As Vex’s inspired Oracle Arrow revealed in Episode 97, Delilah Briarwood’s handiwork opened a window into the Shadowfell, also known as the Plane of Shadow. Delilah’s ritual was to advance the goals of the god wannabe, Vecna (who has not yet ascended to godhood in this world). Delilah’s return in Episode 100 has prompted Vox Machina to give chase into the Shadowfell, so let’s take a look about what all we know about the Shadowfell and The Whispered One. Before we begin, please remember that the Shadowfell and Vecna from any published material—5e DMG, previous lore, etc., may have similarities and differences from those in Critical Role. This summary is a combination of what we know from previous episodes, Matt’s descriptions in Episode 101, the DMG, and the MM.
Want to see the quotes from Critical Role about Vecna, the spinning orb of death, and the Shadowfell? Have we got a compendium for you!
Thanks to @blacksalander for this art piece!
If the Feywild was a jump to the left, the Shadowfell is a step to the right
Just like the Feywild, the Shadowfell is a plane adjacent to the Prime Material. Whereas the Feywild was like the PM with the color saturation turned way up, the Shadowfell hits the other end of the spectrum. Think The Doldrums from The Phantom Tollbooth: everything is in gloomy grayscale. A city street on the Prime Material may be reflected in the Shadowfell as a rock-covered path. The purple, sentient field in the Feywild would be a gray briarpatch in the Shadowfell. The portals to the Shadowfell are in places like the darkest corner of a graveyard. If you’ve read Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book (and you should), they’re very similar to the entrances to Ghûlheim.
Delilah and the Remnant were able to create portals/siphons to the Shadowfell on the ziggurats (more on those later). Vox Machina, thanks to Delilah’s handiwork and the expedited deaths of several cultists, passed through the orb in Whitestone with little difficulty. As for their return to the Material Plane, the cultist they interrogated seemed to think they would be stuck there. However, he saw Vox Machina as the undead creatures that Scanlan had disguised them as. Presumably, he is unaware that they have the symbols needed to return via the orb, or that they can Plane Shift. The cultist also called the ruins of the city they arrived in Thar Amphala, and the black tower Entropis. Thanks to some poor history checks, we don’t know much about the city, though many of the skeletons patrolling the area around the orb were wearing armor with Pelor’s mark, indicating a battle had been fought there. From Gilmore’s input (Episode 38), this was likely where Vecna had built his place of worship and the forces of good went 600 years ago to defeat him.
Heroes’ Feast can only help so much
If he chooses to implement them (as he did with the Feywild optional rules from the 5th edition DMG), Matt can have VM roll wisdom saves when he deems it appropriate (though the DMG suggests not more than once a day in general). Failures result in gaining one of three conditions: madness, dread, or apathy. Each of these manifests in different ways, both in mechanics and in role-playing. Neither Heroes’ Feast nor any other spell protects against those conditions, though there are spells that can restore a creature to normality once afflicted (assuming their companions notice that something is wrong). Keyleth and Pike, who both have access to these spells (as well as the ability for a quick escape via Plane Shift for Keyleth), will likely be essential for overcoming any of these problems.
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Going in with Pike and Vax is going to help a LOT
As we’ve seen, there is no sun in the Shadowfell, which makes life a lot more pleasant for creatures that are evaporated in light like, say, a vampire. (Coincidentally, if Strahd von Zarovich resides somewhere in the planes of Critical Role, his home would be accessible in the Shadowfell.) So far, we’ve seen two specific creatures native to the Shadowfell, one of which is confirmed to be undead. The most we know about the Gloom Stalkers is their name, since they have thankfully not yet spotted Vox Machina (or at the very least, they have yet to take an active interest in them).
A cleric like Pike has the Channel Divinity ability to Destroy Undead, which has already proven useful in the last day for Vox Machina, as they dealt with the small horde of skeletons Delilah and her cultists summoned. Paladins have even more weapons against the undead: they can use Divine Sense to pinpoint undead presence and Oath of Vengeance paladins, like Vax, can Abjure Enemy to frighten their opponents. Undead and fiends have disadvantage on their wisdom saves against this effect. Both Vax and Pike also have ready sources of radiant damage at their disposal, which is almost required to effectively kill any vampires wandering the plane. They both also have skills and weapons that deal extra damage specifically to undead, like Divine Smite and Pike’s Mace of Disruption.
Thanks to @hattedhedgehog for this art piece!
What about the Raven Queen?
Vax’s patron, the Raven Queen, hates necromancy and the unnatural extension of life after death. She will likely have a particular interest in Vox Machina’s trip to the Shadowfell, though the most she’s done thus far is to encourage Vax to follow his instincts. In previous lore, she resided in the Shadowfell. In Critical Role, however, the deities, like Sarenrae and the Raven Queen, were locked behind the Divine Gate after the Divergence.
You’ll recall Vox Machina had to cross the Gate to get to the Nine Hells, but did not in order to enter the adjacent plane of the Feywild, or for any of the inner elemental planes. From what Sarenrae told Pike and what we saw when Vox Machina entered the portal, we’re inclined to think that the Shadowfell on the same side of the Divine Gate as the Material Plane, the Elemental Planes, and the Feywild. While anything is possible, it is very unlikely that she will be found in the Shadowfell on Critical Role, and instead resides, like Sarenrae and the other deities, in one of the many Outer Planes (though probably not the Nine Hells or the Abyss). It’s worth noting that she’s told Vax that “it’s almost as if you’re coming towards me.” This, however, is fairly cryptic, and its meaning, whether figurative or literal, remains up to interpretation at this time.
An archlich, to be specific. Liches are wizards who have prepared a phylactery for their soul, undergone a specific arcane ritual, and consumed a potion of transformation. The potion kills them, their soul transfers to the phylactery, and the individual rises as a lich. While the ritual is a one-time necessity, the phylactery needs occasional soul-feedings to continue to successfully maintain the lich’s body and soul. Liches are powerful, having access to 9th level spells like Power Word Kill and Imprisonment, the latter of which is required to trap a soul in its phylactery. The only way to potentially permanently kill a lich is through destruction of its phylactery.
Vecna’s attempt at ascending to godhood was thwarted 600 years ago “on another plane” (Episodes 35, 38), but that doesn’t necessarily mean he was permanently destroyed. In fact, as we learned in Episode 101, the orbs appear to be feeding energy to Entropis, where Delilah is apparently preparing for a ritual to enact his return. He is supposedly missing his left eye and hand, which was reflected in the unholy symbol found on Daxio’s body in Episode 37 and the tapestry of bodies in the ziggurat in Episode 34, as well as the missing left eyes of the members of the Remnant (Episodes 100, 101). While it’s possible that Vecna was destroyed, those that worship him still endure (not to mention his eye and hand, which have some seriously nasty side effects to their use, according to the DMG, though their existence has not yet been confirmed in Critical Role). Who lives, who dies (and rises and dies again), who tells your story, indeed.
Thanks to @kupieckorzenny for this art piece!
Secrets, secrets are no fun…
As Riskel Daxio opined, “The deal with my master is power through not knowing. He is the one who knows all. The fact that he keeps it from us means that he trusts us.” That fanatic belief is clearly echoed through the rest of his cult of followers (and it is very much a cult). Delilah and Sylas wouldn’t even speak his name, calling Vecna “The Whispered One.” Vecna has fashioned himself into a lesser deity of secrets, and his cult holds fast to the belief that secrets are coveted and to be kept from the world at large. This is why Ioun hates Vecna above almost all else. Ioun and her followers consider the spread of knowledge to be of the utmost importance, and Vecna’s followers continually try to undo that. (Full disclosure: we’re Ioun fans here at CRStats.) As Gilmore mentioned in Episode 38, and Percy discovered in Episode 101, Vecna is suspiciously absent from most histories, which shows just how effective his followers have been at keeping his secrets.
What’s up with the spinning orb of death and the ziggurat?
The ziggurat underneath Whitestone was originally dedicated to Ioun. During the Calamity, Ioun was wounded in a struggle with the evil deity Tharizdun, diminishing her and making it easier for her enemies to persecute her followers. Because of that, her temples are often buried or kept hidden (which is undoubtedly frustrating for the deity of knowledge). The ziggurat in Whitestone was taken over and desecrated by followers of Vecna. Then, the Sun Tree was placed above it by Pelor himself to seal whatever damage had been done thanks to the cult. It was this ziggurat that drew the Briarwoods to Whitestone, and a second ziggurat that later drew Delilah to Smoldercrown.
When Vox Machina found Delilah Briarwood in the ziggurat in Whitestone, she was completing a blood ritual involving reading a scroll and splashing her blood upon a dark orb that was about a foot in diameter. After the spell completed, the orb shrank down to about dime-size. From what we know from Scanlan, Lionel, and Episode 100, the ziggurat in Ank’Harel also has a black orb that was presumably activated by Delilah and the Remnant. Riskel confirmed that this ritual had been attempted previously, though not that it had necessarily been attempted in Whitestone. A third orb does exist in the Shadowfell, with a matching orb somewhere in Wildmount, as confirmed by the cultist Vox Machina captured. We don’t know if the orbs were put in place by the Briarwoods and the rest of Vecna’s followers, or if they were there previously and corrupted.
It’s worth noting that Osysa had a somewhat-larger orb in Ioun’s temple in Vasselheim, though she specifically called it a heartstone and used it to obtain information for the Slayer’s Take (Episodes 22, 43), a very different function than we’ve seen for the orbs Delilah activated. There was also a pyramid-shaped temple in the illithid city of Yug'voril that had a flattened, open roof. The temple and city were old enough that the city was in ruins by the time the illithid made it their home. In the center of the temple, there was a "brass crossbeam that is held aloft in the center of this temple chamber, drifts down in a spiral of metal, this strange arcane contraption that does not match any of the construct of this temple previously, it seems like it’s been a new addition or is taking place of the something else that was the central focus of this chamber" (Episode 10). Interestingly, the temple was never referred to as a ziggurat, so we aren't inclined just yet to make the leap that it was a former temple to Ioun.
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As was discovered, the three orbs are siphons, draining away magic from around them into the Shadowfell. Siphons were used during the Age of Arcanum to shift large sources of magical ley line energy from one place to another. The Sun Tree was specifically placed on one such magical ley line. Once Delilah’s spell was complete, the Whitestone orb shrank down, but the room was suddenly anti-magicked, indicating that the magical energy in the room was being drawn through the siphon. Her immediate reaction was that the ritual had failed, so either she is a good actress (possible), or she honestly didn’t know what success was supposed to look like (also possible, see above section about secrets), since we now know that it is in fact a working siphon. Since returning from the dead, Delilah was successful in her ritual in the Smoldercrown Mountains to activate the siphon there, with a bonus: with the use of her amulet, she can apparently change the direction of the siphon at will. From what we’ve seen in episodes 100 and 101, a black orb is draining away magic, while a white orb emits it. It is unknown if this also affects the direction of travel through the orb for individuals, though this seems likely.
So, why draw energy from Whitestone and Ank’Harel into the Shadowfell? At the time, it seemed like Delilah thought she “broke the world” in the name of the Whispered One, and therefore thought that activating this magic siphon would empower the Shadowfell, land of many creatures, including the undead. Now, it seems that each orb is feeding energy into Entropis, where Delilah is attempting the “Ritual of Seating.” Vecna, not being an actual deity, would not be locked away behind the Divine Gate. The Briarwoods, Daxio, and Anders clearly believed that he still exists, so it is very possible that Delilah has been acting in a way that could empower him or his armies of undead to wreak destruction on the Prime Material Plane. As Sarenrae pled with Pike, Vox Machina’s next goal is to put a stop to whatever evil is brewing in the Shadowfell.