The Boundary Lands

Chapter 15 - Into the Darkness (s. 36)

15.2 Party Crashing

The party peers warily down into the opening at the bottom of the shaft as the land passes by thousands of feet below them. Aramil briefly wonders whether he could just fall out of the bottom of the shaft, plummet to the earth, and fey step safely to the ground at the last second to get out of this certain death trap he finds himself in, but decides against it… for now. Instead, the veteran warlord turns to The Zaza, whose crazy vision led them here, and curtly asks, “Well, Zaza, what do we do now?”, purposely leaving out the ‘The’ in The Zaza’s name.

Sparks Fly

The dragonborn ignores Aramil’s attempted slight and continues examining the obsidian column. The paladin’s keen eyes spot an opening in the rock wall of the shaft surrounding the obsidian. About 30 feet below and around to the party’s right, it appears to be the landing of an open hallway, similar to the one the party is now standing in.

The Zaza points out the opening and Aramil suggests the party try to climb down to it. Invicto promptly emits a deep hacking sound from his throat then launches a formidably-sized ball of spit down the open air of the shaft. About halfway down, the spit is vaporized as it is zapped by a black bolt of necrotic energy. Aramil is still interested in trying, but the rest of the party, which isn’t as athletically inclined as the veteran warlord, declines. The party turns and heads back to the T-intersection that led them here and takes the one path they have yet to explore.

After walking up a short staircase, the party continues down the hallway as it extends into the darkness beneath Lord Dread’s keep. They eventually come upon a small opening in the wall of the corridor. A narrow shaft, about a foot in diameter, is neatly carved into the rock on the right side of the hallway. The party can’t fit through, but peering into it with their light they see the hole extends through the wall several feet then opens on to a large horizontal shaft running parallel to the hallway they are in. The horizontal shaft looks very similar to the large vertical one they were just at – a long obsidian column, crackling with necrotic energy, is suspended in the center of it. Drawing on their arcane training, Erik and Invicto both deduce that the obsidian columns are being used as conduits for the magical necrotic energy that keeps the castle afloat in the air. There must be a central source where this magical energy is created, then sent throughout the rock beneath the castle to power its unholy flight.

Ask and You Shall Receive

The Zaza and Aramil find this all very interesting, but are ready to move on. The party eventually comes to a four-way intersection. The passageway to their right appears to widen and open up as the corridor becomes larger, but the party’s light does not show where the passageway leads. The passageway to the party’s left also extends out into darkness, but The Zaza can hear the faint sounds of moaning or yelling down the passageway. Examining the corridor straight across from them, Aramil can feel a slight breeze coming from it.

Given their encounter with Death Wraiths the last time the party ventured down a corridor where they felt a slight breeze, the party agrees not to venture down the corridor across from them. The sound of moaning and yelling in a castle of undead is never an inviting sign, so the party decides to follow the widening passageway to the right. The broad corridor eventually comes to a large set of heavy, stone double doors.

The rough stonework of the corridor leaves a slight crack between the doors and the uneven rock floor. The Zaza peers through this crack and believes she can see a wide circular staircase on the other side of the door. In the distance beyond the door, she again hears the crackling sound generated by the bolts of necrotic energy the party has encountered twice now. The paladin tries the thick iron handle but finds the doors won’t budge. The Zaza has heard tales of ‘living’ doors that can come to life and demand the answer to a riddle to be opened, and secretly the dragonborn hopes that this is just such a door, since that would make this adventure all the more epic and exciting!

As if in response to The Zaza’s secret desires, a face appears in the stone doors and fixes the party with a curious gaze. “My, my! I have not had visitors in centuries it seems.” The face’s voice has a deep rumbling quality, a sound that matches the look of the ancient, heavy stone that the face is made of. The party is amazed at the sight, and Invicto and Erik recognize the face as the embodiment of a stone spirit – an elemental being Lord Dread likely captured and bound to this door.

The stone spirit’s booming, hollow voice rolls into the corridor again, “Why do you seek passage?”

As the rest of the party ponders what they should say to this question, The Zaza, always the noble warrior, doesn’t waste time concocting an elaborate lie. The paladin boldly states, “We are here to kill Lord Dread.”

The face of the stone door lets out a low, rocky chuckle. “Aren’t you forthright. Well, I’m afraid the magic that binds me here will force me to warn him. However,” the face in the doors takes on a mischievous grin, “I’m technically only bound by my master to block passage for escaped prisoners, which you do not seem to be.” The party thanks their good fortune that this guardian spirit is clearly not pleased with its master after being bound to this door for eternity. “It is so rare that I find any entertainment down here, so I seek your help in that regard. As a guardian spirit, I do love riddles. Answer my riddles three, and I will let you pass.” The party eagerly agrees to the spirit’s test.

A city of stone where no one lives
Yet many will visit each day.
You’ll come many times to see old friends
And then you’ll come once to stay.

Erik ponders this riddle only briefly before stating, “A graveyard.”

The stone face smiles, “Well done. Something a little harder then.”

Beat this hero, he just grows harder,
Whip him and he stands up tall.
Babies love him like no other.
But if he stays too long, he’s abhored by all.

The party is struck silent for a time by this puzzle. They quietly wrack their brains, but no one seems to have any ideas. Finally they start to discuss any guesses they might have. None seem to make any sense, when Aramil mentions in passing, “When I first heard it, it made me think of milk or cream, or something like that, but that doesn’t sound right.” The Zaza nods eagerly at the idea, though. “That’s it! Milk! You can beat it into butter, or whip it into cream. Babies love it, and if you leave it out it goes bad.” The dragonborn turns to the stone spirit and says, “The answer’s milk!”

The face in the doors lets out something like a childish giggle, “Well done, indeed! You are correct! Only one more now.”

You can find me on a human or a halfling or a gnome
You can find me in a glass of beer, with frothy, sudsy foam
You can find me in the cabbage patch, growing in the loam
What am I?

Most of the party is at a loss on this riddle, and Erik asks the spirit to repeat it. Since the riddle involves both gnomes and beer, however, Invicto takes only a moment to decipher the answer. “Head!” the warlock says.

The stone spirit breaks into a broad smile again, “Well done! You are clearly a clever bunch and have earned your passage. Farewell, and good journey! But, know that I must warn my master now that you are coming to kill him.” As the doors swing open the party frowns at The Zaza, but they quickly hurry through on to the wide, spiral staircase beyond.

Up and Down

Standing on the landing of the spiral staircase, the party can clearly hear the crackling of necrotic energy coming from below. The Zaza gestures upwards on the staircase, “We’ve got to get to Lord Dread as soon as possible since that spirit is warning him we’re coming.” The rest of the party nods its agreement and the group hurries up the stairs.

They climb several floors before the stairs finally end in a simple wooden door. Unfortunately, the door is flanked on both sides by smooth obsidian columns, and a sheet of black necrotic energy extends out from the obsidian and covers the door. Erik and Invicto examine the door thoroughly but find no way around the energy field. The wizard turns to the rest of the group, “It’s unpassable. Maybe if we had hours to work at the magic around the door we could find a way to deactivate it, but otherwise…”

The rest of the party groans in frustration. Erik continues, “These obsidian columns appear to be powered by the same energy running through the rest of this complex, though. If we could find a way to shut off the source of this energy, the door would open easily.”

Aramil nods, “Well, we heard more sounds of that energy coming from below on this staircase, so I guess we’re heading back down.” The rest of the party agrees. Heading back down, they pass by the landing they entered the staircase through and are quickly descending further into the cavernous complex beneath Lord Dread’s castle. The sound of the crackling bolts of energy grows louder, and soon the party hears the screams of what sounds like a human as well.

They finally reach the end of the staircase and can see it opens on to a wide landing in the corner of a large chamber with a vaulted rocky ceiling. The landing is raised above the floor of the rest of the chamber by a short broad set of stairs. The rest of the party hides in the shadows of the spiral stairwell while Invicto carefully pokes his head out to look around the chamber.

Stopping It at the Source

Invicto sees a large open chamber with a small doorway in the opposite wall as the only other exit. A nest of black obsidian crystals grows out of the center of the room. Each wall in the room has a large polished obsidian circle set in it about halfway up. Periodically, huge bolts of necrotic energy shoot out from the nest of crystals to disappear into one of the patches of obsidian on the walls. Invicto guesses that the obsidian circles are the beginnings of the long crystal shafts the party has seen running throughout the complex, and this room is the source of the castle’s magical energy.

A pack of undead skeletons dressed in robes are circled around the nest of crystals, chanting some unholy ritual. Nearby, a desperate-looking woman dressed only in rags lies tied down to a simple stone altar. A human, wearing robes emblazoned with the symbol of the Cult of Mortalis, holds a ceremonial knife poised above the woman’s chest while she screams helplessly. Invicto can see that the woman already has a number of gruesome cuts across her torso oozing blood. Along the far wall, a pack of four other human prisoners wait listlessly in chains. The gnome also spies a couple of undead minotaurs standing guard in the room. Invicto reports back to the party on what he saw and the group decides not to waste anymore time. Aramil and The Zaza quickly charge down the stairs as Invicto and Erik step out onto the landing, already uttering arcane incantations.

The party has the element of surprise, and Aramil does not waste it. He leaps over the last few stairs and charges straight towards the nearest minotaur. The creature barely has time to turn around before Aramil brings down his long sword in a devastating critical blow that tears through the rotting flesh of one of its shoulders, almost severing its arm from its body. The Zaza quickly engages the other undead minotaur, and although she doesn’t deliver quite as deadly of an opening salvo, she utters a Divine Challenge against the creature, daring it to tempt the paladin’s radiant wrath by turning its attention away from her.

Erik summons a flaming sphere in the far corner of the room, and begins rolling the magical fire into the robed skeletons surrounding the nest of obsidian crystals. Though the creatures are caught by surprise, they are no strangers to battle. The cultist sheathes his knife and directs several of the skeletons to turn away from the ritual and attack the party. As they move to engage, The Zaza recognizes the creatures as wilt-eyed skeletons, harrowing creatures of little intelligence, but with a talent for unholy magic and an undying thirst for blood.

Erik and Invicto turn their attention to one of these creatures and unleash an onslaught of spells, both of which miss horribly. Meanwhile, Aramil is dismayed to discover that the bolts of necrotic energy emanating from the nest of obsidian crystals are not discriminating in the paths they take out of the room. One shoots out of the obsidian and blasts through his body, wracking him with pain. The veteran warlord manages to shake it off though, and, after some short work, the minotaur before him is lying dead on the ground.

The Zaza keeps the other minotaur engaged as a wilt-eyed skeleton ambles towards her to lash out with its claws. A couple of the other skeletons surround Aramil, but Erik and Invicto’s poor aim doesn’t last long. Raining down arcane fire from the raised landing, the magic-users quickly begin dropping the wilt-eyed skeletons. Erik continues rolling his flaming sphere around the nest of obsidian crystals and soon the remaining skeletons performing the ritual, along with the human cultist, go down in flames. The Zaza finishes off the last minotaur with a searing blow of radiant energy from her axe, and the party finds themselves alone with the human prisoners.

Beginning Our Descent

The party notices that with the ritual stopped, bolts of necrotic energy are no longer emanating from the crystals in the center of the room. They all suddenly feel the castle lurch and a weightless feeling in their stomachs tells them the castle has started to descend. The Zaza ignores the issue for now and hurriedly attends to the bleeding prisoner on the altar. The paladin cuts the woman loose and bandages her wounds.

Suddenly, the small door on the far wall of the room opens and another robed skeleton emerges. The party tightens the grip on their weapons, but the skeleton seems to completely ignore them. The creature mindlessly approaches the nest of obsidian crystals and begins chanting ritualistic words and making arcane gestures in the air. The party watches curiously, and after a time a bolt of necrotic energy shoots out from the nest of crystals again, though the party still has the feeling that the castle is sinking.

Aramil approaches the prisoners along the far wall and brings down his long sword on the chain binding them to the rock. “Truth is, we’re not sure if there’s a way out of here, but follow us and we’ll fight our way out somehow.” The prisoners nod warily and slowly get to their feet.

The eladrin then steps over to the remaining skeleton and severs its head with one blow of his long sword. Aramil then closes the door and wedges some loose rocks into the edges around it, jamming the door shut. The party feels the castle is gaining speed in its descent.

Erik asks, “Do we care that we might bring this castle crashing into the ground?” The party members look at each other and collectively shrug. They were facing pretty long odds going up against a fallen angel of darkness wielding an all-powerful artifact of Vecna surrounded by an army of undead anyways. If they just drive the whole thing into the ground and crush Lord Dread under a pile of rubble, then at least they make sure they take him out with them. The human prisoners don’t look quite as nonchalant, but are too beaten and broken to voice any concerns.

Fasten Your Seatbelts

The party begins running up the spiral staircase, the freed prisoners following behind them. All the way up the stairs, the party can feel the castle lurching faster and faster as it plummets out of the sky. They reach the top of the stairs and find the necrotic energy field gone, as the obsidian columns on either side of the door stand lifeless. The door opens easily, and the party hustles out into what appears to be a large grand hall. The party seems to have emerged from the underground complex (though it is now flying above ground) beneath the castle and are now in Lord Dread’s keep itself.

The great hall features a tall, vaulted ceiling and is rimmed along three sides with an upper level balcony. Only the wall the party has emerged from does not hold a second story landing above. Stairs on either side of the party lead to the upper level. Roughly hewn columns support the balconies, allowing for ample shadowy space beneath the balconies on the ground floor with the party.

Unfortunately, the party does not find themselves alone. The hall is packed with undead of all types – ghouls, skeletons, zombies, wights, and other creatures the party doesn’t even recognize. At least 60 creatures await the party, either leering down from the upper level, or peering out from the shadowy darkness welling beneath the balconies on the ground floor. Desiccated lips gnaw eagerly while red glowing eyes leer hungrily at the small group of living humanoids in the room. Across the length of the long, open hall, a cultist of Mortalis steps out from the shadows beneath the far balcony and grins wickedly.

“The master said we should expect visitors…”

The party members look at each other desperately, wondering if this is the end of the road when they are suddenly thrown from their feet. The entire structure around them shudders and trembles with a horrible grinding sound as Lord Dread’s keep collides with the earth.

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