The Boundary Lands

Chapter 15 - Into the Darkness (s. 37)

15.3 All Good Things...

The stone architecture of the castle cannot withstand the strain of the collision and the upper floor balconies in the grand hall fracture and crack apart. (The party’s old dwarven companion, Fargrim, had commented on the shoddy workmanship when the party had first visited Lord Dread’s keep.) Heaps of stone rain down on the heads of the undead creatures filling the first floor of the chamber. The collapsing balconies drop the undead from the second floor down into the heaping pile of bodies and rubble as well.

The party is thrown forward, but fortunately tumbles across the open section of the grand hall, avoiding the crushing tons of rock raining down on the outside edges of the room. They are bruised and battered from the collision, but they all survive. As they stagger to their feet, they feel the castle lurch and rise beneath them as they sense a sinking feeling in their stomachs. The party presumes that Lord Dread’s keep suffered only a glancing blow with the earth as it collided with a tall mountain or hillside, and the necromancer’s undead servants have apparently resumed the castle’s flight and have begun to ascend away from the ground.

The party looks about to find a few straggling injured undead trying to claw their way out of the rubble, but the party makes quick work of them. Gathering the terrified human prisoners they freed from below, the party hurries through the only door in the room they can find that isn’t buried under the rubble of the balconies.

Reaching the End

The party hustles down a long dark hallway of black rock until they come to a broad four-way intersection. Invicto and Erik’s sharp minds recognize the location from the party’s previous trips to Lord Dread’s castle, and they both gesture to the passageway on the right, confident that it will lead them to Dread’s throne room. The Zaza and Aramil nod their agreement and the party steadily marches into the dark corridor.

There isn’t a safe place anywhere in the castle, so the party has the escaped prisoners follow them, but they tell them to fall back a good distance and hide if they hear the sounds of battle. Eventually the party starts passing large chunks of obsidian in the corridor’s walls. Just as when they last visited Lord Dread’s keep, there are corpses trapped in the black glass, their faces twisted in horrid expressions of pain that offer a final silent scream to the world.

Passing a dense pack of corpses in the walls, the visages of some of the entombed bodies suddenly come to life as ghostly images and streak out of the obsidian rock towards the party. The incorporeal faces dissipate as they strike the party, causing no damage, but they leave the party members unnerved and filled with an unconquerable feeling of dismay. Only Aramil’s steely will is strong enough to shrug off the effects of the ghostly visages. The rest of the party feels that their hands will be slick with nervousness until they land their first blow in battle.

Surprisingly, the party soon sees the open doors of the throne room up ahead. In the dim torchlight they see Lord Dread awaiting them inside, perched on his massive chair of black, ebony skulls. He is far from alone, but he calmly awaits the party as they make their way into the throne room.

One Last Dreadful Meeting

Every inch of Lord Dread’s throne room, other than a narrow clearing around the doors, is packed with undead. Even larger than the host that awaited them in the grand hall, the throne room appears to hold more than a hundred creatures. The party spies numerous Death Wraiths floating amongst the congregated undead, their hungry gazes locked lustily on the party. Two of the creatures almost finished off the party below, and now there are many times that number in the throne room. Packs of salivating ghouls slowly scrape their long, wicked claws across the black stone floor. The party is familiar with these creatures from their harrowing escape from Castillo del Mortes, and they know that a single blow from the creatures’ claws can paralyze. Standing near the throne, the party sees several Deathlocks, powerful undead necromancers that can wield black magic. The vile Sir Uthrin was changed into one of these creatures and provided a menacing challenge to the party on his own. At least a dozen of these undead abominations are scattered throughout the room.

The party is dismayed to see that none of the undead appear to be of the younger or weaker variety that might at least succumb to a quick strike of radiant magic. Dread Knights, wilt-eyed skeletons, wights, ghosts, and ghasts mingle with the hulking undead forms of ogres, minotaurs, trolls, and more. The throne room seems to be filled with enough unspeakable terrors to last for a lifetime of nightmares. The party isn’t sure what they’re supposed to do at this point, but Invicto seems surprisingly calm and collected.

Of course, along with the massive pack of undead, Lord Dread sits comfortably perched on his throne. He appears just as the party last saw him (though this is Aramil’s first meeting). A simple black cloak is draped over a dark suit of chainmail. A skull mask covers Lord Dread’s face, and looking into the eye sockets the party sees only endless black wells the color of night. The only change in his appearance is that, nestled in the crook of his arm, Lord Dread holds the Keystone Mortalis.

Dread raises a hand in a welcoming gesture, “Welcome my friends! It has been a long time since you last gifted me with your presence, and this artifact, of course.” The necromancer gestures to the Keystone Mortalis.

The Zaza swells with hope seeing that Lord Dread is holding the dark artifact of undeath in their presence. If they can say the secret passphrase Dread has chosen to use with the Keystone Mortalis, the undead under his power will be released. The dragonborn shouts “Xyrnys!” thinking that perhaps Lord Dread used his former angelic name as the passphrase. Unfortunately, nothing happens, so The Zaza shouts, “Caratus Sinor!”, the passphrase Lord Dread gave the party long ago to enter his keep. Again nothing happens, and the paladin is quickly out of ideas. Now, The Zaza starts to get very worried.

Lord Dread eyes the paladin curiously, “Well, well. Taking some stabs in the dark?” The necromancer then lets out a low chuckle. “I’m afraid you’ll have no choice now but to join me. But don’t worry, you will be treated very well. I owe you such a debt of gratitude. Without you, none of this would be possible!” Dread makes a sweeping gesture with his arm at the cadre of undead leering hungrily at the party. “I will make you undead lieutenants in my army. You will spend eternity helping me rid the world of life and light. And when we are done, you will enjoy the eternal blackness with me.”

“We’re not joining you,” Erik replies plainly. He’s not sure what else to say, as the party is out of ideas. With the seething army of undead between them and Dread, no one thinks they can strike at Dread quickly enough to do any real damage to him before they are torn limb from limb. Besides, he is a powerful undead angel of darkness – even without the army of undead surrounding them the party isn’t sure that they could defeat him. Aramil shrugs, figuring he couldn’t see any other conclusion to this deranged adventure. At least he’ll go out in a blaze of glory.

Lord Dread chuckles arrogantly at Erik’s response. “My dear friends… I don’t believe you have any say in the matter.”

Invicto’s Long-Awaited Fortune

Invicto can no longer stifle his giggles, so he nudges the other party members aside and steps forward to address Lord Dread. Always keeping in mind a sense of drama, Invicto first offers a question to Lord Dread.

“Tell me, what was the name of your angel friend down below?” the gnome asks. Dread offers the gnome a tired look.

Truth be told, the warlock isn’t sure what the angel’s name is or if it means anything. He’s not even sure whether Dread’s secret phrase has any personal significance at all, but the gnome can’t miss an opportunity to add some flare to this moment. He has been waiting for it for a very long time now.

Invicto recalls the prophecy he received from the blind prophet of Io, Missyus,

The better passphrase is “Caratus Hinex”.

The gnome breaks into the broadest grin the rest of the party has ever seen and boldly calls out in his nasally, high-pitched voice, “Was it ‘Caratus Hinex’, by chance?”

In the blink of an eye, the undead creatures filling the room are gone. Zombies, skeletons, ghouls, and more drop to the floor as lifeless husks and wither away into a fine dust that whisks from sight. Incorporeal ghosts and wraiths simply wink out of existence without a sound. The party is left alone in the throne room with Lord Dread. The only sound that does fill the room is the long, desperate cry of disbelief from the undead necromancer, “Nooooo!

Blackest Darkness

The party turns to Invicto in amazement, and the gnome shrugs nonchalantly. The rest of the party is almost as stunned as Lord Dread, but the battle-hardened heroes don’t waste time considering their good fortune. The Zaza storms forward bringing down her Axe of Light to strike at Lord Dread. The angel of darkness comes to his senses just before The Zaza’s blow connects, and he disappears in a swirl of shadows. The dragonborn’s axe rings out as it slams into the ebony skulls comprising Dread’s throne, and suddenly the lights go out in the room. The party is thrust into pitch blackness, unable to see even an inch in front of their faces.

Dread’s voice echoes throughout the room, seething with anger, “Insolent fools! I don’t know how you learned that phrase, but you will pay for what you have done! Just taking your lives would be too easy.” Dread’s rant reaches a crescendo of hate as he cries, “I will have your souls!”

Erik utters the incantations to a Light spell and is dismayed to find that his magic cannot penetrate the darkness. The party is reminded of the imprisoned angel’s warning.

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.

Erik calls out, “My spells won’t work! I can’t create any light!”

The Zaza feels a bolt of black necrotic energy cut into her and she gasps in pain. She swings her axe defensively in front of her but hits nothing. The paladin is then suddenly struck from behind by a vicious set of claws that rake into her flesh and burn with a dark acid. She brings her axe around behind her but Lord Dread is already gone.

Desperate for help, The Zaza mutters a quick prayer to Melora and is suddenly reminded of her meeting with the goddess back in Arastur. She recalls Melora’s words to her.

Brave huntress, you are truly worthy of this blessed artifact. Know that when the time comes, it will be your light in the blackest darkness.

The Zaza commands her axe to shed bright light and feels it respond, but the suffocating blackness is not lifted. The paladin calls out to her companions, “Melora said my axe could bring light, but it’s not working!”

The party hears the throne room doors slam shut. Invicto is suddenly engulfed in a cloud of grave dust. The gnome stumbles backwards out of the spell, choking harshly. He launches an Eldritch Blast towards the doors, but hits nothing, only hearing a soft chuckle from Dread for his efforts. The fallen angel indeed seems unaffected by the darkness, and with the party completely blind they have little defense against his attacks. They know it is only a matter of time before they are defeated if they can’t find a way to penetrate Lord Dread’s darkness.

Erik shouts, “Your axe must have a power that can help, reach out to it The Zaza!”

Aramil recalls some of his eladrin schooling and calls out, “For a great purpose, artifacts can sacrifice themselves. Your axe may need to expend all of its magic to fight this. Tell the axe it must make the ultimate sacrifice now, or we’re-” Before the eladrin can finish speaking a bolt of necrotic energy explodes into his body and he grits his teeth in pain.

Shed a Little Light

The Zaza refocuses her mind on the Axe of Light, pleading for it to show her a way to combat this ultimate evil that threatens the world. Her mind suddenly explodes with images. She sees now what she must do to unleash the Axe as the Bringer of Light. If the paladin can land a blow on Lord Dread with the Axe, the artifact will expend itself in one glorious magical onslaught to negate Dread’s powers of darkness in the battle.

The Zaza takes a centering breath and draws upon her keen senses to listen for any sound of movement. She hears a few quiet footfalls just before Invicto cries out in pain as Dread’s claws bite into his flesh. The paladin rushes to the spot in the room where she heard movement and swings her axe desperately. She knows her target is near, as she hears Dread sliding around her, but he manages to easily dodge her blows then quietly scuttle away from her.

The Zaza curses in frustration. “Melora, please! I need you now!” The Zaza’s divine connection does not fail her, and she feels impending danger surrounding Erik just before Lord Dread lashes out at the wizard with his corrupted angelic claws. The Zaza utters a prayer to Melora to enact a Knightly Intercession, a divine power the paladin has used before, but which has never been so well timed. Through divine will, Dread’s attack is redirected to The Zaza and the necromancer is transported before her. The Zaza grimaces as Dread’s claws connect with her instead of Erik, but, knowing where her target is, she puts every ounce of her strength into her counterattack. Caught off guard, Lord Dread’s defenses aren’t quite fast enough to evade the blow, and the Axe of Light bites into the undead necromancer’s side.

A burst of white, radiant light suddenly explodes into the room, emanating in showering sparks from where The Zaza’s axe has connected with Lord Dread. The angel of darkness howls in pain and surprise at the light filling the room. The party squints at the bright, vibrant light but rejoices that their sight is returned. As the shower of sparks fades, The Zaza feels the presence in her axe drain away, leaving it to forever be no more than another finely crafted weapon. However, Lord Dread’s darkness does not return and Erik’s spell now easily fills the room with light. The party focuses all eyes on Lord Dread.

The fallen angel of darkness curses the party, “Damn you all! I will flay the flesh from your bones for the rest of eternity! You cannot dream of the tortures I will craft for you!” With a blood-curdling howl, the undead necromancer lashes out at The Zaza, raising a bony finger to blast bolts of necrotic energy at the paladin from point blank range then clawing at her mercilessly with his long, skeletal hands. With her sight returned, The Zaza raises her shield and is able to deftly turn away many of the blows, but she finds she is now hanging on to consciousness by a thread.

The Final Battle

The rest of the party unleashes an onslaught of attacks on Lord Dread. Invicto invokes the Flames of Phlegethos and engulfs the necromancer in a devastating arcane blast of fire. Erik summons a Magma Beast and commands it to start relentlessly attacking Dread. Not to be outdone by The Zaza’s piety, Aramil charges into battle shouting a cry to Erathis, god of civilization, and executes the Dangerous Leader maneuver, cutting through Lord Dread’s defenses with a precise blow and inspiring his companions to draw upon their last reserves to continue fighting with every ounce of strength they have.

Lord Dread howls in rage at the wave of attacks the party is able to direct at him now that they can see. The necromancer utters a dark phrase and shadowy tendrils spit out in all directions around him. Aramil cries out in pain at the fingers of black magic seeping into his skin. Fresh to the battle, Erik’s summoned magma beast is almost brought low by the dark spell. The Zaza isn’t quite as lucky. Having already suffered a torrent of attacks from Lord Dread, the paladin falls to the ground, fading from consciousness.

Lord Dread disappears in a swirl of shadows as his dark magic engulfs his nearby enemies and the angel of darkness reappears in a far corner of the throne room. Before rejoining the battle, Aramil shouts some inspiring words to The Zaza and manages to call the dragonborn back to consciousness. As the paladin rises to her feet, Aramil turns and charges Lord Dread, raising his magical long sword to strike. Unfortunately, Lord Dread meets the veteran warlord’s charge with a scathing blur of acidic claws, and Aramil falls to the ground unconscious at Lord Dread’s feet.

As the melee fighters of the party struggle to endure Lord Dread’s attacks, Erik and Invicto continue launching devastating arcane attacks at the necromancer from afar. The casters don’t hold back in the least, calling upon their most devastating spells. The air in the throne room crackles with magical energy as the Curse of the Bloody Fangs, Ring of Pain, Fire Shroud, and other arcane incantations are called down upon Lord Dread. The dark angel is clearly battered and bloodied from the attacks and, after dropping Aramil, Lord Dread turns his attention to the casters.

Quickly gliding across the throne room floor, Lord Dread closes in on Invicto. The Zaza is momentarily torn between pursuing Lord Dread and helping Aramil, but the paladin decides the party needs everyone on their feet. She rushes to Aramil’s unconscious form and lays her hands upon the eladrin, calling upon Melora’s divine power to heal him.

As the two warriors leap back to their feet they turn to see Invicto back-pedaling before Lord Dread’s towering form. Erik’s Magma Beast continues to relentlessly pursue Lord Dread, and the summoned creature swings a fiery fist at the necromancer but narrowly misses. With a wave of Dread’s hand, a life-draining cloud of grave dust bursts into the air, and Invicto and the Magma Beast shriek in pain as necrotic energy seeps into every pore of their bodies. It is a devastating attack that fells both targets as Lord Dread lets out a triumphant laugh. Erik’s Magma Beast collapses to the floor and melts away into nothingness while Invicto falls to the ground motionless.

Lord Dread strides to the back of the throne room, launching a bolt of black necrotic energy at Erik as he moves. The wizard gasps in pain, but somehow manages to barely stay on his feet. Almost every party member has gone down in the fight now, and the party has no more resources to call upon to keep themselves upright. Invicto is still down, and The Zaza, Aramil, and Erik all cling to life by a thread. If Lord Dread is not defeated soon, it appears they will meet their end here in this dark keep after all. The necromancer is clearly injured, though, and the party knows if they can unleash one last devastating offensive they just might be able to take down the undead angel of darkness.

With Lord Dread backed into the far corner of the room, Erik calls upon his most devastating spell and fills the area around Dread with a Wall of Fire. The necromancer howls in pain at the searing flames licking his body. As he stumbles out of the spell’s grasp, The Zaza boldly rushes up to meet him. Calling upon Melora to guide her hand, she brings her axe around in a wide arc across her body, and the blade lands with a heavy blow. The Zaza feels the steel of her axe bite through the black chainmail on Dread’s chest and the necromancer is knocked straight backwards, back into the inferno of Erik’s spell. The devastating attack combined with the inescapable scorching flames of Erik’s magic is too much, and the party sees Lord Dread collapse to the ground with the Wall of Fire still burning around him.

Victory at Last

The party gives a triumphant shout and Aramil thrusts his long sword into the air. They still aren’t sure how they went from certain death to complete victory, but it is perhaps the sweetest victory they have ever tasted. The party quickly tends to Invicto’s wounds and gets him back on his feet. As the gnome dusts himself off, Erik asks, “The prophet of Io, right? We never did hear what your fortune was from her.” Invicto nods coyly. Erik is reminded of one of the fragments of prophecy Lock had found in his research on the Keystone Mortalis that had stood out to him.

And lo, the great god Io, refusing the paths of both good and evil, will gift the secret to bring light to the Mortalis Stone unto one with the blood of darkness, and he shall hold the balance of the world in his hands.

The wizard dismisses his Wall of Fire and the party collects the Keystone Mortalis, perfectly unharmed, from Lord Dread’s ashes. They feel the castle shudder oddly, but they suddenly notice with surprise that they don’t feel a sinking sensation in their guts. It seems the castle is still flying, meaning the undead powering the ritual must still be alive (er,… ‘unalive’ as it were). Erik says, “Maybe Dread has some undead in this castle that weren’t created by the Keystone Mortalis.” The wizard scratches his chin thoughtfully. “But, I also think it’s possible the artifact may have only disbanded the undead that were in its presence when the passphrase was spoken.”

The Zaza asks incredulously, “So the armies of undead might still be out there?”

Invicto shrugs, “Guess so. I don’t think the armies would stick together, though. Undead don’t organize like that. Without Dread to command them they’d just wander off alone or in packs.”

“Still a significant threat to the civilized nations,” Aramil surmises. “That sounds like a cause for the reborn Empire of Nerath to take up. I’m sure with some strong leadership at the helm, we can rid the northlands of the remaining wandering undead.”

The party feels the castle shudder again, and suddenly a chunk of black rock breaks loose from the ceiling and crashes to the floor. “Wait, but why is that happening?” The Zaza asks.

Erik eyes the ceiling warily and responds, “I don’t know. The angel trapped below did say that this castle was created by the gods as a prison for Lord Dread. With Dread gone, perhaps it has served its purpose…”

The party decides they shouldn’t waste any more time pondering the matter. They rush back down the main hallway outside the throne room. They find the escaped prisoners huddling in the darkness of a side corridor and usher them back down into the cavernous complex beneath the castle. The tremors running through the castle begin growing stronger and more frequent, and more and more the party hears the sounds of collapsing stone around them. Returning to the small, dark room that they arrived through, they find the imprisoned angel still calmly waiting in his obsidian cage.

The Zaza says plainly, “We did it. Xyrnys is dead.”

The angel nods, “It seems you were destined to be great heroes after all.” Erik approaches the tomb in the small chamber and begins intoning the arcane words for the ritual to activate the teleportation circle on its lid.

Aramil says, “This place is falling apart. I’m afraid we don’t have time to free you.”

“I know,” the angel responds simply.

The Zaza looks over the bars of the cage and says, “I assume this prison can’t be broken by falling rock, can it?”

The angel replies, “No. It will survive, whatever happens to the castle.”

The Zaza nods, “We will return for you then.”

The angel says contentedly, “If you wish. I am at peace knowing that Xyrnys is dead. But if I could return to the glorious realm of Pelor I would be forever grateful.” The Zaza and Aramil both nod their silent agreement while Invicto disinterestedly twiddles his thumbs in the far corner of the room.

The tremors throughout the castle worsen, but the small chamber the party is in remains intact while Erik finishes executing the arcane teleportation ritual. As the wizard intones the last syllable, the circle on the tomb’s lid glows with a soft light. The party first ushers the prisoners through one by one, then begin heading out themselves. Aramil first, followed by Invicto, and then The Zaza. Finally, only Erik is left. The wizard offers one last sorrowful look to the imprisoned angel. The servant of Pelor returns the look stoically and says simply, “Go.” Erik steps onto the teleportation circle, and in the blink of an eye he is gone. The circle on the lid of the tomb goes dark, and the angel is left alone in the empty blackness of Lord Dread’s crumbling keep.

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