The Boundary Lands

Chapter 15 - Into the Darkness (s. 35)

15.1 Going Around in Circles

After celebrating Arastur’s victory over the undead army, Invicto, The Zaza, Erik, and Aramil catch up with their friends. Old Breddy and Lucinda tell the party of their adventures during the battle, tracking down the group of undead led by the Deathlock Uthrin, who was somehow able to magically protect himself and a few undead from the pull of the carafe. Erik recalls learning of his true parents, when Queen Larindra told him that his birth mother, the lady Milicin, was married off to Sir Uthrin shortly after he was born. Erik asks Old Breddy to take him to Uthrin’s body, as the wizard plans to use the Speak with Dead ritual on Uthrin’s corpse to learn what he can of the fate of his mother, and of Lord Dread’s plans.

Looking for Answers

The party moves the body to a secluded location and Erik intones the magic words of the ritual. Uthrin’s black eye sockets glow faintly with a ghastly green light and the corpse returns to life, fixing Erik with an evil grin. The rest of the party implores Erik to ask Uthrin if he knows the secret passphrase Lord Dread uses with the Keystone Mortalis. As the halfling Lock discovered in his research, because the dark artifact was corrupted with the power of Vecna, god of secrets, the Keystone Mortalis’s wielder must choose a single phrase to use in all of their rituals. This secret phrase, if uttered in the presence of the Keystone Mortalis, will unlock its power and dissipate the energy sustaining the undead raised by the artifact.

The wizard begins posing his questions to Uthrin’s corpse. “What is the passphrase to the Keystone Mortalis?”

Uthrin’s hollow, raspy voice responds, “The master shares that with no one.”

Erik wants to be sure the party knows who their enemy is, “Who is the master you refer to?”

Uthrin replies, “Mortals know him as Lord Dread.”

The wizard continues, “What was Lord Dread’s plan for a failure at Arastur?”

“Lord Dread does not accept failure.”

The party groans at this response. Of course evil villains never accept failure, but that doesn’t mean they can’t occasionally plan for it… Erik next asks, “Where is the Lady Milicin, your wife?”

Uthrin’s hollow eye sockets stare straight at Erik as he says, “She is passed from this world, but her spirit remains in my keep.”

The party debates whether ‘my keep’ is an abstract term, or if it specifically refers to Uthrin’s Keep, the name of the city Uthrin ruled when he was still alive. They guess it is referring to the city, or what is left of it after it was sacked by the undead armies.

Erik asks, “How would I find her in your keep?”

“If you are living, she will seek out your blood along with the other spirits.”

Erik sighs in resignation. It seems that most of his family members are doomed to a grim fate. Having already been forced to kill his adoptive brother, the wizard is not excited about the possibility of having to put down his mother’s undead ghost.

Erik then returns to the topic of Lord Dread, “What is Lord Dread’s greatest weakness?”

Uthrin’s desiccated corpse grins as the crackled decaying flesh of its lips pulls back to reveal its blackened, gnarled teeth. “He has none – all must join him… or die.”

With the final question the corpse falls silent, and the party is stunned. Erik exclaims, “What, the corpse must answer my questions! It can’t just deliver cheeky, sarcastic quips! That’s not how the spell works.”

“Yeah, that’s not fair!” exclaims The Zaza. To emphasize her point she slaps Uthrin’s corpse across the face.

Invicto shrugs, “I guess Uthrin really doesn’t think Lord Dread has any weaknesses.”

Despite their disappointment with some of Uthrin’s answers, the party feels confident that they know their enemy – Lord Dread wields the Keystone Mortalis and is raising a massive army of undead. He must be stopped, or all life will eventually be extinguished from the world.

Managing the Empire

Over the next few weeks, the party busies themselves with bringing order back to Arastur. They are hailed as heroes in the city now, after their tower-top battle with the dracolich. The citizenry eagerly supports the rebirth of the Empire of Nerath, as its champions have saved their city, and their very lives, and given hope for the world to fight back against the growing tide of undeath.

The party pays a visit to Lock and finds the halfling researcher busily working on a strange concoction of something he calls ‘silver residuum’ that he’s certain could double the turnip crop of the city. Lock also mentions he’s taking time to correct some of the minor details of the Library’s texts on the Third Righteous War. Erik assures Lock that the size of the turnip crop and the historical details of long-forgotten wars are not the most pressing problems right now, and that he could perhaps brew up some more healing potions for the city to use. Lock is reluctant to take on such menial work, but The Zaza assures the halfling that she’ll keep an eye out for any supplies of silver residuum she might come across in her adventures.

Meanwhile, the party receives a few gifts as thanks for their service to the city. Bane delivers a magnificent set of chainmail to Aramil. “Brilliant workmanship from master eladrin craftsmen – they call it finemail! I thought it would fit you well.” The Boccob priestess, Larath, that the party saved from the temple community on the Northern Ice Sheet, also visits the party to deliver a few artifacts that the party salvaged from the Ice Trolls’ cave. She gives them a set of three Rings of Radiance. Each ring allows the wearer to imbue their next attack with radiant energy, a powerful weapon against undead .The rings must recharge for several minutes between uses, though.

To spread the word of the Empire’s rebirth, Aramil and Old Breddy work with Bane to begin sending missives to everyone they know across the northlands that was at all associated with the Empire of Nerath in the past. As news spreads of Arastur’s victory against the undead, the only city thus far to successfully repel an attack from the undead hordes, many leaders put their political concerns aside and pledge their support to the Empire. There are still plenty of genuine sympathizers to be found, who not only cheer on the Empire’s rebirth, but leave their current posts to journey to Arastur and join the cause. Soon there is a large influx of soldiers, generals, merchants, nobles, and more, all who remember the Empire fondly and the peace and order it brought to the land. There are still plenty of cities throughout the north who revile the Empire’s reemergence, but, with Arastur’s victory over the undead, it seems the Empire has enough support that it will stand undisturbed by its political enemies for now.

Old Breddy receives a confusing response from one of the letters sent to an old sergeant he served with in the Empire, a dwarf named Rort. He manages to convince Aramil to let him take a contingent of men to investigate Rort’s village, including Lucinda, Palloth, and the Meloran priest Voland. The group returns after a couple of weeks, with a wild story of fighting off an entire tribe of ogres that had taken over the village. Old Breddy is particularly unimpressed with the new Rings of Radiance the party is sporting, “While we were out saving villages, you guys were trying on fancy new rings? Did you get pedicures, too?”

More disturbingly, Old Breddy reports that from high up in the mountains in the dwarven ruins of Arnathon, the group witnessed a massive army of undead giants, ogres, orcs, and other monsters travelling east out of the Torin Plains. The armies of undead the party has heard of up till now pale in comparison to the awesome might and size of this force pouring into the northlands. The party decides that it is clearly time for decisive action.

What Next?

Of course, the party must then decide what this decisive action should be. They still don’t know the secret passphrase that could be used to disable the Keystone Mortalis, but they do know where Lord Dread’s castle is. They consider striking out across the wilderness to reach it, though it would likely take them a month’s time to travel there. There is also the teleportation circle the party came across when they defeated the Cultists of Mortalis and the Gibbering Mouthers in the sewers beneath Arastur. The party believes there’s a chance it might lead directly to Lord Dread’s castle.

After some debate, the party decides they should activate the teleportation circle and take a quick look around at what’s on the other side, without travelling through. Larath, the priestess of Boccob, assures the party she could hold open the teleportation circle for about 15 seconds so the party could hop through and come right back after seeing what’s on the other side.

The party prepares for the ritual, bringing a large contingent of soldiers down into the sewers in case something tries to come back with them through the portal. Larath utters the incantations of the ritual and, after a few minutes, the party’s vision begins to blur and shift. They suddenly find themselves somewhere else.

They appear to be on the ground floor of the ruins of what was once a small watchtower. The structure is now completely destroyed. Only a short chest-high wall remains along one side of the tower, connecting to a meager rock wall that runs along one side of what looks like a small farming village. The village itself has also been clearly destroyed. Many buildings are only blackened burned-out husks, and others have doors and windows shattered in. The party can see a large number of creatures milling about the village. All appear to be undead of some kind.

Much nearer to them, the party sees two ghouls standing around the teleportation circle, now pointing excitedly at the party. One begins letting out a blood-curdling howl and rushes back towards the village. The party tries to silence the creature before it can raise an alarm, as Erik uses his newly acquired Ring of Radiance to blast the creature with a radiant magic missile. It howls in pain, but survives the attack. Invicto then quickly utters an Infernal Moon Curse on the creature, lifting the creature off of its feet and holding it suspended in air. Unfortunately, the commotion is too much to hide, as the undead in the village appear to take notice of the party. Soon zombies, skeletons, and other creatures begin pouring out of the village, headed towards the party. The party can already see around 20 undead headed their way, and they’re sure there are even more in the village.

The Zaza Goes Crazy Again

Fortunately, this was only a reconnaissance mission anyways, and the party is glad the portal will close in a matter of seconds, taking them safely back to Arastur. Unfortunately, as the party turns their attention from the fleeing ghouls, they notice that The Zaza has wandered out of the teleportation circle and is ambling towards a nearby copse of trees outside the village. The rest of the party is flabbergasted.

Aramil cries out, “What are you doing!?” The Zaza seems transfixed and mutters something about Melora. The rest of the party groans in frustration, shocked that the paladin has chosen this exact moment to go crazy again. Erik activates his Bracers of Mental Might, and uses the surge of strength to tackle The Zaza to the ground. With Aramil’s help they begin dragging the paladin back into the teleportation circle.

The Zaza seems to come to her senses and turns to her companions. She implores them, in a surprisingly lucid voice, “No! You have to follow me! Can’t you see it – there’s a unicorn over there in those trees. She’s Melora’s symbol, and Melora told me, ‘Look for my guide on your quest, for I will be with you.’” Erik, Aramil, and Invicto look at each other dubiously. They see no unicorn standing in the trees outside the village. Erik and Aramil have spent time studying religious lore, however, and they know that unicorns are magical creatures that can sometimes only be seen by the chosen adherents of a deity. It is possible that The Zaza is seeing something that the others cannot.

The Zaza stands up and pleads to her friends, “I’m not crazy! You must trust me – Melora is trying to help us right now. Just follow me, and we’ll be alright.” The party is torn, with only seconds to decide to start fleeing into the woods, following The Zaza’s possibly imaginary unicorn, or to return safely to Arastur. The paladin does seem to have her wits about her. Erik finally shrugs and says, “Well, we followed you and your Axe of Light in that castle of undead in the Jeweled Cities, so I guess we should follow you in this village of undead now.”

Aramil’s eyes practically burst out of his head, “What? You can’t be serious! This is crazy – she’s crazy! Let’s just go back to Arastur like we planned.”

The pack of undead is rushing closer and closer, and more and more are pouring out of the village. Invicto’s not sure who to believe, but he figures following The Zaza won’t get them anywhere with a giant horde of undead on their heels. The gnome quickly reaches into his pack and produces a strange black candle the party hasn’t seen before. He lights it and suddenly the party members take on a ghostly, partially translucent appearance. They seem to shift in and out of light and shadow, making them very difficult to see and hear. The gnome grins proudly at his new trick, and figures it shouldn’t go to waste. “Well, let’s go!”

As he hops out of the teleportation circle, The Zaza and Erik quickly follow. Aramil lingers a moment longer, wondering how he ever got so entangled with these crazy people, but finally jumps out of the circle just as the portal closes. As the party bursts into a full sprint, Erik turns to Invicto and says, “We’ll have to talk about where you got that candle later.” The gnome offers a sly smirk in response.

The Zaza sees the unicorn turn and begin trotting into the woods, keeping pace ahead of the party and leading them deep into the brush. With Invicto’s ghostly spell cast over the party, the undead on their heels soon find it difficult to keep track of the party and where they are headed. Furthermore, The Zaza looks down and notices that as they move through the brush, Invicto’s spell erases all traces of their passing. Soon, the party emerges from the woods and ascends into a patch of hilly terrain, leaving their undead pursuers behind. As they climb higher up in the hills, the party is able to safely slow to a walk, and The Zaza sees the unicorn calmly match their pace, continuing to lead them through the wilderness.

The party still cannot see the unicorn, but they trust, and hope, that they made the right decision in following The Zaza. Eventually The Zaza sees the unicorn stop at a small, brush-covered entrance to a cave in one of the hillsides. Inside the party finds a shallow natural cavern. The unicorn points with its horn to a pile of rocks in the back of the cavern and The Zaza begins removing the rocks.

The rocks cover a short tunnel entrance leading further underground. Heading down the tunnel, the party finds it opens into a small room carved from the rock that appears to be a tomb. The symbol of Pelor, god of light and life, is inscribed in the wall behind a large stone coffin sitting on a raised dais. Two golden candlesticks flank the dais, though they have long since burned out. An intricate circular symbol that the party does not recognize is inscribed on the coffin lid. The party is confused as to why they were brought here. They look at The Zaza inquisitively. The Zaza shrugs and turns to the unicorn, but in the blink of an eye, the creature is gone, leaving the party alone in the tomb.

A Dead End

The party discusses what it is the unicorn wanted them to see. Invicto and Aramil suggest they open the coffin, but The Zaza assures them Melora wouldn’t bring them here to be grave robbers. Erik has studied various religions extensively – he speaks up with his assessment, “A tomb like this would be reserved for a very famous and devout priest. It likely would have an acolyte dedicated to maintaining it, but judging by the state of things, the tomb looks to have been abandoned for decades, if not longer. But, a dedicated private tomb like this for a priest of Pelor… Some priests that are deemed pious enough by their gods are chosen to ascend into the divine realm after their death to serve as angels for their god. This might be the tomb of such a priest – one who became an angel.”

Invicto shrugs, “Why do we care about some angel’s tomb?” The party has no answer to that question.

Aramil begins to seriously regret the party’s decision to abandon the teleportation circle. “Why didn’t we just go back to Arastur? Now we’re just stuck in this dead-end cave with a tomb. This is great. This is really getting us somewhere…” The eladrin takes a breath and gathers his thoughts, looking around the tomb again. Glancing at the coffin lid, he notices the strange circular design on it. “What do you all make of this?”

The party has many learned students of religion amongst them, but no one recognizes the symbol as having any religious significance. It also doesn’t seem to have any historical significance. The party is at a loss as to what it means. Erik has a sudden flash of insight, “It’s not a religious or historical symbol, it’s just a circular design – I think it might be a teleportation circle.”

The party nods in agreement. The Zaza feels filled with nervous excitement. “I’m ready for this. Melora clearly brought us here to go through this portal. Activate it! I’ll go first.” She unsheathes her axe and eagerly climbs up on the coffin lid. Erik begins the incantations for the teleportation circle ritual and soon The Zaza finds herself transported.

Lord Dread Revealed

The paladin looks around at her new surroundings. She is in a small room carved out of some kind of black, jagged rock, with one doorway at the far end. In the middle of the room is a massive black cage that appears to be made of pure obsidian. Inside the cage, The Zaza sees a long-dead corpse, now only a skeleton, that appears to have been staked to the ground as part of some kind of gruesome ritual. Obsidian spikes are driven through the corpse’s wrists and ankles. The body wears white priest’s vestments, still clearly emblazoned with the symbol of Pelor. Hovering above the corpse is a ghostly white spirit.

The Zaza looks down and sees that she is standing on the lid of a coffin that looks very similar to the one she just left. The same circle is inscribed on its lid. This coffin, however, is somewhat ajar, and the lid wobbles a bit as The Zaza climbs off. The remaining party members climb into the portal as The Zaza holds the lid steady for them. Glancing inside the stone coffin, she can see that the body has been removed.

As the party files into the room, the ghostly white spirit inside the cage eventually seems to notice their presence. It turns towards them and a pair of red eyes light up its face. It lunges at the bars of the cage, extending a ghostly white hand through to swipe at the party, “Come closer, evil scum, so you can meet your justice!”

The party is confused by the spirit’s words. The Zaza also feels a sense of confusion from her Axe of Light. The divine artifact senses that the spirit is undead, and is thus eager for battle. However, at the same time it feels hesitant about unleashing its radiant power on this creature.

The party studies the spirit for a time, especially its blank, expressionless face, and The Zaza and Invicto suddenly realize that this spirit resembles no kind of living humanoid. It appears to be an angel, or at least the spirit of one.

The party discusses how to proceed, and eventually Aramil steps forward to try and recruit a new ally by offering a few exaggerations, “Great spirit, we are servants of Melora, sent by her to free you so that you can vanquish Lord Dread.”

The creature eyes Aramil dubiously through the bars of its cage. “Petty mortal, I can see the lies in your soul. Speak the truth.”

The Zaza brushes Aramil aside and pleads with the spirit, “It’s true, we were not sent here by Melora to free you, but Melora did guide us to this place. We seek to stop Lord Dread and to retrieve the Keystone Mortalis.”

The spirit’s piercing eyes stare into The Zaza’s for a moment, then it offers a curt nod. “I can see the purity in your heart, noble warrior. Your quest is a worthy one.”

The paladin asks, “Why are you here? And where is here, are we in Lord Dread’s castle?”

The ghostly spirit responds, “Lord Dread? Ah, you must use his mortal name. Yes, we are in his castle.”

“Mortal name?” Erik asks.

The spirit answers, “Yes, his true name is Xyrnys. Do you not know of his history?” The party shakes their heads eager to hear what this spirit knows of him. “Like me, Xyrnys was an angel of Pelor, servant to the god of light, bringer of life. Long ago, we dwelled in the celestial realm and served or god dutifully. However, Xyrnys was seduced by dark magics and the power of undeath, an unholiness that is abhorred by Pelor. He fell from the light and embraced the darkness, turning himself into an undead angel. But, he could not escape Pelor’s justice. As punishment for his betrayal, the god of light banished Xyrnys to the mortal realm, and confined him to this black castle. Unable to leave, Xyrnys is forced to live out eternity alone, in the corrupted embrace of undeath.

Pelor hoped to show Xyrnys the error of his ways and the despair that undeath brings to the world, by having him face an eternity of a soulless, lonely existence. But, he has only grown more bitter with time. His undead minions were able to locate the earthly tomb of my body that I inhabited before ascending to an angelic afterlife. He used my corpse to summon my spirit back to my body, entrapping me in this prison. Now, he takes out his petty vengeance for Pelor by torturing me.”

“How long have you been here?” Erik asks.

The angel responds, “Over a century now.” The party collectively shutters at the thought of enduring over 100 years of torture.

Aramil speaks up to say, “Well, if Lord Dread comes down here regularly, we could just set some kind of ambush here.”

The spirit says, “Xyrnys has been busy of late, he has not visited me for over a year now.”

The Zaza replies, “Well, then we will just have to go find him.” Erik and Invicto use their arcane training to examine the obsidian cage holding the angel. Unfortunately, they find that the prison is layered with a dizzying array of enchantments and abjurations. They predict it would likely take days or even weeks to unravel the spells to set the trapped angel free.

The angel nods solemnly, “Do not concern yourself with me. If it is my fate to spend eternity trapped here, then so be it. I have served my god well. Seek out Xyrnys if that is what you came for. You can attempt to free me from my prison another time.”

The party debates what to do next. Aramil is hesitant to just charge out into Lord Dread’s castle. Erik, Invicto, and The Zaza recall that the necromancer’s castle was crawling with undead minions, and that was before he began raising an army with the Keystone Mortalis. Aramil is also concerned that the party would be unable to defeat Lord Dread. An undead angel sounds like a powerful foe, one that might be past the party’s abilities. The eladrin eventually turns to the imprisoned angel to ask, “Do you think the four of us really stand a chance against Lord Dread?”

The angel ponders for a time, then responds, “I have been around for many centuries. I have seen great mortal heroes accomplish amazing feats and change the fate of the world many times over. The only question is, are you great heroes?”

Most of the party nods eagerly, though Aramil still has his doubts. The Zaza then asks the angel, “If we do battle Xyrnys, what should we expect from him in a fight? Does he have any weaknesses?”

The angel responds, “He has no particular weaknesses, though he can be defeated just like any other creature. One thing you must be prepared for – Xyrnys is a fallen angel of light who has embraced darkness. Using his magic, he will be able to call down the blackest darkness to blind his enemies. No mortal magic will be able to pierce this darkness, though Xyrnys will be able to see through it.”

A Deadly Touch

The party nods grimly. They begin preparing to leave the room, and Aramil asks Erik to perform a couple of Sending rituals to relay messages for him. First to Palloth, Aramil asks Erik to deliver the message, “We’re fighting Lord Dread. Probably not coming back.” Erik is not impressed with Aramil’s romantic instincts, so he adds a few words to the end about loving you always. Aramil then asks Erik to deliver a message to Bane, “We’re fighting Lord Dread. Probably not coming back. Raise the Empire. Guard the heir. Live long and prosper.” Erik is not impressed with Aramil’s pessimism, so he adds a few words to the end about having some chance of coming out victorious.

With everything in order, the party thanks the angelic spirit for speaking with them and then heads out of the door. They travel down a long, featureless hallway carved out of the black rock, though they occasionally pass large chunks of obsidian in the walls. They eventually come to a T-intersection. To the left the party sees a set of stairs heading up. To the right a hallway extends out past their light, though they feel a slight breeze that carries the scent of fresh air.

They decide to investigate the breeze and proceed down the right hallway. After travelling a short time they see the corridor take a sharp turn to the left up ahead and can see what appears to be some small amount of light spilling into the hallway from something around the corner. Suddenly, two black ghostly forms float out from the rock walls of the hallway. They eye the party hungrily as one of them whispers in a raspy voice, “Living blood? The master is generous.” The party readies for battle, but the wraiths move in quickly, lashing out with their ghostly hands to touch Aramil and Invicto. With one blow the two party members are rendered unconscious as they fall to the hard floor.

The Zaza and Erik, the only two party members left standing after the spirits’ initial assault, realize with horror that the ghostly undead are Death Wraiths. Abominations of evil, Death Wraiths comprise the pure essence of necrotic energy. Their touch will drain the life from the strongest hero. However, because they are so dependent on the necrotic energy that sustains them, a single blow of radiant damage, no matter how small, will annihilate the creatures. Erik is not interested in risking another round of attacks from the Death Wraiths. Before The Zaza can even step forward to engage the creatures, Erik wastes no time in eliminating the threat. But first, he shrieks like a girl.

Once he gathers his courage, the wizard then quickly utters the incantations to a Magic Missile spell, activating his Ring of Radiance as he does so. A ball of force streaks unerringly into one of the Death Wraiths and the radiant energy imbued from the ring destroys the creature instantaneously. Erik then quickly pulls Invicto’s Ring of Radiance from his unconscious hand and launches another Magic Missile at the other Death Wraith, and in the blink of an eye the party is alone again in the hallway. The Zaza utters, “Praise Melora!” as she looks around the dim hallway that seconds ago held two lethal Death Wraiths. Erik and The Zaza quickly tend to their fallen comrades and find them both still barely clinging to life, as the Death Wraiths were fortunately not able to strike their victims a second time.

Breaking Confinement

The party rests a short time so Aramil and Invicto can recover, then continues on their way. Turning the corner up ahead, they find the breeze grows stronger until it becomes a steady, heavy wind. They see the corridor end as it opens into what appears to be a tall vertical shaft, with light spilling up from the bottom. Suspended down the length of the shaft is a huge column of obsidian. The party approaches to peer into the shaft. It appears to be circular, not more than ten feet in diameter. The obsidian column runs the length of the shaft, around seven or eight feet in diameter, leaving a narrow gap between it and the walls. This close, the party can feel the obsidian column humming with necrotic energy, and they periodically see magical bolts of energy shoot out from the obsidian, striking the nearby walls.

The most shocking discovery, however, is what the party sees as they peer into the bottom of the shaft. The light spilling up from below appears to be sunlight. The shaft, and the obsidian column, simply end in open air. Below the castle, the party sees open sky and a landscape far below. The terrain appears to be slowly drifting by. The party suddenly realizes that the castle they are in is flying through the air, far above ground. Erik frowns, “Well, it looks like Lord Dread has found a way to get around his confinement…”

Aramil turns to the rest of the party and shakes his head, “What have you got me into?” The veteran warlord is now seriously questioning his decision to follow his friends here.

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