By Jeff Quick
The Portal of the Dead
A tribe of secluded, barbaric aarakocra known as the Sirocco colony lives on the high mesas in the Anauroch. The aarakocra here are lean and savage, as aarakocra go. They largely live on a diet of small game, but they also have no compunction about scavenging for food. They prefer not to eat the flesh of dead intelligent creatures, but mounts, caravan animals, and livestock are all fair game.
Though the Sirocco aarakocra live on several mesas under the blistering sun, there is one mesa on the edge of their territory they do not fly near. This is the Mesa of the Fallen, and living tribe members never touch down there. When one of their number falls to disease or a desert raider's arrow, the other members of the tribe drop the fallen member's body off on top of the mesa. Only the shaman of the tribe dares land here, and only to perform the rites to send the spirits of the fallen to the land of Open Sky. The shaman chants, plays drums, and lays feathers from family members on the recently deceased. The end of the rites occurs when the shaman carries the body of the fallen to the Cave of Beyond.
Roughly halfway up the 150-foot-tall mesa, the Cave of Beyond cuts into the rock like a jagged scar in the stone. Aarakocras naturally fear enclosed spaces, and members of the Sirocco tribe take this fear to superstitious heights, associating all caves with death. Their superstition is reinforced in this case by the fact that the shaman takes dead bodies into the narrow cave and the bodies are never seen again.
Only the shaman knows the rite of final passage to the Open Sky. What even the shaman does not realize is that the rite of final passage is the elaborate key to open a portal to another place. The cave goes into the rock for only about 40 feet before it opens up into a 20 foot by 20 foot room. In the center of the room, a ring of rounded stones marks the edges of the portal. When the proper rite is performed to open the portal, the stones glow brighter and brighter until vision is completely obscured. When the stones fade again, the body in the center of the portal is gone.
The knowledge of the rites to send the fallen to the afterlife is passed down from shaman to shaman, and this pattern has continued for as long as anyone in the Sirocco tribe can remember. Unfortunately for the Sirocco tribe, stingers have recently kidnapped their shaman. The aarakocra fought valiantly to save their shaman, but the stingers got away.
The aarakocras of the Sirocco tribe are now in a terrible quandary. They are afraid to chase down the offending stingers and rescue their shaman. After all, if one of them were to die and the rescue failed, what would become of the fallen avenger? If anyone dies, they have no way to send their fallen tribe member to the afterlife, leaving their corpses to the horrible fate of being picked over by scavengers, the soul of the deceased scattered to live eternity. The shaman's son is too young to have learned the rites of the dead. The entire tribe has been paralyzed by this turn of events.
After long councils, the chief of the tribe has decided to appeal to outsiders for help. They aren't even sure where to go, but something must be done. The shaman's young son has volunteered to lead the delegation of Sirocco aarakocras to the outside world to find champions whose spirits will not be imperiled by facing stingers.
How to Incorporate the Portal of the Dead Into Your Campaign
- The Sirocco delegation winds up in Silverymoon, requesting assistance in recovering their shaman from the stingers. They will pay by escorting caravans across the burning wastes if Lady Alustriel will help them find their shaman. Alustriel asks the PCs to attend to the search and rescue mission.
- The portal doesn't really connect to any mysterious land of the dead, but just drops out somewhere secluded like the deep jungle in Chult. (The dead aarakocra bodies quickly decay and disappear among the ravenous jungle scavengers.) When the PCs are stuck in Chult and need a way back north, a sly stranger offers them cheap passage to Anauroch. The aarakocras are, of course, completely shocked to see people emerge from the Cave of Beyond.
Or, maybe the portal really does connect with another plane, such as the Beastlands. The PCs might use the portal to get back from there after a trip to the outer planes.