Waterday, Fireseek 12, 553 CY (51 AN)
As Bezaldooz, Bosabrieln, Peren, and Torinn stand outside the Hall of Champions in Argent, finishing their conversation with Bryant, a shimmering, rainbow-colored light emanates from Bosabrieln’s backpack. In the midst of this light, two figures appear. One is muscular with skin in earthen tones but covered in a strange latticework of patterns. His features bear a measure of the etherealness of the fey. He wears little armor and carries a greataxe. The other is largely unseen beneath heavy armor and a helm fashioned from a stag’s skull. Of the latter, only his hair is visible, which is covered in ash.
The Shields of the Sorrowfell immediately pull their weapons and prepare for battle, knowing that the last time figures emerged from the snailstone, a death-goddess stood astride the world. The strangers prepare likewise, not knowing why the others are ready for battle.
When it is clear nothing untoward is happening, they finally make introductions. The one of earthen skin, evidently one of the genasi, introduces himself as Roxador, a somewhat taciturn wanderer. The other — an eladrin by his mode of speech, and his features once he removes his helm — is a much more jolly fellow by the name of Gwythir. (It seems as if he is currently in his autumn season.) The Shields of the Sorrowfell inform them of the current situation, that they seek an infamous lich by the name of Morana the Forsaken. Bryant takes his leave and the others go to the tavern to drink.
Once there, among the torrian barkeep and the orcs sitting and drinking, they discuss matters as Gwythir orders a feast to share with everyone. (Roxador keeps stealing specifically from Gwythir’s plate despite his persistent claim that he and Gwythir aren’t friends.) Bezaldooz, Peren, and Torinn catch them up on current events. (Obash, for his part, is also caught up on current events as he has not had much time to talk with the Shields since they left on various errands.) Meanwhile, Bosabrieln meditates in the corner, casting spells for additional information on their target. He sends a sending to the Headmaster, saying, “Seeking information on Morana the Forsaken and her castle, we can come to you if need be. Give the word.” The Headmaster replies, “I’ll see what I can do.”
Bosabrieln then casts legend lore for additional details about Morana the Forsaken, scion of Barony Aalsburg. He first asks about the location of her flying castle, he learns, “Loosed of its moorings, the castle moves across the Sorrowfell Plains, between Material and Ethereal.” A second casting reveals, “Fed by souls, the engine that powers its flight transmits it across planes and provides proof against sorcery through the protection of the Bifrost.” A third casting, asking about Morana herself, reveals, “Her desire for death is so great she powers her edifice with the very thing that sustains her.”
With Bosabrieln having spent roughly a half-hour casting legend lore, he returns to the table and explains what he has learned. The Shields decide to rest for the rest of the day so that Bosabrieln may again prepare his spells and await the Headmaster’s next communication. Peren and Torinn fall into their standard bets about arm wrestling, and when Gwythir suggests Roxador ought to join their mirth, he agrees. The genasi shouts and invokes his rage when arm wrestling Torinn, displaying a fearsome strength that is a match for Torinn’s own. Peren is also surprised when he asks Gwythir if he has a sun sword, and the eladrin reveals that he does, conjuring it and casting its light throughout the bar.
They do not wait long. It’s early afternoon when Bosabrieln receives a sending from the Headmaster, summoning the Shields to Duchy Jepson. The Shields and their companions travel by teleportation circle to Duchy Jepson, and then join the Headmaster at the Wizard’s Tower. He gives greeting, initially asking about Gwythir and Roxador (and he is surprised to learn that the Shields have a legendary snailstone).
He has not learned much in the intervening time, but notes that Barony Aalsburg was alleged to be cursed by the gods, although current information suggests the lich Morana the Forsaken was instead responsible. He confirms that which was learned in the legend lore, indicating that it would require enormous power to keep the castle aloft and able to travel between plane. Assuming she somehow tied her phylactery into it, it would require a steady stream of souls to power. (Where does she get the souls? Why aren’t there mass abductions across the Sorrowfell Plains? The Headmaster doesn’t know, although he suspects she might be acquiring souls from extraplanar sources, depending on how often she must feed the phylactery-engine.)
They have been puzzling over the line regarding “the protection of the Bifrost” for much the morning, although Goruthrel helpfully suggested that it might be metaphorical. The Headmaster notes that, if it is indeed a metaphor, it might represent a prismatic sphere. A mighty expression of magic, prismatic walls and prismatic spheres require mastery of the Ninth Circle of magic to conjure and are usually only stable for about ten minutes. To keep one as a permanent ward would require enormous amounts of energy.
Given how little information they currently have, the group suspects they must travel to Barony Aalsburg next to determine further information. The Headmaster says he will continue to perform research, and the Shields and their allies rest at the Addled Alchemist for the evening. Bosabrieln plays to a packed house, and Gwythir has had plenty of time to observe the bard and note his sorrow. Between sets, Gwythir asks Bosabrieln about his troubles, but Bosabrieln does not elaborate much beyond the fact that he recently lost someone close to him.
The next day, over breakfast, the Shields and their allies discuss their plans. (Knowing that they prepare for battle, Gwythir has transitioned to his summer season.) Bezaldooz borrows a map and Peren’s crystal ball to perform a scrying upon Barony Aalsburg. He sees largely what they might have expected: crumbling villages sprawling out from a central, walled town, evidently once part of a motte-and-bailey castle before it fell to ruin. Where a stone keep would once have stood upon the motte, the hill bears no castle, and the hill appears to be planed flat. (Indeed, rather than a plateau, Bezaldooz suspects there is a bowl-shaped impression in the hill where once the castle stood.) A light snow clings to the ground, and the place swarms with shambling dead. His vantage point is somewhat distant from the town, so he also notices a simple hut or tent made of grasses. The lone occupant appears to be a dark-skinned elf, her head shaved and covered in tattoos, sitting cross-legged in meditation. He cannot determine if she is friend or foe, but she appears uninjured. Since the others are ready to go, he casts teleport while scrying on the scene so that he has the best chance of landing on his target.
Much to their chagrin, they emerge in the middle of a snow-dusted plain. They quickly surmise they are in the middle of nowhere, with minimal features to determine their distance from Barony Aalsburg. Gwythir summons a griffon — no doubt kin to the fey, as its antlers and strange coloration suggest — as a steed and scout, and the group begins marching south.
Their travel is unremarkable for three hours, at which time they see figures on the horizon. They finally grow close enough for Gwythir to shout greeting in the fourth hour. The figures hesitate before approaching; Peren tries to stalk low to the ground and move in a wide circle around the approaching figures while the others continue to walk forward. Soon enough, the figures resolve into a small warband of orcs: three soldiers and one eyepatch-wearing orc, evidently some manner of priest. Although the orcs seem displeased to encounter such a large number of elfin humanoids, they quickly surmise that they are outmanned and deign to give answer. When questioned about Barony Aalsburg, they say (with no small amount of fear) that the Dead City lies several days to the south, and while the orcs fear nothing, no orc will sensibly approach. They warn the Shields that it is their lives to lose if they wish to travel there. The Shields thank them and continue onward.
As the orcs leave, Peren emerges, and speaking Orcish, cracks a joke about elven magic, spitting on the ground as Obash does. The one-eyed orc looks at him with no small amount of amusement, as he recognizes an elf who has learned the ways of orc-kind.
When the orcs have passed beyond the Shields, they agree to attempt teleport a second time so they can actually reach it sometime today. Bezaldooz invokes the syllables of teleport, and they successfully arrive outside Barony Aalsburg, just behind the elf’s hut.
When they give greeting, she rises from her repose, somewhat surprised that such a large group of travelers appeared behind her without a sound. In the light, she is more easily-seen: thin and wiry, she wears a simple vest and baggy pants with cloth wrapped around her hands and feet, a necklace of prayer beads her only ornamentation. Suspecting she is trained as a monk, the Shields explain that they arrived here through a teleport spell, as they seek to cleanse this place. She does not think that is possible, as the dead here are endless, but she appreciates that someone might try.
They make introductions. She indicates she is Ellalas, and she is here as a meditation. (“I fight against the undead as a meditation upon sin. In the light, when things are pleasant, we are untroubled by our sins. In the dark, however, our thoughts are troubled, and we must steel ourselves against our worst impulses. This process is unending, as is the battle in this cursed place.”) They explain their mission, and ask if she wishes to accompany them. She agrees. So that they may better approach Barony Aalsburg through stealth, they deign to leave the shield guardian and the griffon behind.
They march toward Barony Aalsburg, trying to keep out of sight of the hungry dead. They are largely successful, noticing a handful of things as they approach. For the most part, the dead shuffle about, although a few act in mockery of their lives: attempting to sweep a stoop with improvised tools, or moving the same few stones in a field over and over again. Additionally, as they approach, it is clear the motte has a depression at its top, and a shimmering light can be seen within. (It would no doubt be more visible at night, but it looks like light reflecting upon waves, or perhaps a shimmering rainbow color.)
As they slink through the dead town, they see one more strange sight: a skeleton with three heads, clad in plate mail, patrolling the town. Its three heads seem to be muttering among themselves, complaining about being stuck here on patrol. One of the heads glances toward the alley in which the Shields are hiding, but they keep silent and it does not notice their presence.
Briefly conferring, they think they recognize the creature as a rumored necromantic construct called a “skull lord.” Often used as the general of an undead army, they originated when Vecna gathered up his traitorous lieutenants and bound them in threes, cursing them to fight amongst themselves forever. Other necromancers have subsequently determined the secret to their creation, and Bosabrieln strongly suspects that this skull lord comprises the three traitorous brothers who slew Morana the Forsaken’s family centuries ago.
The Shields and their allies silently make their way up the overgrown road ascending the hill until they arrive at the lip of the crater. It appears as though an area maybe 100-200 feet in diameter were scooped out of the earth. In the middle of the crater stands a majestic and fearsome figure, a massive red-skinned, scaled humanoid with horns, wings, and a tail. It stands sentinel, holding a mace in its massive hands. Maybe thirty or so yards behind it stands the source of the light, a thirty-foot-diameter sphere of scintillating colors, casting the immediate area in some eldritch, electroradiant glow. The sphere appears partially-recessed in the ground, but most of it stands above ground.
The Shields are fairly certain they have the necessary magics to bring the prismatic sphere down — although nobody can generate wind to bring down the orange layer, Peren thinks he can improvise — but they probably need to take down the fiendish guardian first. With nothing further to be done, they charge over the top of the crater lip and begin their descent.
When the fiend sees them, it steels itself for battle. Ellalas, Gwythir, Peren, and Roxador rush forward as Bezaldooz drops his staff to activate his portal gun, opening a gateway between the lip of the crater and a few feet away from the fiend. (Gwythir also mentally summons the griffon to join him in battle, although it will likely take at least a minute to approach.) Torinn jumps into the portal, but is stunned as he reaches the other side and finds a wave of fear wash over him at the sight of the blasphemy before him. Bosabrieln casts a glamour upon the fiend, but it seems unaffected. As Gwythir, Peren, and Roxador approach, Roxador throws javelins at the creature — one of which turns into a bolt of lightning that strikes the beast — and those seem to have some effect. Peren zips forward to strike it with his swords before retreating to a safe distance, somewhat close to Gwythir. The fiend then invokes a circle of flame that appears around it, obscuring it from view and trapping Torinn inside the circle with it. Torinn retreats through the portal, leaving the fiendish creature time to prepare.
Roxador is the one to respond, screaming and charging heedlessly through the circle of flame. There is the sound of a brief scuffle and the curtain of fire falls, revealing Roxador cutting into the creature — now having fallen on the ground and desperately trying to block Roxador’s blows with its mace — again and again with his axe.
Ellalas, Gwythir, and Peren fall upon the beast then, raining blows upon it with blade, sun sword, and bare hands. It struggles to rise beneath their blows, its voice echoing in their minds and offering an opportunity for parley; when it is clear the Shields and their allies have no intention to speak with this creature, it begins savaging Gwythir, who is able to block most of its blows save a whip from its tail. Ellalas knocks the mace out of its hand, and it attempts to flee, but a final volley of spells from Bezaldooz finally discorporates it. Its mace disappears when it does.
With that, the assembled group begins investigating the prismatic sphere. As they start to hear commotion from the ruined town, they move quickly, casting spells to peel back the seven layers of the prismatic sphere. (For the orange layer, Peren uses his boots of speed to run around the barrier, using the wind in his wake to open the layer.) The griffon arrives as they pelt the barrier with spells. When the barrier finally falls, it reveals an indentation in the ground. In the middle of this indentation stands a large menhir, its face bearing a circle of runes. Bezaldooz notes the runes seem to mark this as a portal that only opens for those “both living and dead.”
As they debate the best way to breach this portal (with the simplest option seeming to involve grabbing a random zombie and shoving it through the portal), the source of the commotion in the town becomes apparent — the armored, three-skulled skeleton approaches the lip of the crater, along with a small army of skeletons and zombies. The skeletal warlord implies that they are doomed and cannot breach the castle, while the Shields attempt to goad him into the crater. As the army prepares to move, Bezaldooz conjures a meteor swarm to destroy the approaching horde. The skeletal warlord, standing at the front, is the only one to survive the onslaught, rolling out of the cloud of dust that arises when the meteors land. One of its heads seems to realize that the Shields mean to use him as a key to open the gate, and so he flees. The Shields and their allies give chase, with Gwythir sending the griffon after him. The griffon swoops upon the skeletal warlord, scooping him in its claws. The skeletal warlord, in turn, strikes the griffon with his skeletal staff, discorporating it. As he tumbles to the ground, Peren falls upon him, but the warlord casts a spell and disappears.
As the Shields and their allies move after him, searching the immediate area for him, they are frustrated to find that he cannot be found. Then they look back to the crater and notice the shimmering light has returned. (It was probably only down for about ten minutes.) Finally, the rainbow light issues forth from Bosabrieln’s backpack, and Gwythir and Roxador disappear.
The Shields and Ellalas are disappointed, as that could have gone better, but now they have time to perform a little more research. The dead largely seem to be avoiding the northern side of town where the hill lies, and the fiend does not return, so Bezaldooz, Bosabrieln, Ellalas, Peren, and Torinn decide to camp in the crater for the night, to return to this problem in the morning. Bezaldooz takes a bit of dirt from the crater so that future transit will be easier, and Bosabrieln conjures Mordenkainen’s magnificent mansion. The quintet retires for the night.
The night is relatively uneventful (apart from Torinn asking for a demonstration from Ellalas to break a table with her hand, followed by him attempting to do the same in his room), and the crater is still abandoned on the morning of Freeday, Fireseek 14. The Shields decide to capture the skull lord, break the prismatic sphere, and use him to open the portal to Morana’s castle. So, they get to work.
Peren is the one to scout and attempt to find the skull lord. While invisible, he successfully does so, seeing it keep its vigil, but is surprised when it apparently heard his location, as it turns and invokes a finger of death upon him. He survives the blast of necrotic energy, but this begins a game of cat-and-mouse through the ruins. While Peren keeps the skull lord busy, the others have retrieved a zombie, severed its limbs so it can no longer attack, and begin dragging it back to the prismatic sphere. However, given the sound of commotion, they decide to help Peren against the skull lord, marching back into town. Having spoken with him yesterday, they are aware that the three heads disagree on matters, so Bosabrieln and Torinn begin shouting taunts designed to get the heads fighting. After the better part of an hour, and a small host of slain ghouls, skeletons, and zombies, the Shields manage to corner the skull lord and convince him they can help restore him to life if he assists them against Morana the Forsaken.
Although it takes the Shields a while to pull the information out of his arguing heads, he notes that only undead can breach the portal. (It seems as if Morana allows any of the undead in her employ to freely bypass the prismatic sphere, so they may come and go as they please.) The dungeons beneath her flying castle are not terribly extensive, but to keep the living out, most of the hallways are flooded with poison gas. There are airlocks to keep the gas inside the hallways; passages connecting to the outside or for receiving visitors are not flooded with gas, but the arcane laboratories comprising most of the dungeon space certainly are. Bosabrieln inquires about the visitors, but the skull lord knows little about them, only knowing that there is an internal teleportation circle for receiving visitors. Outside the dungeon, the castle is home to several sentinels to repel attacks from the surface, including mounted flying cavalry and a dracolich. The permanent prismatic sphere around the flying castle is connected to the one guarding the barrier, so she definitely noticed that it fell.
Realizing that they currently have no way to navigate hallways full of suffocating, toxic gas, the Shields realize they have to perform more preparations before making a second attempt on the castle. They also realize that they cannot trust the skull lord with the information they have given him in their inquiries, so they quickly slay him, and Bezaldooz destroys his remains with two disintegrate spells.
Certain that they must perform more research and preparations, the Shields teleport back to Ellalas’ camp to retrieve the shield guardian. She says she will stay here, and the Shields teleport back to Duchy Jepson. They approach the Wizard’s Tower to inform the Headmaster of their progress, and he says he will continue his research. They then acquire rooms at the Addled Alchemist to plot their next move. They consider whether to blow the airlocks and vent the place, or to acquire gear to navigate the toxic maze. Bosabrieln also thinks the key to infiltrating the dungeon is to pose as visitors; he casts another legend lore spell to inquire what sorts of visitors Castle Aalsburg receives, learning, “They are many, but commonly the servants of the Crimson Devourer and Servants of the Maimed God.” Bosabrieln suspects the “crimson devourer” is none other than Acererak, sometimes called the Devourer and once known as Acererak of the Scarlet Robes, while the Maimed God is no doubt Vecna, the undead god of secrets.