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.

Thats all for now! Thanks to my Patreon supporters for making these articles possible.

72 thoughts on “IFAQ: Ashtakala, the Demon City

  1. (Ashtakala would not be the first to claim the title “the Demon City.”)

    If an overlord can be sealed, then how could Ashtakala be sealed? It seems like the one overlord closest to Khyber, the progenitor dragon, in a way.

    When a mortal humanoid enters Ashtakala, what does its appearance actually get altered into?

    Do Carrion Tribesmen enter Ashtakala from time to time, if Ashtakala is fine with mortal humanoids? What about Ghaash’kala? Surely, the Ghaash’kala would be willing to take proactive measures against fiendkind?

    Are dust-stuffed supposed to be a common tool of the Lords of Dust? Are these fiendish teddy bears supposed to be the Lords of Dust’s equivalent to mind-seeded patsies?

    • The appearance of mortals gets altered into the fashion of Ashtakala. That’s a DM-level question, unless you want Keith to define the fashion of fiends before the First War.

      As for the Carrion Tribes: There’s still that massive sandstorm of demon glass. I don’t think the average person would make it through that without being shredded. The Ghaash’kala are defenders _of the Labyrinth_, not templars dedicated to wiping out Evil. They hold the line, not destroy the source.

      Dust-stuffed aren’t “fiendish teddy bears”. They’re essentially humanoids whose insides have been replaced with dust that functions similarly to clockwork. They were detailed elsewhere in the canon.

      • Do mortals have their appearance altered into fiends inside Ashtakala, though, or something else?

        Dust-stuffed creatures are powered by fiendish stuffing and literal wind-up keys. They are certainly one of the more gonzo elements that have been spontaneously introduced into Eberron in a semi-obscure sourcebook.

        • Dust-stuffed creatures are powered by fiendish stuffing and literal wind-up keys. They are certainly one of the more gonzo elements that have been spontaneously introduced into Eberron in a semi-obscure sourcebook.

          Personally, I’d ignore the wind-up keys in my campaign. Certainly when Ashtakala claims a dragon, it doesn’t add a key. As I said, I wasn’t consulted on ExpH.

        • You could always flavor the wind-up keys as more creepy than gonzo since they’re in places on the body like the neck, rib cage, or eyes that they can be easily covered. Plus if anyone in setting can pull off a gonzo concept members of the Lords of Dust would certainly be on the list.

          For example, Kroenen made for an effective villain in the 2004 Hellboy movie and he was an assassin with a windup key and dust for blood: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aPom5xkbzgE

    • If an overlord can be sealed, then how could Ashtakala be sealed? It seems like the one overlord closest to Khyber, the progenitor dragon, in a way.
      In my opinion it can’t be; if it could have been fully bound it would have been a hundred thousand years ago. That’s why the couatl had to establish the wards in the Labyrinth; because they couldn’t find a way to bind Ashtakala. Of course, doing the impossible is one of the primary characteristics of player characters, so perhaps they can find a way!

      When a mortal humanoid enters Ashtakala, what does its appearance actually get altered into?
      The ECS says “visitors find their clothing and equipment altered to match the archaic fashions of the city, as if by a disguise self spell.” It’s definitely not a perfect disguise; it’s not like Hektula is going to say “Oh, well you’re properly dressed, so you must belong here, human.”

      Do Carrion Tribesmen enter Ashtakala from time to time, if Ashtakala is fine with mortal humanoids? What about Ghaash’kala? Surely, the Ghaash’kala would be willing to take proactive measures against fiendkind?

      Ashtakala doesn’t see mortals as a THREAT. That doesn’t mean it WELCOMES them. It’s still surrounded by a storm of razor glass; page 110 of the Explorer’s Handbook offers one interpretation of this, and it’s pretty brutal. Members of the Carrion Tribes could be BROUGHT into Ashtakala if one of the Lords of Dust had reason to bring them, but it’s not a place that you’ll wander into by accident. As for the Ghaash’kala, some have surely managed to enter the city over the course of the millennia. But what “proactive measures” do you expect them to take? The city and its inhabitants are immortal. A fiend like Hektula could easily slaughter a dozen Ghaash’kala, and even if they somehow harmed her she would just be reborn. The job of the Ghaash’kala is to hold a line, to maintain the Labyrinth; that is their focus.

      Are dust-stuffed supposed to be a common tool of the Lords of Dust?
      No, not especially. This is a specific attribute of Ashtakala. Lords of Dust can USE the Drain Works in Ashtakala, but it can potentially take days (or even weeks for a high-level person) for the transfer to be completed. So it’s not like a mind seed that can be implanted anywhere; it requires the Lord of Dust to kidnap their victim, take them to Ashtakala, keep them there for a week, and then bring them back and reinsert them without drawing unwanted attention. It is *A* tool. It’s something some may use. But it’s not supposed to be a central, defining piece of their arsenal as mind seeds are for the quori.

  2. Ashtakala being immobile as part of its fundamental concept also explains why Argonessen wouldn’t make further attempts on it; it could never pose a threat to Argonessen because to change in that way would be literally impossible for it.

    • Correct. It is bound by the Labyrinth, even if it’s not bound as securely as the other overlords. It’s an annoyance, but again, it’s been there for a hundred thousand years and hasn’t posed a problem beyond the Wastes yet. And the secondary point is that while they can’t scry within it, the dragons KNOW WHERE IT IS… which has some value. Should they decide to target Hektula, they know where she can be found most of the time – even though they’d need to rely on non-dragon agents to carry out their mission.

  3. If Ashtakala is an overlord, then could it conceivably have a heart demiplane? An even greater and more ancient city dedicated to the fiends still trapped within Khyber? Or, is the intent that this is the Overlord in its truest form, and that there is nothing that lies deeper below the surface of Eberron?

    • To me, the idea of Ashtakala is that it’s heart demiplane projects into the material plane. Ashtakala IS its heart demiplane; that’s why it is impossible to bind it.

  4. Hypothetically, if the Lords of Dust and other “real” fiends were to be cleared out of Ashtakala or otherwise driven away from it, would it then be perfectly safe for mortal humanoids to live in Ashtakala?

    It seems to me like the concept of Ashtakala is “the Dark Citadel, the fortress of ultimate evil that no dragon, celestial, or giant could hope to besiege,” but everyone who is not a dragon, a celestial, or a giant receives a free pass.

    • I think that the fiends of Ashtakala ARE real. However, they can’t exist outside of the city since they are manifestation of the city. They are still threats if you are traveling around Ashtakala, but they won’t chase you if you leave because they would simply *poof*

      • I think that the fiends of Ashtakala ARE real. However, they can’t exist outside of the city since they are manifestation of the city.
        That’s correct, and beyond that, the idea is that many of the free-roaming lesser fiends in the region are tied to Ashtakala. Its defining concept is that it’s a city of fiends and that cannot be changed. I also didn’t get into deep details, but it’s a CITY OF EVIL. It’s got torture orchestras, hungry pits, and all sorts of other unpleasant things. Just because it doesn’t TARGET mortals doesn’t mean it is comfortable or safe for them; it means it assumes mortals will simply die without it making any special effort… and most will.

  5. I love this concept so much! And it’s also incredibly terrifying! Thank you so much!
    How would Ashtakala only being partially bound work (someone messed up the ritual, part of its nature, something else weird and whacky, etc)? Could it be fully bound now? Is fully binding it something the dragons would be actively pursuing (if it’s possible)?

    • In my opinion it’s that its heart demiplane projects into Eberron and it simple wasn’t possible to bind it in the same way as the other overlords, so they instead contained it using the Labyrinth. It’s possible that a campaign could involve finding a way to fully bind it, but it’s not something that has been accompolished over the last hundred thousand years, so the question is what has changed.

  6. There’s a reference in ExH, in the Cataclysm Mage, to “the couatls who sang down the walls of Ashtakala even as they were lost in the whirlpool of their own magic”. The level 9 feature states ” Like a river of argent, the couatls ringed Ashtakala and sang down its walls, willingly losing themselves in the eldritch whirlpool that flooded the city with silver flame.” Would you still try to incorporate this?

    • Why not? We say that Ashtakala was “ruined” and that it is essentially a ghost of its former glory. It’s entirely within this concept to say that it is PARTIALLY bound—that it was once far more powerful and glorious than it is, but that the couatl were able to humble it and hold it at bay long enough to establish the Labyrinth, which now contains it. It isn’t bound as securely as the other overlords, but it is still contained, and that surely didn’t happen without effort.

      • I know you didn’t work on Explorer’s Handbook, but would the captured couatl in the Amphietheater of Pain and Miklatumh in the Garden of Eternal Torture be those same couatl who sang down the walls of Ashtakala? In a twisted way I could see them being held in the city as a distraction to Ashtakala doing something much worse or their release by mortal adventurers being a necessary condition for satisfying one path of the Draconic Prophecy.

        • I’m fine with an imprisoned couatl in the Garden of Eternal Torture, but I wouldn’t personally include random couatl in the Ampitheater of Pain; there just aren’t enough of them incarnate in the world. Miklatumh could be ONE of the couatl who sang down the walls, but that would have definitely been a host, not the work of an individual.

  7. Pointing at specific passages in the 3.5 Explorer’s Handbook:

    What is the relation of the Demon Glass Oracles (page 112) to the Draconic Prophecy? Are they unrelated? If they are related, how might the Lords of Dust use these to study the Draconic Prophecy?

    The palace of Ashtakala (page 113) is said to be “the ruins of a rajah’s palace.” But which rajah is this? It could not possibly by Ashtakala’s own palace, could it be?

    Page 113 also says, “The Lords usually return one by one, bound by ancient magic to the city. Most enter or leave the Wastes on foot through the Labyrinth, since they have found that lone travelers in disguise are more apt to elude the Ghaash’kala who guard that holy maze.” How do these Lords of Dust, seemingly conveniently, bypass the Labyrinth?

    The random encounter table (page 115) has a “probably incognito” astral deva as a random encounter. Should this be ignored, if Ashtakala sucks out the souls of celestials?

    Does the “Apocalypse of Iridal Monsain” (page 115) hold any potential for finally binding Ashtakala?

    • Like I’ve said, I didn’t write the Explorer’s Handbook and wasn’t consulted on it. This is a completely different interpretation of Ashtakala and it’s up to you to decide how to reconcile the two. Under this interpretation it’s NOT a rajah’s palace (I’m not sure the term “overlord” had even been used at that point) and you couldn’t find a deva hanging out within.

    • “Page 113 also says, “The Lords usually return one by one, bound by ancient magic to the city. Most enter or leave the Wastes on foot through the Labyrinth, since they have found that lone travelers in disguise are more apt to elude the Ghaash’kala who guard that holy maze.” How do these Lords of Dust, seemingly conveniently, bypass the Labyrinth?”

      Answer from (http://keith-baker.com/dm-hla/#comments), your reply to which is the first line of the question at the top of this article:

      Me: “Is the Ghaash’kala mostly trying to foil subterfuge and stealth or do they occasionally have to repel brute force attacks by the higher CR fiends?”

      Keith: “The powerful fiends aren’t held in check by the Ghaash’kala, they’re held in check by Kalok Shash — the Binding Flame. The Labyrinth is suffused with the power of the Silver Flame, and powerful fiends can’t even enter it. But it’s the same concept of a fishing net being able to catch the big fish while little fish slip through. High CR fiends can’t enter the Labyrinth, but low-CR fiends and mortals like the Carrion Tribes can, and THOSE are the forces the Ghaash’kala holds at bay.

      Meanwhile, many high-CR fiends CAN find ways to get around the barrier… which is how the Lords of Dust can meet in Ashtakala and then return to their work elsewhere. Essentially, the Labyrinth and the Ghaash’kala aren’t a perfect impenetrable barrier — but they can prevent mass invasions of Carrion barbarians and lesser fiends.”

  8. Page 118 of the 4e Eberron Campaign Guide says, “explorers who spend too much time in this place [Ashtakala] are corrupted, taking on demonic forms as the city claims them body and soul.”

    How is this reconciled with Ashtakala failing to register mortal humanoids as a threat? Is this simply a passive property of the sheer malefic energies of Ashtakala?

    • Seems you’ve answered the question yourself. A mortal who spends too long in Ashtakala become fiends, as they’ve spent too much time _inside a fiend_.

    • Exactly. Ashtakala doesn’t consider mortals as threats it has to take direct action against, because largely THEY AREN’T THREATS. They will be digested and transformed, or dealt with by the inhabitants of the city. The OVERLORD doesn’t instantly smite them as it would smite a dragon; that doesn’t mean they are in any way safe within it.

  9. Is Yad-Raghesh, the Fallen Rajah, supposed to be similar to Ashtakala, in that Yad-Raghesh is an overlord “out in the wild” and not quite sealed in Khyber?

        • Yes, Yad-Raghesh is unbound. He was “killed” by the dragons, then they only later realised that his corpse wasn’t rotting naturally and so are searching for a way to prevent his essence spreading over Argonessen.

  10. How do the Lords of Dust employ the Drain/Dust Works in practice? If it is a rare, niche, yet still useful tool in their arsenal, do various prakhutus have to “commission” Ethon Panjilcuttra to create a dust-stuffed out of a waiting line of prisoners?

    For that matter, how is Hektula’s position as librarian of Ashtakala supposed to be reconciled with her being the prakhutu of Sul Khatesh? Is there no conflict of interests between the two positions? It seems like the Lords of Dust have some positions among themselves, like Durastoran being the resident anti-dragon specialist, and Mordakhesh being the commander of the fiendish armed forces.

    • For example: “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?”

      If Ashtakala was to gain a prakhutu, would Hektula still be allowed to be the librarian of Ashtakala? Or, looking at it another way, would Hektula ever be allowed to be the prakhutu of both Sul Khatesh and Ashtakala?

      • Perhaps there could be a scenario wherein Ashtakala decides that it finally wants a prakhutu, and that Hektula is the only suitable candidate, due to Hektula having so lovingly tended to Ashtakala’s library for a hundred thousand years? Then Hektula would have to choose between staying the prakhutu of Sul Khatesh and incurring Ashtakala’s ire, or jumping ship to Ashtakala and earning Sul Khatesh’s enmity. It could be a decent hook for internecine strife within the Lords of Dust, maybe?

        • I am picturing the hypothetical PCs embarking on an expedition to Ashtakala, only to see, for example, the Bloody Scribe herself unceremoniously booted out of the city. She might be able to lend the party some aid, if only they retrieve for her a single tome that she was not able to retrieve before being kicked out.

  11. This is absolutely amazing. So much like the shards that bind Rak Tulkhesh, could demonglass taken from the Wastes be a tether for Ashtakala?

      • An interesting thought could be that a PC with a demonglass artefact linked to Ashtakala might find twisted versions of the cities they’ve visited while carrying the item in Ashtakala; like there’s a river of lava or dust carrying merrenoloths because Ashtakala “saw” Fairhaven’s Whiteroof District and its half-elf boatmen through the artefact.

  12. Question would Ashtakala like sharn, arcanix or mythical cities of giants, have sections or that are floating? And have the lords of dust tried to have Ashtakala flying in the skies with a eldritch machine akin to Arcanix?

    • I don’t think the Lords of Dust can significantly alter Ashtakala. It’s a concept as much as a city, and it would resist “Make it fly magic” just as it resists all other outside influences, even it it’s something that could make it more useful.

      Having said that, Ashtakala is deeply unnatural. I think it could very well have floating sections, though I wouldn’t make them float as far up as Sharn or Arcanix — and it’s important to remember that it’s surrounded by that eternal storm. Part of the question with any element of Ashtakala’s architecture is Is it disturbing or frightening to mortals? If so, then go with it.

  13. Is there something antithetical to the very concept of Ashtakala that keeps its domain bound by the sea, or does it extend beyond the waves and has some other natural border not unlike the Shadow Crags, and Icehorn Mountains that contain it?

    Just curious how dangerous the Demon Song Channel would be.

  14. So at first reading all this I thought “well this is wholly unnecessary, the city already works how it works just fine and the mystery is part of the intrigue” but Ashtakala being an unbound/partially bound Overlord makes a lot of sense the more you think about it. It allows deity level defenses and a strong longevity and shows that the Overlords are not simply all anthropomorphic deity analogues.

    I find myself with a strong urge to ask about the previous humanoid culture of the Demon Wastes but I see at the bottom that the mystery is part of the fun. So I’ll simply work on my own ideas and enjoy the modularity. I do note on my search through old articles for something I’m asking below, that gnolls (specifically the larger flind) are mentioned to live in the Demon Wastes, so that’s a fun start. Perhaps gnoll-tieflings and half-fiend gnolls ran around the Wastes before the Carrion Tribes got there! Or it’s a decent place to put tabaxi (cat people and rakshasa, you know?)

    How aware was Galifar and Thaliost before it (and Aundair today) of the city of Ashtakala? I thought you’d previously confirmed that (much like Droaam and the Shadow Marches with Breland/Wroat) the Demon Wastes were claimed as territory by Aundair (in a “our kingdom reaches all lands to the sea” sort of way) but looking at the map circa 874 YK you posted (and unable to find where I asked this question previously) with Aundair being the part of Galifar next to the Demon Wastes, did their explorers ever get far enough in to take note of Ashtakala? Are there records of this city of demonglass in the archives of Galifar or the academic institutions of the Nations? If not the Five Nations, did the Zil try to explore in their sailing?

    • I find myself with a strong urge to ask about the previous humanoid culture of the Demon Wastes but I see at the bottom that the mystery is part of the fun.

      To me that is the point—it’s one of those things that doesn’t need to be defined until you need it to be defined, and then use what works best for your campaign. Some form of gnolls are absolutely an option (Flinds!). ORCS are an option, since they also have a long-term presence in the present day. For me, it would be an opportunity to give something new I wanted to add to my campaign a deeper connection to the story… So adventurers could find hints about it, but I don’t WANT to define it until I say “Oh! This is my chance to do something with Rakasta!”

    • How aware was Galifar and Thaliost before it (and Aundair today) of the city of Ashtakala?

      I think it’s known of in legend, but that’s about all. The Demon Wastes is largely unexplored, and Ashtakala is hard to reach, but I’m sure there’s SOME obscure account of an explorer who somehow braved a deadly storm and saw the dark city within… Or that explorers have never seen the city, but been warned about it by Ghaash’kala or heard ravings of Carrion warriors. It’s entirely possible such accounts were seeded by either the Lords of Dust or the Chamber, for some purpose. Either way, it’s the sort of thing that would require a significant Arcana check; it’s definitely not common knowledge.

      The general idea of the Demon Wastes is that it is largely still unknown; that it is one of those areas waiting to be explored, not that it’s already perfectly mapped out. We have scattered and unreliable accounts. There’s a TALE of a hero finding the Lair of the Keeper, but it’s not like it’s perfectly known and commonplace.

      • “It’s entirely possible such accounts were seeded by either the Lords of Dust or the Chamber, for some purpose.”

        Maybe some agents of Ashtakala itself, just for the purposes of letting itself be known. After all, you can’t have people scared of your City of EVIL if they don’t know it exists.

  15. Ashtakala being populated by “illusions” seems like a great way to apply minion rules from 4e for most of the fiends that players would encounter in the city. That is to say, the fiends have all the powers they would normally possess to interact with and shape the world around them, but would go down in one hit if attacked.

  16. Is Ashtakala’s nature as an “evil city” fundamentally demonic, or does it also represent more mundane evils associated with cities? For example, is the waste “caused” by the city pumping out pollution, and are any resources that manage to grow in that landscape seized to feed the hungry city? Are dwellers in the “country” that is the waste tempted to chase their dreams in the city, where they are drawn into depravity and destroyed in a city that literally drains their souls? Perhaps that is what keeps happening to Desolate, is it the embodiment of a ghost town, no longer sustainable because its people and resources are always drawn away?

    If so, it seems to me like this interpretation could drive a lot of activity in the Wastes, with urban fiends unleashing all of the indignities that cities are imagined to visit upon the countryside: fiendish representations of pollution, taxes, and various sorts of “financial” and “legal” oppression – with souls as the currency, of course.

    It could also drive activity in the city, with fiendish forms of temptation, and a variety of urban predators. Like a demonic version of Gotham or Sin City.

    Is this close, or going in a different direction from what you imagine?

    • I think this is a possible interpretation you could explore, but it’s a significant shift from what’s been described in canon sources. Among other things, the canon Ashtakala is surrounded by a razor storm that will shred any human who comes close; it’s not trying to lure mortals in to thrive on their depravity. And the Carrion Tribes aren’t described as especially revolving around Ashtakala or being haunted by fiendish tax collectors.

      Having said that, it’s a fun idea if you want to explore it in your campaign! But in general I see Ashtakala as more of a last relic that poisons the land around it that an active force that is creating and sustaining a widescale model of urban corruption.

      However, there’s a clear compromise, which would be to say that Ashtakala is the extension of the overlord into reality, but that its HEART DEMIPLANE lies beneath it as is exactly as you describe. So Ashtakala-the-city is just the tip of the horrific iceberg, and adventurers who enter the city could be pulled into this lower level.

  17. Do any of the legends regarding the dark six mention a dark city behind a cloud of razors? Possibly with the mockery as he could be a powerful dragon that got tortured in the dust works to be the flayed half demon dragon god of treason.

    • Do any of the legends regarding the dark six mention a dark city behind a cloud of razors?
      I’m sure there are myths of Ashtakala spread out over the stories of the Sovereigns and the war of the First Age; the idea that it’s where the Mockery was flayed is an excellent option to explore.

  18. Interesting. Ashtakala’s nature seems to have a lot of similarities to Barovia and Ravenloft in terms of how it is shaped by memory, its illusionary inhabitants etc.

    Gives me some ideas for how I might run Curse of Strahd in Eberron, maybe have Strahd be literally the mortal Praktu of an Overlord.

    • Gives me some ideas for how I might run Curse of Strahd in Eberron, maybe have Strahd be literally the mortal Praktu of an Overlord.

      Certainly!

  19. Honestly I always saw the physical forms of the other overlords more as avatars. Every single outsider is after all an incarnate idea and that would have reduced the overlords from deities to “really powerful native outsiders”, a concept that works in most of D&D because of Planescape but would not work as well in Eberron were Divinity is truly of a higher order. I.e. the overlords themselves are the very ideas that keep their heart planes beating and allows them to take form outside Khyber and within Eberron.
    That said, it certainly is interesting whether Ashtakala is unique in taking an inanimate form. You could have an overlord that takes the form of a massive mountain, a deep abyss or even an endless storm

    • Honestly I always saw the physical forms of the other overlords more as avatars.
      Yes, that’s my intent as well. Each overlord has a sphere of influence. THAT is the true overlord, and that’s part of why they are immortal; the physical form is just a manifestation used for a purpose, but you can’t kill the overlord by fighting it. Drul Khataar is the Killing Cold; she may manifest an icy form you can fight, but SHE is the chill storm that engulfs the entire country. Tira Miron faced Bel Shalor in battle, but he was the corruption taking root across Thrane, not just the form she fought. Ashtakala IS the Demon Wastes; it’s just that the city is the place where you can SEE it in a focused form.

  20. Hi Keith! Cool article as always, full of ideas (even for high level campaigns, to stay on topic).
    I’d like to address three points.
    1) in ECS Ashtakala is described as a city in ruins, with just the illusion of former grandeur. I love your new concept of Ashtakala, but I’d love to keep this feeling too because it gives the idea of the frustration of the lords of dust. Do you think it’s possible?
    2) Astakala is told to be the last city of the lords of dust, whilst other cities are in ruins, destroyed, crumbled. Do you have any idea of what kind of cities/architectures the rashkasas were building? We’re they coping Ashtakala as a model?
    3) last but not least: as far as I remember in ECS Ashtakala is told to have glimps of disturbing beauty. That looks different from the approach of “whatever is horrible and dangerous for humans is good”. Btw: do you think fiends have a sense of beauty? Do they care for aesthetic?

    Thanks in advance Keith

    • in ECS Ashtakala is described as a city in ruins, with just the illusion of former grandeur. I love your new concept of Ashtakala, but I’d love to keep this feeling too because it gives the idea of the frustration of the lords of dust. Do you think it’s possible?
      Certainly. I haven’t abandoned that idea. The point of Ashtakala is that I’ve taken it a step beyond typical illusion, but the glory you see in it still isn’t REAL. There may be a host of servitor fiends, but they can’t LEAVE the city. You might find a glorious golden banner, but if you take it out of the city it will instantly rot away. Ashtakala still IS an illusion; it’s simply that the illusion is solid enough to be deadly while you’re within it.

      Astakala is told to be the last city of the lords of dust, whilst other cities are in ruins, destroyed, crumbled. Do you have any idea of what kind of cities/architectures the rashkasas were building? We’re they coping Ashtakala as a model?
      It’s a mistake to think of the fiends as mortal cultures, who do things like build cities the way mortals build cities. All of the cities in the Age of Demons were extensions of the overlords, and embodied their core concepts. The cities of Rak Tulkhesh were brutalist fortresses, while those of Eldrantulku would be elegant halls filled with nooks for eavesdropping and assassinations. And crucially, these could CHANGE on a whim to express the overlord’s ideals. These cities were sustained by the power of the overlords, so when they were imprisoned, the cities died and rotted away.

      last but not least: as far as I remember in ECS Ashtakala is told to have glimps of disturbing beauty. That looks different from the approach of “whatever is horrible and dangerous for humans is good”. Btw: do you think fiends have a sense of beauty? Do they care for aesthetic?
      Sort of? Remember, fiends aren’t a culture. They don’t create new ideas, and they don’t evolve. They ARE ideas. Each overlord has an aesthetic, certainly, but the point of that aesthetic is to express the idea of the overlord. Rak Tulkhesh expresses the RAGE OF WAR. Ashtakala is “City of Evil”. What does that mean to you? To me, that DOES suggest a sort of sinister beauty — but something that is going to FEEL alien and disturbing to humans. And that’s the point of it.

  21. A little off topic, but on the topic of fiends, assuming that the overlords end all of the other demons had a beginning, that they came out of khyber millions of years ago, could a new generation of free fiends be spawned by khyber again?

    • The general principle is that immortal entities are ENERGY, and there’s a finite amount of energy in the universe. The reason we don’t have celestials in Eberron is because the celestials merged their energy to create the Silver Flame. Essentially, fiends are a manifestation of the dark energy that existed in that moment of creation; for entirely new fiends to appear there would somehow need to be a new infusion of spiritual energy.

  22. Do other locations of note exist in the demon wastes or are the whole demon wastes the manifestation of Ashtakala and how’s it’s bound by the labyrinth?

    Are there other examples of these static overlords (like a.sort of levistus overlord making everice polar for example)?

    What dramatic ally different ways have you used Ashtakala as a player /GM?

    • Do other locations of note exist in the demon wastes?
      Sure! The 3.5 Eberron Campaign Setting mentions a number, such as Festering Holt and the Lair of the Keeper, and there are certainly more. But going into further specifics would be a topic for a full Dragonmark on the Demon Wastes, not an IFAQ on Ashtakala. The only other canon example of such an overlord is Yad-Raghesh from Dragons of Eberron, but there could easily be others.

  23. You published this at the perfect time, my players just accidentally released an overlord and I was going to send them to the Demon Wastes for research purposes. 🙂 I have a really niche question, if you have the time—there’s a line in Dragons of Eberron where the Conclave is referred to as the “Conclave of Ashtakala”, and it’s been puzzling me for WEEKS. That seems like it would have implications if it IS the proper term and not a misprint, but I can’t find anything else on it. Is there any particular connection between Ashtakala and the Conclave that might have spurred that name?

    • You’re talking about page 37 of Dragons of Eberron, I believe. That’s definitely a typo. Council of Ashtakala, Conclave of Argonnessen.

  24. Would these dust-stuffed dragons retain their type or be transformed into, say, a shadow dragon? Would shadow dragons be more a resident of Mabar or one that had been corrupted by it?

    • “Dust-stuffed” is a template presented in the 3.5 Explorer’s Handbook. By that, dust-stuffed creatures become constructs.

      I’d say that shadow dragons would be dragons caught in fragments pulled into Mabar and transformed by it.

  25. I love this concept of different Eberron elements following the *story* or the *concept* they were created to tell. Between reading this and Exploring Eberron, there are a lot of element that exist to tell a specific story. Eberron and it’s cosmos seems to be built on story – even the Draconic Prophesy is telling the story of the world. Eberron is a world of story. I just love this concept so much. Great article as always!

  26. Since in my Eberron The Lords of Dust have been victim of a coup and the Tieflinds now rule the Demon Waste (Rechristened Princedom of Ashes) from Ashtakala, it can’t be a an Overlord; Maybe it was created by an effort of every Overlord to have a neutral ground where they could meet. The reason the Dragons did not attack it again is because it is the only istance the Overlords ever worked together without exception; Some of them even went against it’s own nature to create Ashtakala, and the Overlord themselves do not know why. It’s a miracle even if of the Dark sort, and you can’t defeat a miracle.

  27. The Overlord Ashtakala is a fascinating concept, and you answered almost all my questions about it. One small one: When a moral enters the Demon City and the “disguise” effect takes hold, does the disguise remain the same for the entire visit, or can it change about randomly? If the latter, it would give whole new meaning to the adage, “Don’t split up the party!” Exploring heroes would be well advised to establish a scheme of code words or gestures to identify themselves to one another.
    Random comments: Have you been watching WANDA/VISION? The effect of the Hex surrounding Westview, NJ just reminded me of the transformaing effects of Ashtakala. Second: I wonder if anyone has tried tunneling into the Demon City? I have this image of a (possibly deranged) artificer setting up his “Mighty Magical Mole” at the edge of the razor strom preparing to take their band of heroesBENEATH the storm’s perils…doubtless to encounter a whole different set of defenses, but, hey! Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

    • When a mortal enters the Demon City and the “disguise” effect takes hold, does the disguise remain the same for the entire visit, or can it change about randomly?

      There’s a few approaches I could see. I wouldn’t make it change RANDOMLY, but I could see it change to fit the scene. Essentially, there are likely scenarios that are being played out — not unlike WandaVision, since you mention it — and if someone wanders into the scene the disguise may shift to match it. So certainly, a split party could have trouble recognizing others. The main question is if that change is essentially atmospheric, or if Ashtakala IS consciously controlling it. It’s an immortal city, and it could well enjoy playing games with intruders. It has no deep loyalty to the servants of the other overlords, and I could see the idea that as long as mortal intruders ENTERTAIN THE CITY it won’t expose them to the Lords of Dust. But with that in mind it could actively change their disguises—and they might need to pick up the cues and figure out the roles the city wants them to play.

      And yes, I am watching WandaVision. That wasn’t what inspired this — Ashtakala has had that cloak of illusion since the ECS — but you could definitely use it as a source of ideas!

      I wonder if anyone has tried tunneling into the Demon City?
      This is an example of the sort of thing where I say “Wouldn’t it be more interesting for someone to be trying to do this NOW rather than having someone have tried it in the past?” Get the players involved in the Magical Mole scheme!

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