Curse of Strahd
My old master sent me a request: he was having trouble dealing with worrisome occurrences in a village near his tower. Crop blights, dead livestock, villagers going missing – all signs of potential dark magic. I arrived within the fortnight, and found the door to his tower ajar. I entered and was hit by a profane stench. It was familiar at first: his old tomes, miscellaneous reagents, strange taxonomies. But it smelt burnt… I can still smell it. My master’s voice called out to me, and I came running up the stairs to his study. When I entered, a bright, green, light roared in front of me. And then the laughing started.
- Dalerion the Adept, speaking to an Archmage’s Tribunal
The Flameskull is an undead mystical creation, the result of a profane ritual involving the head of a magically-attuned individual. It is a simplistic and rigid, yet effective, guardian that is bound to the commands it is given at its creation. It is a skull, leafed in powerful flames that stalks silently and imitates voice with frightening accuracy. It never rests and follows its orders with maniacal efficiency, taking advantage of the memories and magical prowess of its previous form. It follows its commands to the letter, often producing intended consequences for its creator.
Make no mistake, however, the Flameskull is not even a shadow of its former self. It only borders on sanity, and woe be to any ill-prepared adventurer who falls in its path. The mage that once was is gone – and since the head is required, they’re usually dead.
The Flameskull, being a mystical creation, can be quite different aesthetically but the general anatomy and function is near ubiquitous. The Flameskull is defined by its very name, it is a levitating flaming skull. The form of the skull depends upon the race, age, and sex of the mage the skull was created from but otherwise is completely bone. No flesh, muscle, or other viscera remain. The Flameskull is continually wrapped in a bright (usually green) flame, that burns violently hot and can be controlled by the Flameskull. It levitates above the ground, and is animate by magical means. It has keen hearing and sight, although rumors of a sense of taste remain yet unverified. They are as intelligent as their former selves, though usually only speaking the languages of their creators. They only faintly remember personal members, but otherwise have accurate historical recollection.
Flameskulls move quickly, silently, and their flames can be dulled to an infinitesimal glow (although never intentionally extinguished.) Their skulls, no matter how old, remain extremely strong; infused with the magical bindings that created it. The Flameskull does not eat, drink, sleep, or breath – it spends its existence executing its given orders and discerning how best to do so. It is lost otherwise.
The primary form of defense and combat used by Flameskulls is their ability to use the magic of their former self. They also inherently may focus rays of fire from their eye sockets, and have been known to also bite. A Flameskull may only be permanently killed by immersion in holy water, or a spell that dispels magic or curses. If otherwise killed, no matter how shattered, a Flameskull will reform in as little as an hour.
The ritual to create a Flameskull is an inherent act of evil. While not requiring the soul of the subject, it does require their head and magical powers. This usually means death, but in the case of a multi-headed sorcerer, or perhaps a particularly well-prepared wizard, this may not spell death for the subject.
First, the creator must acquire the head of a powerful magic-user, usually by decapitation of some sort. Then, specific runes found only in long-forgotten tomes must be inscribed, in the blood of the caster, both in the flesh and on an alabaster slab four pace by four pace large. The creator must then find a flame that has burned continuously for one hundred and eleven days – no less, no more. Using the fires of this flame, the creator must melt down the hair, eyes, teeth, and brains of the subject into an inkwell. With this ink, still hot, the creator must write down their commands. Before the ink cools, the parchment it was written on must be shoved into the mouth of the head and then the head must be set alight by the same flame used to melt down the ink.
After uttering profane words of binding, the flames will turn a deep color and the remaining flesh (if there is any) will melt off, and the Flameskull will begin to scream. It will not stop for four days and four nights. It then follows the commands it was given – they cannot be changed or modified in any way.
There are a variety of points at which a ramshackle mad wizard may go wrong: the ink may not have a proper binding agent (gum arabic is recommended,) causing it to run and sully the commands; the head may not have had the eyes removed fully; or the runes used could be an age-old secret for the transmutation of beets.
Flameskulls, in general, do not work well or cooperate with one another. Often two or more Flameskulls will be set to the same task, and begin to bicker and beguile one another – each one perceiving that the other is compromising their goals. They inherently do not trust one another, perhaps because each understand the insanity lurking underneath them. Multiple Flameskulls set to similar but different goals are even worse, as they begin to be caught up in an internal-bureaucracy tied to usually one hastily scrawled sentence.
Flameskulls whose tasks do not interact with one another whatsoever are a rare encounter, but in those cases it goes swimmingly. They revel in their tasks, complement each others flames, and discuss the nuances of their commands. Often, those still bound by them will scheme with one another on how to deceive and rid themselves of their chains. Flameskulls of opposing goals fight to the death, with no exceptions.
Flameskulls do not, otherwise, interact. They don’t mate, form social structures, or otherwise propagate a future.
Different Flameskulls feel differently about their tasks: some are frustrated, others eager to serve, others eager to have the opportunity to kill their creator and roam free. Flameskulls often talk of “Freedom.” Freedom from their commands, freedom from their creators, even freedom from sanity.
Flameskulls are apt communicators because of their ability to recall historical events quite well along with near-perfect voice imitation. They usually simply use the voice of their previous self, unless attempting to deceive an intruder or mock something.
However, Flameskulls do not communicate often, unless they have gone insane. The key to dealing and communicating with a Flameskull is to discern, as quickly and accurately as possible, if it is insane.
Sane Flameskulls will be reasonably suspicious of all who approach it, but will be eager to offer as much information as they can about their master and how someone might kill their creator or free them from their commands. However, this conversation is usually impossible as most Flameskulls are given strict commands to kill all who come near whatever they are guarding. (Absolutes, such as “kill all” are quite dangerous terms to use for commands – as an unwary creator has often learned.)
However, insane Flameskulls, those released from their bonds or having failed to guard whatever it is they were guarding, are another matter entirely. No longer bound to the very essence of their creation, insane Flameskulls lash out with the remaining fragments of their former life and tormenting contract. Their ability for voice imitation is used to their fullest as they terrorize all who come near them, without regard for life or morality. Most take sick pleasure in luring people into traps with the voices of hurt innocents before incinerating them with their gaze. Some use riddles with no right answer (unless death by fire is an acceptable one,) others simply use their former self’s ability for Illusion magic to force people through twisting labyrinths with no end.
There is no limit to the extent of both the malice and ingenuity of an insane Flameskull – they are utterly and wholly lost to any chains that once bound them. A sane Flameskull can be just as devious,though often more restrained. While they crave freedom, they are still absolutely evil.
Inter Species Observations
All races are equal in the sight of a Flameskull, in that they usually hate them all. Sometimes especial prejudices remain from their past selves, but otherwise a Flameskull will view anyone not sanctioned in their commands to be a possible threat and never let down their guard.
Due to their usually secluded nature, guarding areas or people of great and evil power, common folk do not usually interact with Flameskulls and the more dramatic nature of the Lich often causes it to overshadow the Flameskull. Many encounters with Flameskulls throughout history often simply become more exaggerated until it becomes the story of a powerful Lich.
Rarely, Flameskulls are viewed as an alternative to Lichdom. Their commands are usually something akin to “Live free and well.”
The resulting Flameskull often has existential crises, and go insane within the first few days of activity.
Flameskulls may be used as guards by secluded mages and communities of evil creatures (though they must be well-supplied and magically adept.)