IFAQ: Ashtakala, the Demon City

The following questions came up in response to my recent article on High Level Adventures in Eberron:

Why has the Light of Siberys not been regularly staging strafing runs against the Demon Wastes? In the 3.5 Explorer’s Handbook, Ashtakala is still a viable, functioning headquarters for the Lords of Dust. It retains an array of magical facilities, some of which are very powerful. Does the Light of Siberys have nothing to gain from a targeting blasting of Ashtakala, if only to eliminate it as a resource? Or is Ashtakala actually supposed to be a genuinely blasted ruin, where the Lords of Dust meet in the… dust?

There’s a number of interesting points here. I will note that I created Ashtakala and wrote its description in the original Eberron Campaign Setting, but I was not involved in any way with the Explorer’s Handbook. My own idea of Ashtakala has evolved over the years and what I’m going to present here is how I use it today.

First of all, let’s revisit what I wrote about Ashtakala in the original Eberron Campaign Setting.

Ashtakala (Metropolis, Special): The one city of any real significance in the Demon Wastes is Ashtakala, the last citadel of the Lords of Dust. Surrounded by a permanent storm of sand and volcanic glass and shielded from all forms of divinatory magic, Ashtakala rarely reveals itself to human eyes. Explorers who manage to penetrate the eternal storm find a bizarre yet beautiful metropolis, a citadel built from basalt and brass. Compared to the shattered ruins spread throughout the rest of the Wastes, Ashtakala seems impossibly alive, filled with thousands of demons and other fiends.

While Ashtakala appears as it did a million years or more ago, it is a city of ghosts and shadows—all an illusion. In addition to the illusory inhabitants and the spirits of ancient things that still wander the decaying streets masked by powerful illusions of the city’s zenith, a handful of zakyas and rakshasas and a host of minor fiends serve the great Lords of Dust who congregate here. The Lords of Dust occasionally meet in this shadow of their ancient city, and rakshasas return to Ashtakala to scheme and to study in the vaults and libraries, reading scrolls and tomes that will crumble to dust if ever removed from the city. The power that preserves the image of Ashtakala transforms anyone who enters the city; visitors find their clothing and equipment altered to match the archaic fashions of the city, as if by a disguise self spell. The city of fiends is a dangerous place for mortals to visit—only the luckiest of intruders caught by the rakshasa lords get to die quickly.

So: Ashtakala is the last surviving city of the Lords of Dust. It has endured for a hundred thousand years. It’s immune to divination and is surrounded by a deadly storm. The entire region around it is an unnatural wasteland that has never been tamed. While Ashtakala was supposedly ruined long ago, its magic is so powerful that it creates an alternate reality within its storm—it still appears to be at its zenith, and people who enter its influence are themselves altered to fit this haunted narrative. Also, an important point: it’s used as a meeting place by all of the Lords of Dust, implying that it’s not tied to any single overlord. We know that Hektula, the Speaker of Sul Khatesh, maintains the library of Ashtakala. But Ashtakala isn’t the heart of Sul Khatesh; It’s is a neutral ground where all the Lords of Dust can find sanctuary. We also know that while Ashtakala has stood for a hundred thousand years, it has never expanded. It is immortal but largely unchanging, like the fiends themselves.

We also know that the dragons have no obvious presence in the Demon Wastes. The defenses of the Demon Wastes—both the Ghaash’kala and the Labyrinth itself—are tied to the Silver Flame; you don’t have dragonborn or dragon guardians, as we see in Q’barra. In my Eberron, this is no accident: the dragons shun the Demon Wastes because they have no choice. I say that the Light of Siberys DID attack the Demon Wastes tens of thousands of years ago. They did lay waste to it, and destroyed a humanoid civilization that predates the Carrion Tribes (who arrived in the Wastes less than two thousand years ago). And this attack was a disaster. Aside from the many fiends, many powerful magical defenses were unleashed against the attackers. Ashtakala was the worst of all. Just as it shields the city from divination magic, the storm surrounding Ashtakala repelled magical and elemental attacks… and as dragons drew close to it, their souls were ripped from their bodies and they turned on their allies. When they were wounded, dust spilled out instead of blood. The attacking force was almost entirely wiped out—and the dust-stuffed dragons claimed by Ashtakala proved to be an ongoing threat and asset to the Lords of Dust for thousands of years. And while humanoids were wiped out, the fiends that were slain simply reformed. The dragons have shunned the region ever since; while they know Ashtakala is an asset for the Lords of Dust, they don’t have the power to destroy it, and while it is a useful sanctuary for the Lords of Dust it’s been there for a hundred thousand years—it’s not like it poses a dire, imminent threat to the safety of Argonnessen.

But how is this possible? How could a fortress of raskhasa be strong enough to resist the power that leveled Xen’drik? Consider again what we know of Ashtakala. It is surrounded by a corrupted region the size of a nation. The corruption cannot be undone, and the region is filled with free-roaming fiends. It alters reality within its confines. And while it has endured for a hundred thousand years, it remains fundamentally unchanged—maintaining the shadow of its glory, but never expanding.

Corrupting a region the size of a nation? Surrounded by free-roaming fiends? Possessed of such mystical power that it can resist the might even of Argonnessen? That sounds a lot like what Bel Shalor did to Thrane when it was partially released. And therein lies the answer. Ashtakala isn’t just a city: Ashtakala is an overlord. It is an immortal embodiment of eternal evil, something that irrevocably corrupts the region around it and that is attended by a host of lesser fiends. While it is trapped in place by the wards of the Labyrinth and by the power of the Silver Flame, of all the overlords Ashtakala alone was never fully bound. The crucial concept to understand is that Ashtakala was always a city. All fiends embody malevolent ideas; Ashtakala is the Dark Citadel, the fortress of ultimate evil. It can’t move and it doesn’t have an anthropomorphic form; it is a DEMON CITY. But like any overlord, it’s immortal and it alters reality within its sphere of influence. Ashtakala is the source of the never-ending storm. It’s the power of the city itself that transforms those who enter it. The host of illusory fiends are the servants of the city. And Ashtakala is the source of the unnatural corruption of the region, the blight that cannot be lifted—for that blighted landscape is a part of its defining concept as the citadel of evil.

So what does this mean? First, Ashtakala was never constructed. It is literally the CONCEPT of a city given form. And not just a city, a city of fiends. The currency of Ashtakala is souls, for the city can rip the souls from mortals and forge them into coinage (and potentially other things). This is the concept of the Drain Works described in Explorer’s Handbook, but that’s a case of the parasite rakshasa making use of the capabilities of Ashtakala rather than the city doing it itself. Ashtakala can just rip the soul out of a dragon in an instant; the Drain Works is a slower process rakshasa can use on creatures the city considers to be insignificant. Because this is an important point. Overlords don’t think the way mortals do. They are vast, alien, and unique. Ashtakala allows the Lords of Dust to dwell within it, but it doesn’t cater to their whims or help them with their schemes. I’ve mentioned before that the weakness of the overlords is that they didn’t work together, and that is the case here. Ashtakala doesn’t CARE about the fact that the other overlords are imprisoned. It doesn’t care about the needs of the Lords of Dust. Ashtakala simply IS. It expresses itself by creating and maintaining the Demon Wastes. It is doing the thing that gives its existence meaning. This is the point of the “illusory servitors”—they are literally extensions of the city, serving no purpose other than to maintain it. They’re much like the subjects of Daanvi or the conscripts of Shavarath; they have no lasting identity, no purpose beyond playing out the story of Ashtakala. They can’t be recruited to serve the schemes of Rak Tulkhesh or Sul Khatesh because they literally don’t exist independently of Ashtakala. Beyond that comes the larger point that Ashtakala doesn’t recognize lesser humanoids as a threat. It fought dragons, titans, and celestials, and if any such creatures approach it Ashtakala will strike them with its full force. But humans? Orcs? Elves? Ashtakala doesn’t register them as having any significance. So a DRAGON that approaches the city will have its soul ripped out and replaced with dust. But a HUMAN that manages to make it through the storm will in fact be cloaked in illusion so they DO fit in the city… because the city literally can’t conceive of them as a threat. The fiends that dwell within Ashtakala may capture them, torture them, or take them to the Drain Works—but the city doesn’t care about them.

A secondary aspect of this is that like all overlords, Ashtakala is immortal. If it was somehow burnt to the ground, it would return within days. This is what is meant by the city being an “illusion”. While you are within it, it is real. But if you steal an ancient tome from the Library of Ashtakala and it will crumble to dust when you leave the city… And it will be BACK in the library the next day. The exceptions to this are things that are brought INTO the city (or things forged from outside materials, like stolen souls). So if Hektula steals a tome from Arcanix and brings it to Ashtakala, THAT book can be stolen from the city or destroyed permanently. But the most ancient scrolls dating back to the Age of Demons aren’t truly REAL; they are memories in the mind of the Demon City.

All of this means that Ashtakala is a perfect haven for the Lords of Dust. It’s shielded from hostile magic and their greatest enemies cannot even approach it. They don’t need to maintain it—no one repairs the masonry, or fixes the sewers, or touches up the paint—because the entire city is a concept, and it maintains itself. It provides them with invaluable resources, such as the Library and the Drain Works. But again, part of the point is that while it appears to be a thriving metropolis filled with tens of thousands of fiends, less than a thousands of those are truly independent and REAL; the vast majority are just ideas in the mind of the Demon City.

With that said, there’s a few points to clarify based on questions in the comments. When I say that the denizens of Ashtakala aren’t “truly independent and real” what I mean is this: They can’t LEAVE Ashtakala, and they have no desires beyond playing out their role in the story. But they exist within the city… and that means that they can hurt you. Beyond that, the point that Ashtakala itself doesn’t target mortals means that it won’t rip their souls out the instant they enter the city. But that doesn’t mean it welcomes them or protects them. Ashtakala is an incarnate nightmare. Imagine the most horrifying hell-city you can; that’s what it is. The music of Ashtakala is the screams of tortured mortals kept in hideous painful stasis. There are furnaces filled with bones—not because Ashtakala NEEDS to burn people to keep the fires going, but because that’s what its story is about. The 4E ECG notes that mortals who remain within Ashtakala will be slowly transformed into fiends themselves. It is surely one of the most dangerous locations in Eberron—but it won’t instantly smite you with the force that can lay a titan low. It literally doesn’t NOTICE mortals—but its servants and denizens definitely will. As the ECS said: The city of fiends is a dangerous place for mortals to visit—only the luckiest of intruders caught by the rakshasa lords get to die quickly.

Why Does This Matter?

Fine: Ashtakala is an overlord. Dragons can’t come near it without being corrupted. What does this mean for you and your campaign?

  • The mind of an overlord doesn’t work like that of a human. Ashtakala isn’t working WITH the Lords of Dust; it simply allows them to dwell within it, because that suits its nature as the Citadel of Evil. But by default, it doesn’t have goals beyond the Demon Wastes. It is expressing its nature by creating and maintaining the Demon Wastes, and by destroying any dragons or similar threats that come too close. But it doesn’t actually PARTICIPATE in the schemes of the Lords of Dust or help them in their schemes to free other overlords.
  • This ties to the idea that Ashtakala will destroy and consume any dragon that comes close, but that it doesn’t recognize lesser humanoids—orcs, humans, etc—as threats. This is why a human can enter the city and simply have its appearance altered. Ashtakala essentially doesn’t even NOTICE a human, and the altering of their appearance is a background effect. This in turn means that if the Chamber has any interests tied to Ashtakala—if they want to spy on the plans of the Lords of Dust, or to steal information from the Library of Ashtakala—they need to work with capable humanoid agents, which is to say, player characters.
  • One interesting plot point would be to introduce warlocks or active fiends who DO represent the interests of Ashtakala—to say that after a hundred thousand years of largely ignoring the world, Ashtakala now has its own desires. What would these be? How would these agents interact with the fiends serving other overlords?
  • There was another mortal civilization in the Demon Wastes before the Carrion Tribes, which was destroyed when the dragons attacked. Adventurers exploring the Demon Wastes could find relics of this previously unknown civilization. This could also be used to explain the origin of some other species you want to add to the setting.
  • Ashtakala is a city that corrupts the land around it—a region as large as a nation, making it into a warped wasteland. Sound familiar? It could be that the Mourning is the result of a similar demon city being released into Cyre. If so, has it taken the place of an existing city like Metrol? Or is it still waiting to be found?
  • Ashtakala can rips souls from mortals and forge them into solid form. Among other things, this effect prevents resurrection, much like a Keeper’s Fang—and one possibility is that the Keeper’s Fang weapons are in fact tied to ASHTAKALA. Regardless, one point is that adventurers might acquire magic items of artifacts forged from the souls of ancient dragons, giants, or couatl. Could the item be somehow destroyed, and if so could the fallen champion be resurrected? Alternately, what could a modern artificer do with a handful of coins forged from dragon-soul?
  • One explanation for the dragon attacks on Aerenal is that they are “practicing fighting something with the power of an overlord.” It could be that these centuries of intermittent war have all been preparation for a NEW assault on Ashtakala. How could this involve the player characters? Might the Chamber ask powerful characters to help with the assault, perhaps sabotaging Ashtakala from within during the attack? Or might the players learn about the planned attack and realize that it will inflict devastating collateral damage on Aundair and the Eldeen Reaches?
  • Explorer’s Handbook includes the Dust Works, a facility that allows fiends to suck out a creature’s soul and replace it with dust. As I suggest above, my thought is that this is something Ashtakala can do on its own, and the Dust Works is simply a way the Lords of Dust have found to harness this power for their own purposes. A dust-stuffed dragon working with the Lords of Dust could be an interesting alternative to a rogue dragon. And if the adventurers have an ally within the dragons of the Chamber, a tragic twist would be for that dragon to be captured by the Lords of Dust and taken to Ashtakala, returning as a dust-stuffed villain.

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