient bloodline, supposedly descended from those first humans to dabble in diabolical magic. The pair were interrupted by a familiar voice:

"You! Still want to sell me your griffin grease?"

It was the pistachio seller from Jehemen, although now dressed in the fine white robes of a Kyran merchant, and laden with gold jewellery. After a swift evaluation of some of Horace's treasure, they parted ways. Horace was not keen to become re-acquainted, despite the serendipitous encounter.

The sun had almost set as they arrived at the far side of the lake, where amongst the braying camels and horses, a shadowy figure emerged...

The woman, dressed in black robes, took care of the party's mounts. Analicia attempted to haggle, the woman was unmoved.

"Take it or leave. It is all the same to Belphegor."

Taking their leave, they rounded the lake and happened upon the largest camp, seemingly home to large numbers of Thranian tribesmen and women, but also a small foreign contingent. For a short time, a young boy and his puppy showed off some minor magical skills, before disappearing into the camp. They elected to pitch their tent.

Witrh Kuriakos resting and Horace assisting Ursula in the translation of some of their recent haul from the tomb of the Iron King, Analicia wandered off alone. She briefly had a peek at the young sorcerer-boy, who seemed to be happily playing with his family, before happening upon a group of foreigners. A group of guards, dressed similarly to the Prince of Jehemen's own troops, were stationed outside one particular large tent. A white-skinned man in yellow robes chastised a bored looking teenage boy. More children appeared to be struggling with the baggage train, which for some reason was not kept at the far side of the lake with the other animals. Except... those weren't children, they were something else...

As Analicia tried to discern the nature of the strange, yellow-eyed creatures tending to the beasts, a dark-skinned man approached. Despite his ancestry, Analicia nonetheless detected something familiar about him, in spite of only having been in the south for little more than a week.

"Ah, you look lost! And surprised that I speak your language!"

To outsiders, what followed was an utterly mundane, though at times bizarre conversation, occasionally trailing off in non-sequiturs, but always returning to the topic of wives and womanhood. To the participants, it was something else: an exchange in the secret cant of the underground.

Analicia learned that the man was none other than Markos De Fiore, an associate of her clan, somehow disguised as a Thranian native in order to trail Dr. Ignatius Maus of the Old College. Ostensibly, the Old College was part of the triple alliance alongside Analicia's family and Horace's church. Nonetheless, Ignatius was not trusted by Donna Serafina, and so Markos had been trailing him. He advised Analicia to share this information if somehow she returned to Jehemen before he did.

Markos also advised Analicia not to trust Urusla.

Horace had been slowly and methodically teaching the complex dwarven runic alphabet to Urusla, who had already complained that he was making it unnecessarily complicated. Analicia came and sat down with them while Kuriakos snoozed. They were not allowed to relax for long, however.

"I heard you were all... here... tell me: what did you find in Thamiel's tower? and the tomb of the Iron king?"

Ursula panicked, standing almost to attention as the yellow-robed, balding, middle-aged man approached the campfire making demands, flanked by two of Prince Atembe's guards. It was Dr. Ignatius Hieronymus Maus, learned sage of the Old College of Freeport.

As beside him a teenage boy shuffled uncomfortably, Maus attempted to solicit information from Analicia and Horace. His efforts were met with deliberate resistance, with Horace more or less stating that Maus was not his boss. Throughout the exchange, Ursula addressed Ignatius Maus as "master", yet her nervous etiquette courted nought but bile from the yellow-robed man. Even her efforts at introducing herself to Maus' new apprentice were slapped down.

"Greetings broth-"
"He is not your brother, girl; bring your papers and let us discuss our task away from your insolent companions!"

The yellow man and his entourage stormed away from the party's camp. Urusla gathered her things and followed suit, leaving Horace, Kuriakos and Analicia alone. Horace pondered the silence of hios own organisation, when it appeared that the Old College and Analicia's family (the Varanesi) had been so proactive. Nonetheless, the remaining party agreed that tomorrow they would proceed as planned, towards the Sunken Citadel, somewhere in the mountains towards the south west.

Before they retired, however, Ursula had returned: crestfallen and dejected, she had not brought her papers back with her. Nonetheless, she was joined by two new companions. One was a local hunter by the name of Zadu, who was to lead them across the desert. The other was the young apprentice of Maus...

"My master has a new apprentice now, and has asked that I take care of Bolg from now on."

Analicia and Horace were reluctant to take one so young on their next expedition, but Ursula reassured them that he would remain outside. He had already been travelling across the desert with her master for a number of weeks.

It was settled. At first light, they would begin their journey across the desert, towards the sunken citadel...