Part 4: Crypt of the Black Hand
by Eric L. Boyd
Mintiper Moonsilver is one of the legendary bards of the Forgotten Realms, and tales of his adventures have long been recounted around hearthfires across the North in musical, poetic, and narrative forms. Transcribed in Silverymoon's Vault of the Sages by the Keeper of the Vault, Mintiper's Chapbook is a compilation of the Lonely Harpist's ballads, poems, and tales. Selected pages of this chapbook have been annotated and passed into this chronicler's hands and shall be revealed here in a periodic column.
Crypt of the Black Hand
Lunargent raced through the catacombs with the ghoul pack slavering at his heels. Blood dripped from a score or more cuts, witness to the sharp teeth and cruel claws of the flesh-eaters, and his stomach roiled against the pervading stench of carrion. From up ahead he could hear the mad howls of another ghoul pack racing to cut him off, leaving him no option but to dash into the nearest side chamber and bar the door shut, hoping against hope it was the one he sought.
His eyes wild with fear, Lunargent looked about the room, noting the bones of rotting corpses and streaks of blood across the floor and walls. Once a safehold for the citizenry of Ascalhorn in times of attack, the room had been transformed into a macabre playroom for the demons to indulge themselves. From outside the door, a fiendish baying heralded the arrival of the ghoul pack's master, a fearsome glabrezu. With desperate haste, Lunargent raced to the rear of the chamber and dove into the tainted, brackish waters of the cistern. Lady Luck was kind to him, for at the bottom of the fouled reservoir he found the slight hand-shaped depression carved into the stone that he sought.
With a sense of impending doom, Lunargent pressed his right hand against the symbol of the Black Lord and then swam back up to the surface. The half-elf found himself in a dark pool at the center of a chamber with walls of basalt and a high, arching ceiling. The air was heavy with smoke from a handful of guttering torches placed in sconces along the walls, and his crazed fear quickly transformed into an awareness of dreadful majesty. Directly above him loomed an immense obsidian hand standing six feet high and hovering high above the room. The walls were lined with a dozen obsidian sarcophagi, the lids of which were all carved in the form of a human male clad in the vestments of the Lord of Darkness.
Taking care not to disturb anything within the unholy crypt, Lunargent made his way around the room, studying each sculpted figure in turn. At last he found the one he sought, whose twisted visage mocked the noble features of the long-dead High Mage of Silverymoon, Ederan Nharimlur. Shoving aside the heavy lid, the half-elf lay down within its dank confines and closed himself within for the space of three terrifying heartbeats.
After what seemed an eternity, the coffin walls slowly melted away, and the half-elf found himself standing in a narrow crevice at the base of the western cliff face of the ancient igneous plug once known as Ascal's Horn. It was only a matter of time until the ghoul packs found his trail again, but at least he was free of Hellgate Keep and had a brief head start.
fragment of a narrative epic entitled "Hellstorm"
attributed to Mintiper Moonsilver
Year of the Harp (1355 DR)
Mintiper Moonsilver has long been recognized as the only man to have stormed the ghoul-hold of Hellgate Keep and lived to tell the tale. The recent fall of that centuries-old bastion of evil ensures that he will be the only one ever to do so.  As mentioned in an earlier annotation, the hero of the "Hellstorm" epic, Lunargent, is simply a commonly employed alias for Moonsilver and those who have told him of their adventures. In this narrative, at least, Mintiper's tale is definitely autobiographical. 
There is little agreement among scholars as to exactly when Mintiper's famous raid on the fiend-held redoubt occurred, as some sages place it before the half-elf's founding of the Moonlight Men, while other chroniclers believe it happened it immediately following the Battle of Turnstone Pass or several years later, during the five years he spent with the druids of the Tall Trees after his return to the North. It has been established, however, that Mintiper did not compose his "Hellstorm" epic until the last year of his residence among the druids of Tall Trees. The Journal of Ilygaard Stormhawk, Druid of the Tall Trees Circle, which now lies in the Vault of Sages in Silverymoon, speaks of Mintiper creating the narrative epic as a gift to his companion, the slave girl Noura, in the early stages of her descent into madness and death as a way of giving her hope that even the greatest of horrors could be surmounted. 
This passage from the "Hellstorm" narrative undoubtedly describes the Crypt of the Black Hand, a vault said to lie within the depths of Hellgate Keep and hold the bones and treasures of the Brotherhood of the Black Hand. This cadre of Bane-worshipping wizards was founded in Ascalhorn shortly after the fall of Myth Drannor. The Brotherhood was driven into exile in the Year of the Cowl (765 DR) after the Ascalhi authorities discovered the group's activities, only to resurface in Silverymoon a year later where their spies were employed as builders of the High Palace of Silverymoon. Most of the Black Hand wizards were found an executed, although a few escaped with a number of priceless magical artifacts, including High Mage Ederan's staff of Silverymoon, the chain mail glove of Taarnahm the Vigilant, and Tasmia's necklace. Those who did survive returned in secret to a safehold in Ascalhorn, where the remaining Brothers became enmeshed in the rapidly escalating conflicts and power plays between the wizards of that city. In the Year of Thorns (856 DR), the last wizards of the Black Hand fell to the attacks of rival sorcerers and the burgeoning host of baatezu that had infiltrated Ascalhorn. Of all the Brotherhood's places of power, only the legendary Crypt of the Black Hand is thought to have escaped discovery, although Lunargent's tale suggests some means of accessing the subterranean vault survived and remains known today.
From Mintiper's description, we can conclude that the symbol of Bane is carved in the floor of a cistern in one of the lesser assemblies beneath Ascalhorn, assuming it survived the destruction of Hellgate Keep, and that, by placing one's right hand in it, can be employed as a gate to the Crypt of the Black Hand, which lies elsewhere within Ascal's Horn. (No hint is given as to whether or not magical passage in the reverse direction is also possible.) 
A comparison of this account with one found in the Annals of the Helmstar Company, a band of adventurers who plundered a temple of the Dark Lord over a century ago, suggests that the Crypt is guarded by a holy hand of Bane, a rare type of magical relic sometimes found guarding the innermost altars of temples dedicated to the Black Lord. The means by which Lunargent escaped its attentions is left unstated, although perhaps his care to avoid disturbing anything contained within the Crypt ensured his safety. 
Ederan Nharimlur was known as Catseye after he miscast a find familiar spell in the Year of Portents Perilous (707 DR) and mixed his form with that of a summoned feline, giving him a light gold fur covering his skin and the green eyes of a cat. The inclusion of the High Mage's twisted representation amidst the Brotherhood is undoubtedly a mocking jest alluding to their vindictive theft of his staff of Silverymoon as well as a distinctive marker indicating which sarcophagus functions as an exit gate from the Crypt. One wonders what horrors lurk within the sarcophagi that Lunargent did not disturb. Perhaps they contain the purloined treasures of Silverymoon? 
 The fall of Hellgate Keep was the work of the Mistmaster of the Citadel of Mists, the bard Cryshana Fireglen, and Spellviper, a priest of Mystra. In the Year of the Gauntlet (1369 DR), the illusionist and the two Harpers employed an artifact known as the Gatekeeper's Crystal to shatter the powerful wards that enveloped the ghoul-hold and bring about the destruction of the former citadel-town.
The ruins of Hellgate Keep now beckon to adventurers, despite the lingering dangers and the efforts of those heeding Turlang's Calling to seal them. The Crypt of the Black Hand can easily be inserted into catacombs of Hellgate Keep as a safehold of questionable merit. The DM is encouraged to integrate this setting into the Hellgate Keep module.
 See Mintiper's Chapbook #2: The Tree of Wailing Souls, for further discussion of the character of Lunargent and the Keeper's general skepticism that Mintiper actually participated in all the great adventures attributed to the Lonely Harpist.
 Noura, daughter of the Bedine chieftain Khytor Moramu, died a slow, quivering death as her madness advanced, and no one Mintiper could find knew why or how to stop it. Noura's condition was the result of a hitherto unknown disease that causes the tissues of the brain to gradually rot. It is spread by a species of flower resembling a blood-red orchid that is native to Pandemonium and the Abyss and that grows only amidst carrion. Such flowers, known as carriorchids, emit a form of pollen that reeks of decay, attracting chasme (fly-like demons), ghouls, and other scavengers. When even the smallest amount of pollen from a carriorchid is inhaled by a sentient species not native to the Lower Planes, madness inevitably ensues over the course of several months as the mind literally rots away. For reasons not well understood, sometimes the pollen lies latent for years before symptoms manifest, while other victims show signs of madness almost immediately. If left unconsecrated (i.e. not blessed) after dying (whether because of the mindrot sickness or some other factor), the corpses of humanoids suffering this fate rise within twenty-four hours as ghasts, and the stench they exude is laced with carriorchid pollen, making their noxious attack potentially lethal if a saving throw vs. poison is failed.
Noura's fate has been shared by at least a handful of others in the Upvale region since the fall of Ascalhorn in the Year of the Curse (882 DR), but only after her death in the Year of the Harp (1355 DR) did the druids of Tall Trees finally determine the cause of her decline. Although still quite rare, carriorchids grow wild in the Far Forest, one of the many Abyssal horrors to taint that ancient forest, and mindrot sickness has plagued many who dared walk beneath the forest's boughs. In addition, this disease is not unknown in the South, for wizards in the employ of Shadow Thieves, using pollen gathered from carriorchids of the Far Forest, have developed a lethal variety of magical aromatic oil known as putressence that, if heated, causes similar symptoms in those who inhale its vapors.
No cure for mindrot is known, as spells such as cure disease, heal, and neutralize poison have proven wholly ineffective, and herbal remedies such as feverbalm and mother'sleaf provide no apparent benefit. However, sacred texts of the cult of Moander suggest that the Darkbringer's minions may have developed a more powerful version of slow rot (as the 3rd level priest spell detailed in the Tome of Magic) that affects animal flesh as well as plants. Such a spell might stave off the any further progression of this disease, but finding an appropriate scroll would require both luck and a foray into one of the fallen cult's ruined bastions.
 Both the Crypt of the Black Hand and the cistern gate leading to it survived the devastation wrought by the Gatekeeper's Crystal. The cistern gate is found within one of the lesser assemblies, as mapped in the Hellgate Keep module. The Crypt of the Black Hand lies encased in solid rock between the Lesser Assemblies and the upper level of the Deep Garrisons, again as mapped in the Hellgate Keep module. The Black Hand Gate is bi-directional, with passage from the Crypt to the cistern triggered by a matching right hand indentation carved into the center of the floor of the pool in the Crypt. The gate is warded against the passage of creatures native to the Lower Planes, and thus the Crypt has never been breached by the demons of Hellgate Keep. The air within the Crypt of the Black Hand is kept fresh by magical means, and the torches are lit by magical flame that cannot be extinguished, except by a successful detect magic spell.
 The giant obsidian hand that guards the Crypt is indeed a holy hand of Bane. It did not attack Mintiper because the half-elven bard is not of good alignment, but is chaotic neutral in ethos, and because Mintiper disturbed nothing but the exit gate. The holy hand of Bane will attack anyone entering the Crypt of good alignment as well as anyone who disturbs any of sarcophagi (except the one employed by Mintiper) in any fashion, whether by physical, magical, or psionic means.
 Ederan's sculpted form is recognizable, even by those who have never seen his visage, by the slitted irises of a cat and the faint rendition of fur on his skin. These clues are only noticeable if someone knows what to look for or if they spend at least an hour studying the sculpted forms of the various sarcophagi looking for something distinctive. The gate within the sarcophagi is activated as described above, and only functions in one direction.
The other sarcophagi contain the mummified forms of the wizards of the Black Hand interred within. At the DM's option, the remains may animate as specters, spellcasting mummies, or even liches if disturbed. A secret compartment beneath each mummy contains the spell librams and personal treasures of the dead wizard. Despite the Keeper's hopes, High Mage Ederan's staff of Silverymoon, the chain mail glove of Taarnahm the Vigilant, and Tasmia's necklace are not found within the Crypt, as they were confiscated from the last surviving wizards of the Brotherhood by their slayers and lie elsewhere within ghoul-hold. (Brief summaries of the powers of two of the three are found in the module Hellgate Keep.) However, the Crypt of the Black Hand does contain many unique magical artifacts, including the Aunglor kiira, Jaluster's pipestaff, and three of the Scrolls Ardentym penned by the Circle of Flames.
General references to Mintiper Moonsilver are cited in the first column of "Mintiper's Chapbook."
Crypt of the Black Hand
- Mintiper's successful storming of Hellgate Keep is noted in Dragon #187, p. 50, and Code of the Harpers, pp. 65-68.
- The various titles of the dead god Bane, including the Black Lord and Lord of Darkness, are given in Faiths & Avatars, p. 36.
- The Battle of Turnstone Pass unfolded in the Year of the Boot (1343 DR) according to The North: Cities, p. 50. According to Dragon #187, p. 50, and Code of the Harpers, pp. 65-68, Mintiper then headed south through the High Forest (a trip which would have taken at least several months), joined the Wood-Riders of Turlang for a while (perhaps a season), took to thievery along the southern Sword Coast (where he lived long enough to gather a reputation, perhaps a few years), joined a pirate ship based in the Nelanther (for perhaps a few months), lived for a time in Myratma guiding adventurers into Shoonach (for perhaps a couple of years), became a mercenary (for perhaps a few months), journeyed through the Fallen Lands up to Tall Trees (a trip that probably took a few months), and then lived among the druids of Tall Trees for five years. This works out to over eleven years, so the Year of the Harp (1355 DR) seems an appropriate date for both Noura's death and the creation of the "Hellstorm" narrative epic. It also falls just a few years before the Year of Shadows (1358 DR), through which the above-mentioned accounts of Mintiper are most probably current.
- The fall of Hellgate Keep in the Year of the Gauntlet (1369 DR) is chronicled in The Wilderness: The North, pp. 11-12, Volo's Guide to All Things Magical, pp. 106-108, and Hellgate Keep, pp. 7-8.
- Mintiper's five year long residence among the druids of Tall Trees in the company of Noura and the slave girl's history and descent into madness and death at the end of that period are discussed in Dragon #187, p. 50, and Code of the Harpers, pp. 65-68.
- Feverbalm, known to temporarily cure insanity, and mother's leaf, known to cure disease, are discussed in FR5 -- The Savage Frontier, p. 60.
- The Brothers of the Black Hand and the items they purloined from Silverymoon are discussed in The North: Cities, p. 48, and Hellgate Keep, p. 8, 16.
- High holy hands of Bane are detailed in FA1 -- Halls of the High King, p. 49, and Encyclopedia Magica: Volume 2, p. 562.
- Ederan Nharimlur's history and appearance is discussed in The North: Cities, p. 48, Hellgate Keep, p. 8, 16, and (indirectly by reference to Ecamane Truesilver) in both Cormanthyr: Empire of Elves, pp. 41-42, and Fall of Myth of Drannor, p. 8. The various staves of Silverymoon are discussed in Seven Sisters, pp. 111-112, and Dragon Annual #1, pp. 54-60.
- Kiira are detailed in Cormanthyr: Empire of Elves, pp. 152-153, and mention is made of House Aunglor having a kiira therein. House Aunglor, including Clan Archmage Ecaeris Aunglor, is discussed in Cormanthyr: Empire of Elves, pp. 47, 78, 86, 99, 102, 105, 117, 120, and Fall of Myth Drannor, pp. 6, 41. The fact that Lady Ecaeris Aunglor was a student of Windsong Tower is noted in Cormanthyr: Empire of Elves, p. 158. The fact that the wizards of Windsong Tower began spiriting magical items to safety in Ascalhorn is noted in Fall of Myth Drannor, p. 19. It follows that the Brotherhood of the Black Hand acquired Aunglor kiira following its arrival in Ascalhorn.
- Jaluster was an Ascalhi wizard who was torn apart by fiends during the fall of Ascalhorn as he tried to save that city from their domination. He is said to have destroyed three liches and at least five tanar'ri that day ere he died. Although his orizon was spirited to safety by the bard Maerstar, the archmage's pipestaff was apparently lost years before to the Brotherhood of the Black Hand. See Pages from the Mages, p. 63.
- The Scrolls Ardentym consist of 38 sheets of vellum and are detailed in Fall of Myth Drannor, pp. 55-58. The fact that some were moved from Myth Drannor to Ascalhorn beginning in the Year of the Ominous Oracle (694 DR) is noted in Fall of Myth Drannor, pp. 18-19. It follows that the Brotherhood of the Black Hand acquired some or all of the Scrolls Ardentym following their arrival in Ascalhorn.