By Robert Wiese
The Portal of Bones
Sitting atop a hill in a desolate place is an arch made entirely of bones -- human and elven bones, to be exact. This arch is marked with ancient orc runes as a victory monument from a great battle between the orcs and their enemies. It says, "In this place, Goolgog Elvenbane and his armies crushed the puny humans and elves, eradicating them from his lands." This arch is located in the Vast near where the Vespur River reaches the Earthspur Mountains.
A little less than 300 years ago, a sorcerer and some priests of Myrkul united forces and created a portal in the arch of bones. A secret temple dedicated to Myrkul sat nearby, and the priests of that temple wanted a fast way to reach their brethren near the Well of Dragons. Thus, they allied with the sorcerer to create a two-way portal from the Arch of Goolgog to the center of the valley called the Battle of Bones. The Arch of Goolgog is 8 feet high and 4 feet wide, so it can handle humans passing through easily. Indeed, it was built that way since Goolgog wanted to (and did) march his entire army through the arch as a sign of his victory before returning to his "palace." In the Battle of Bones, the portal is marked by a bone circle that is not much different from the other bones scattered nearby. The priests of Myrkul always knew where to look.
To protect their portal, the priests worked powerful necromantic magic and animated the bones of the arch, directing them to attack anyone who approached and did not speak the password phrase, "By Myrkul and Jergal I ask passage from these bones." Thus, whenever anyone approaches within 20 feet of the arch without reciting the phrase, the skeletons within the arch pull themselves together, climb down, form ranks, and attack the intruders. This can be a very unnerving sight, even for experienced adventurers. One adventurer who escaped with her life reported this: "The sight of the bones crawling over each other to assemble was the eeriest thing I have ever seen. First one, and then another formed, the arch disassembled, and we faced many very large skeletons. We could not affect them with the power of the gods either, and so we ran. Despite this, two of our group lost their lives. For all we know now, those two poor souls have joined the others in the arch." When the threat is over, the skeletons climb back into the arch, disassemble, and return to their places.
The skeletons should be of whatever size and strength your campaign requires. The materials of the arch make 50 Hit Dice worth of skeletons (it's a very thick arch). If you want several powerful skeletons, use Huge ones and give them barbarian levels. Raging skeletons can be nasty. Or make them similar to banedead, with the ability to cast magic missile. The key thing to keep in mind is that you want to keep your encounter manageable, so try to use a smaller group of more powerful skeletons instead of a large group of weaker skeletons.
The portal in the arch is activated by the same code phrase that allows passage by the skeletons, so the portal is not active very often. In the Battle of Bones, the portal is continuously active, but very few living creatures spend a lot of time in that accursed valley, so attention has not been drawn to the portal there as of this time.
The temple of Myrkul was eradicated before the Time of Troubles and the demise of the god. The priests who survived have turned to Cyric, Bane, Jergal, or Kelemvor, and they have long since forgotten the password phrase for the arch, or even that a portal is in the arch. The temple near the Well of Dragons was sacked by the Cult of the Dragon some sixty years ago, and so knowledge of that side of the portal is lost as well. But the portal remains active, and occasionally a restless skeleton from the Battle of Bones rises up, accidentally passes through the portal, and takes out its frustrated rage on the folk living near the Arch of Goolgog. The residents in the Vast assume that such skeletons have come off the Arch; they are not aware of the portal's existence. But it is only a matter of time . . .
How to Incorporate the Portal of Bones Into Your Campaign:
- A ghoul, or some other more powerful undead, comes through the portal and attacks a local village in the Vast. It is dealt with, but when a second comes, the village looks to adventurers to solve the problem. The PCs may track the ghouls back to the portal and then they have to deal with the arch's defenders. Assuming they find a way to do that, or find the password phrase in the ruined temple of Myrkul hidden nearby, they can travel through to the Battle of Bones and find the source of the undead. Perhaps a powerful necromancer has found the portal on that side and is sending minions through to cause terror, or perhaps the undead are hooked into a larger plot of the Zhentarim.
- Orcs are massing from the Earthfast Mountains again, and the local residents need help. A preemptive strike at the orc's leader is called for, or the slaughter of innocents will be great. The characters pass the Arch of Goolgog on the way to the orc camp, and they have to retreat from the guardians. Later, they rush ahead of the main orc army (assuming they have not foiled the whole plot before this) and meet the ragtag army of locals. A battle erupts at the arch, and its skeletons eerily climb down and attack any who approach the arch, whether human or orc. Can the adventurers (or the orcs) make use of this new element? How will the orcs react to the desecration of their ancient monument?