27 Reaping, 592 CY
Shatterhorn had been defeated for about a week, and the Silver Phoenixes were taking a much needed break from serious adventuring. Ashton had claimed the Shield Guardian that had once belonged to Thifirane Rhiavadi, and he was researching the proper command phrases to control the construct. Bransen had been checking in with Zachary Aslaxin, the acting Lord Mayor and making sure that everything stayed on track for rebuilding the city. He’d also drawn the eyes of a few of Cauldron’s single women, and he had begun the terrifying process of…finding a wife. Jarvyk and the young sergeant Skylar Krewis had fully enacted their plan to put all criminals taken into custody to work helping to rebuild the city. The young man had proven his merit by retaining control of the project in the paladin’s absence. Deg had surreptitiously asked around about the remnants of the Last Laugh and a fledgling organization known only as The Triad, and he had started opening discussions with former leaders and members of these organizations and turning them away from thieving and into the far more lucrative business of adventuring acquisitions. The party knew they had broken the spine of the Cagewright organization, but they had still taken precautions against vengeance from those who had fled the Prime. Greyjek had raised psionic wards around the Silver Phoenix house and other locations within the city that the company tended to frequent. As such, it came as a surprise when they found an unexpected face sitting at the table in the main chamber of the house.
“Oi,” muttered Kortegmag Greywhisker as the erudite stepped through the front door. Raised eyebrows were the only reaction that Greyjek gave as he surveyed the captain of the Silver Phoenix company. The dwarf had aged since the elan had last seen him. His hair and beard were pure, snowy white, and he seemed to have far more wrinkles on his face and gnarled hands. A familiar axe rested comfortably against the table near at hand, and he wore a suit of fine mithral full plate as well as a number of other magical trinkets. Most notable among these was the monocle covering his left eye, which Greyjek knew to conceal the magical smoke that continuously emanated from the orb. Kortegmag Greywhisker, better known as “Kort the Grey,” had acquired the sign of the Smoking Eye when he’d sacrificed himself for the sake of the others on the Abyssal plane of Occipitus.
“Summon the lads, eh?” said the dwarf tiredly. “I’ve a tale for ye, and I’d rather only have to tell it once.” Greyjek nodded and sent out a mental message informing the others that they had a guest that they would all want to see right away. He could have been more explicit, but it gave him small thrills to retain his cryptic air. Not that he would ever let such a thing show on his face. One by one, the other Silver Phoenixes and the newly hired Deg made their way to the house, annoyance clear in their features until they saw Kort. Except for Deg, who simply added confusion to annoyance. The halfling was introduced to the old warrior and priest of Moradin, and everyone settled in to hear what he had to say.
“Sorry I’ve been away, lahds. I’ve been workin’ for the All Father direct, tryin’ to discover the source of the troubles surrounding Cauldron and in the planes beyond.”
“It was the Cagewrights,” Ashton said, though he made it seem a question.
“Aye…and no,” replied the old dwarf. “The Cagewrights were the instruments but not the orchestrators.” The adventurers exchanged surprised looks with one another but said nothing as Kort continued.
“It started hundreds of years ago, with something you have already heard. A fallen celestial called Adimarchus led a demonic invasion of the Seven Mounting Heavens of Celestia. The heavenly host repulsed the army but at great cost, for the angels of Celestia were forced to cast the part of their heavenly realm occupied by the demons into the Abyss, tearing apart the fabric of their own plane in the process. This massive chunk of planar matter came to rest on Occipitus.
“Adimarchus survived this event, and acted quickly to incorporate the wreckage of Celestia into Occipitus. In so doing, he became the ruler of the Abyssal layer, gaining almost limitless power there and becoming a demon prince in the process. For many years, Adimarchus ruled Occipitus, crafting from the ruins a great demonic empire and often leading wars against his most powerful demonic rival, the demon prince Graz’zt.
“And then, only fifty years ago, Adimarchus vanished from his realm. I’ve been seeking the truth behind his apparent abandonment of Occipitus, and this is what I’ve found. The demon prince’s disappearance centered around his love for Athux, a resolute aasimar paladin with six fingers on each hand. Five decades ago, Athux embarked upon a quest to redeem Adimarchus’s soul. The aasimar cut a swath across the tumorous plains of Occipitus and confronted the demon prince in his own throne room. Adimarchus and Athux fought until, exhausted, the demon prince sundered the aasimar’s sword with his own dark blade. Clutching Athux by the throat, Adimarchus saw something in the aasimar’s eyes that sparked his compassion. He could not kill Athux, nor could he subject the paladin to the torments of Occipitus. He tried to lure Athux over to the side of evil, but his attempts were half-hearted at best. Athux remained a prisoner on Occipitus and stood by Adimarchus’s side as he plotted against Graz’zt, all the while fueling the demon prince’s rage against demonkind. A strange friendship bloomed, puzzling Adimarchus’s minions and spurring some to betray him. Graz’zt learned of the planned assault against him and the alliance of Adimarchus and Athux, and, in true demonic fashion, he conspired with Adimarchus’s treacherous minions to overthrow his rival.
“During the epic battle between Adimarchus’s army and Graz’zt’s hordes, demons swayed by Graz’zt captured Athux with surprising ease, imprisoning him on Carceri in an asylum called Skullrot. Adimarchus could not bear the loss of Athux, and the treachery of fiends rekindled the fallen angel’s burning hatred. Adimarchus abandoned his hordes, his realm, and his evil ways and fled to Carceri to rescue Athux and find redemption.” Here Kort paused and took a deep breath. Jarvyk set some ale before his captain, and the old dwarf nodded his thanks and took a deep drink of the beverage. Surprise was evident when he tasted the dwarf-brewed ale, and Jarvyk’s answering smile was one of pride. His thirst slaked, the old dwarf continued.
“The tale of Adimarchus and Athux would not end well. As Graz’zt’s army crushed Adimarchus’s abandoned demon horde, Adimarchus arrived at Skullrot to find Athux overcome with dementia, the prisoner of one of Graz’zt’s most powerful allies – a powerful undead priest named Dark Myrakul. Unable to wrest the aasimar from Dark Myrakul’s clutches, Adimarchus traded his own freedom for the paladin’s restored mind and safe return to Celestia. Dark Myrakul readily agreed, and the imprisoned Adimarchus watched as Athux shook off his ‘lunacy,’ only to transform into a black-skinned fiend with six fingers on each hand. Athux had misled Adimarchus from the start. He was, in fact, Graz’zt’s devoted son. At that moment, Adimarchus must have realized his foolishness. Graz’zt had found a weakness in his rival – a long-buried desire for redemption that Adimarchus had assumed he’d lost long ago – and used that weakness to dethrone his enemy. The very thought drove Adimarchus to madness, a madness powerful enough to leak out of Skullrot, across Carceri, and eventually into other planes.
“Adimarchus’s madness has touched countless minds over the last several decades, but in most cases it was not powerful enough to cause much more than momentary lapses of sanity. Only when these insane thoughts came across ancient altars, statues, or sites once sacred to his cult could they linger. One such item was an ancient statue of the demon prince, carved from Abyssal stone mined from Occipitus by Adimarchus himself, and until recently, in the private collection of a particularly cruel man by the name of Fetor Abradius. Over the next several years, Adimarchus’s mad dreams worked on Fetor, sharpening his cruelty to a razor’s edge and driving him to seek out terrible secrets wherever they might be hidden. Fetor did not know that these dreams were, in fact, guiding him to a way to release the demon prince from his Carcerian prison.
“The Cagewrights, now…they were a secret society of cruel-minded arcanists, priests, and scholars founded over 300 years ago by a massive and deformed shator demodand named Dyr’ryd. His goal was to foster a group of like-minded spellcasters and scholars dedicated to discovering ways to create a permanent portal between the prison plane of Carceri and the Material Plane that would allow the demodands to harvest inmates and slaves for the massive prisons and asylums of that realm. Despite his transparent bids to ascend to greater levels of personal power, development of such a powerful portal remained the Cagewright leaders’ primary goal.
“Dyr’ryd had already developed several theories on how such a portal could be constructed. Most of his theories were based on the belief that by merging the bloodlines of the natives of these two planes, one could create a spiritual bridge between Carceri and the Prime that could be used as a focus for greater works. Thus, as he began to recruit promising individuals into his secret society, the shator also called upon his most fecund demodand minions and unleashed them upon the Material Plane. For a month, these thirteen demodands ravaged anything they could find in the world. Eventually, they were all slain, but they left in their wake a horrifying number of unnatural pregnancies.
“The resulting spawn were mostly stillborn, but a few twisted unfortunates survived. As the generations passed, the fiendish corruption grew ever more diluted. Eventually, all visual traces of demodand ancestry faded entirely, but the taint in the blood and soul remained, just as Dyr’ryd had envisioned. As most of you know, every few generations an indication of this taint surfaced in the form of an invisible birthmark in the shape of an unholy sigil known as the Carcerian Sign. These were the Shackleborn.
“The Cagewrights knew about the Shackleborn and that their sacrifice during the ritual of planar junction could serve as the necessary bridge between the two planes to force the portal open. Their problem was how to tap an energy source powerful enough to not only tear the portal open in the first place, but to fortify it once created so it would become permanent. Although few of the Cagewrights realized it, recruitment of Fetor Abradius gave them the key they needed to succeed.
“It took less than a year for Fetor Abradius with his almost supernatural knowledge of magic and the planes to prove his worth. He made a terrific discovery in the Soul Pillars of Karran-Kural, which is where he learned of a ritual that would allow harnessing of an erupting volcano’s vast power. He was able to help the Cagewrights link this ritual with the ritual of planar junction. Not only that, but they discovered that Cauldron had a fortuitous number of Shackleborn among its citizens. They worked hard over the next thirty years to finish the elements they needed for the ritual and gather the Shackleborn too them. The Ebon Triad was contracted to create the soulcages while the Cagewrights finished work on the Tree of Shackled Souls.
“All of these things served Adimarchus’s purpose, and he even counted a few of his cultists among the Cagewrights’ numbers. As his influence has grown, his prison has weakened. He’d hoped the Cagewrights would succeed and he would be freed into a position of power. Since you have put an end to that plan, his frustration must be great. I’ve discovered that that which binds him is weakening still, and it is only a matter of time before he breaks free on his own and comes seeking vengeance on those who thwarted his fifty years’ bid for a triumphant return…and all they have worked to protect.”
Kort sighed. “I would have liked to have lent my axe to the cause, but I’m afraid I must serve the All Father in another way. I’ve just come to warn you of the danger, to wish you luck, and to provide you with the means to defeat Adimarchus at a time of your choosing, rather than one of his. You’ll also need to discover a reliable means of locating Skullrot. It is likely to be warded from divination, but maybe it’s worth the attempt. I believe it to be on the first layer, called Orthrys. More than that, I do not know.”
The Silver Phoenixes had many questions for the old dwarf, but he really didn’t have any more answers for them than he had already given. He agreed to stay for supper and talked with them of past adventurers into the wee hours of the morning. One by one, however, they dropped off to sleep.
28 Reaping, 592 CY
Bransen awoke first as he always did, though on this morning, he could feel the lack of sleep keenly. He made his way sleepily to the kitchen where he started a pot of coffee brewing, and on his way back through the main room, he spotted something on the table. He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and stepped over to take a closer look. On the table rested a key, the handle of which was a stylized eye. From this eye poured a continual plume of smoke. Beneath the key there was a note that read,
“Ye’re gonna need this. Don’t get yerselves killed (again fer you, Ashton).
-Kort the Grey”