Ninety miles west of the ruins of Tilverton, in the heart of the desolate Stonelands, stands a nameless hill whose sere slopes are crowned by a long-ruined villa. Little remains aboveground, but beneath the hill lies a large cave carved out of the stone by a rushing torrent that now has vanished. This is the Cavern of Death -- domain of the lich Asbaron, who lived and died more than a thousand years ago. In this dark and terrible place he lingers still, his mind long since lost in a purposeful madness.
Asbaron of the Emerald Eyes
Born in the ruined realm of Anauria in 199 DR, the Year of the Cold Enchanter, Asbaron traveled widely and collected a great hoard of dangerous lore as he prolonged his life by various dark bargains and rituals. Exceedingly ancient and cruel, he eventually crossed over into undeath, becoming a lich. Hundreds of years after the fall of Anauria, he returned to his family's ancestral home and established his lair in the caverns beneath.
Asbaron has spent centuries obsessed with the fates of two long-scattered families: his own House Nemrin and their rivals House Maluradek, both noble families of the ancient realm of Anauria. From his earliest childhood, Asbaron was raised on the bitterness and gall of his great-grandfather Ashkelor, a warlock who believed first that House Nemrin was meant to rule a mighty realm, and secondly that the treachery and jealousy of House Maluradek stole away from House Nemrin its chance to rule Anauria. In Ashkelor's twisted view, Anauria never would have fallen had a Nemrin sat on the throne, and he poured his hate and resentment into Asbaron throughout Asbaron's childhood and his early studies.
A Scion of Maluradek?
In the thirteen centuries since the fall of Anauria, the Maluradek family has long since dissolved into the general human population of western Faerûn. Literally thousands of people can trace descent from one of the Maluradeks alive during the last days of the kingdom . . . including, perhaps, a human or partially human player character. Through diligent research and tracing of various family trees, the lich Asbaron discovers that one of the characters in the party is a Maluradek descendant. He dispatches his servants to assassinate the character in whatever distant corner of Faerûn the heroes happen to find themselves in. When the player characters trace the assassins back to their origin, they discover that some hitherto unsuspected enemy lurking in the Stonelands seems to have it in for them -- a perfect reason to investigate the old stories about the Cavern of Death.
Ashkelor died a thousand years ago, but Asbaron still remembers his great-grandfather's lessons. To amend this ancient wrong, Asbaron has spent centuries of his undead existence searching out the far-flung descendants of House Nemrin, hoping to find one suitable for a throne (and a throne suitable for that Nemrin). He is a demanding and cruel judge of his family's progeny, and he seeks a descendant of iron will, keen intelligence, driving ambition, and magical strength. Any Nemrin descendant who does not measure up is ignored . . . or, in the case of the truly weak, plucked from the family tree. The lich spends most of his time seeking out hidden heirs of the ancient Nemrin blood and spying on those he knows about, looking for the right mix of character, ability, and position. At the same time, Asbaron has made it his personal crusade to extirpate the scions of Maluradek wherever he finds them. He has not yet succeeded in completely exterminating this ancient line, and the knowledge that the descendants of those who "betrayed" his house a thousand years ago still walk Faerûn absolutely maddens him.
Also, Asbaron is engaged in a years-long feud against the Zhentarim. First of all, his minions have sacked the Zhentish caravans seeking to pass through the Stonelands on more than one occasion. Secondly, Asbaron's minions recently slew a minor lord of Zhentil Keep after the lich identified him as a Maluradek descendant. The Zhentarim have therefore sent several expeditions against Asbaron, but each ended in failure.
A master of gem magic, Asbaron has a peculiar affinity for emeralds. Two large, perfect emeralds rest in the lich's eye sockets, wreathed in the unholy green flames that burn there. Dozens of smaller gemstones are affixed to his old yellow bones, many enchanted with potent spells.
As one might expect, Asbaron's servitors include a number of undead -- mostly skeletons and wights of various types. Many of these were once human guards or merchants whose caravans were attacked and plundered by Asbaron's minions. The lich also rules over a large tribe of troglodytes, a band of gargoyles, and a variety of monstrous guardians such as leucrottas, manticores, and a gorgon.
The Greenflame troglodytes are the most numerous of Asbaron's servants. The Nemser caverns have long been overrun by the simple creatures, who worship Asbaron as a god. The lich promises the troglodytes' chieftains and shamans perpetual existence in the form of undeath should they serve him well. Asbaron's sinister bargain is so alluring that most Greenflame warriors are literally eager to die in the service of their undead master, hoping that such a display of loyalty and bravery will earn them a higher place when the lich raises them into undeath.
The gargoyles loyal to Asbaron lair in the ruined cellars and passages of old Nemsergaar, the ancient family seat. Their ability to range far out over the Stonelands in search of plunder or undertake long errands hundreds of miles from the cavern make them especially useful. Asbaron often sends them to steal books and genealogies from libraries and temples, assassinate Maluradeks he discovers, or carry gifts and advice to any Nemrins he currently favors. Like the troglodytes, they too serve the lich for the promise of eternal existence.
Asbaron's pet monsters have no such desire, of course. The lich controls his more powerful minions by means of a ritual in which he embeds a magic emerald in the flesh of a living creature's brow. The gemstone ritual dominates the subject creature, and it also gives Asbaron the ability to perceive what his enslaved monsters perceive and issue them telepathic commands over a substantial distance. Asbaron cannot watch through all such gems constantly; in practice he only looks in on a particular monster for a few minutes at a time once every day or so (or more intently if he has reason to be watchful).
A small number of powerful lieutenants (the troglodyte shaman, the gargoyle chief, and a few of the undead) bear these gems not only to ensure their loyalty, but as a mark of favor. These individuals are known as Asbaron's "Eyethanes," and they are greatly feared by the other creatures in the caverns and ruins because they speak directly for the lich, commanding his minions. Asbaron himself rarely deigns to do so.
The Nemser Caves
Beneath the ancient ruins of Nemsergaar, the old seat of House Nemrin, lies a maze of living limestone caverns carved out of the heart of the hills by once-torrential streams born in the Stormhorns snows. These caves are quite splendid in many places, festooned with frozen cascades of flowstone, mineralized pools, living streams, and wide galleries. For the most part they are unimproved and show little working. There are two main entrances: A steep staircase descends from the ruins of the palace above, and a large cave mouth opens up a few hundred yards distant where the stream flowing through the caves emerges. Gargoyles infest the ruins and guard the upper entrance, while the lower quickly leads into a mazelike troglodyte warren.
The Cavern of Death itself is a large, bell-shaped pit or shaft in the center of the complex. The entrance is near the top of this hundred-foot high cavern. This is one of the few chambers that has been substantially worked, and a stone staircase winds down to the floor past bas-reliefs of skeletal figures and dozens of burial-niches in the walls where real skeletons stand. A shrine to Orcus fills the floor of the cave, which is normally lit by eerie green flames burning in iron cressets along the walls. The lich's personal chambers, workroom, library, treasure vault, and trophy room are all linked to this cavern, and a secret escape tunnel leads down into the depths of the Underdark below the caves.
House Nemrin of Anauria
After the fall of Netheril in the Year of the Sundered Webs, three smaller realms survived the wreckage of the great empire: Anauria, Asram, and Hlondath. Anauria was the wealthiest of these three. It stood in the broad lands north of the Stormhorns, in that part of Anauroch that is now known as the Sword. In the days of Anauria, the Stonelands were green and forested, a well-watered upland of swift streams rushing down from the mountains to the south. A number of Anaurian noble families built hunting lodges, villas, and summer palaces in the hills, retreating to the cooler elevations during the hottest months of the year. One of these families was House Nemrin, a family of wealthy nobles who wielded great influence in the affairs of Anauria.
During the last years of the kingdom, the Nemrins fell into disfavor. Accused of trafficking with demons and plotting rebellion by a rival noble family -- House Maluradek -- Lord Ashkelor Nemrin found himself banished from the court on the basis of evidence presented to the king by his rivals. Ashkelor removed himself to the relative seclusion of his family's summer palace in the hills, Nemsergaar. There Ashkelon plotted revenge against his accusers and awaited his vindication before the king.
Ashkelor's vindication never came. A great orc-horde swept down from the harsh reaches of northern Anauroch in the Year of Fallen Guards, destroying Anauria's cities and plundering its countryside. Roving bands of monsters pillaged most of the estates in the southern hills. Nemsergaar was sacked and burned during one such raid, and left in ruins. Most Anaurians died under orcish axes or fled to other lands, never to return -- but the Nemrins remained. A warlock of no small skill, Ashkelor Nemrin concealed his family in caverns hidden beneath Nemsergaar and survived the destruction of his home.
After the fall of Anauria, Ashkelor emerged to claim what was left of the realm -- but it was a vain boast. For a few generations, the surviving Nemrins clung to their claim and tried to reestablish the kingdom, but nothing came of their efforts. In time most of the remaining Nemrins drifted away and finally abandoned ruined Anauria. Ashkelor's great-grandson Asbaron, a warlock even more formidable than his ancestor, was the last of the line born in Nemsergaar.