Lore-Win: Kindly Arkhan The Cruel
Sometimes, the villains that are best known are those who are relatable. Villains who have a goal, villains with whom you can sympathize. Villains like Arkhan the Cruel.
Welcome back to Lore-Win, the D&D lore deep dive article series exclusive to the Wizard’s Tower. As always, I am your humble Loremaster, Sokar.
Today we’re expanding our horizons to venture beyond Abeir-Toril and explore a new realm, then travel back to the more familiar. For the tale of Arkahn is a tale that spans the worlds, starting in the land of Exandria.
Better known as the world of Critical Role.
Before becoming Arkhan the Cruel, he was just Arkhan. He was once a hired killer, and once a Lawful good paladin, though details of his early adventures are scarce from what I’ve been able to surmise. This might be due to the fact that Arkhan’s origins were not open to public discourse.
Much like with legends such as Mordenkainen or Tenser, Arkhan’s true origins lay within a private campaign. Arkhan began life in what we call the real world as actor Joe Manganiello’s character for his own games.
What we do know, however, is how Arkhan came to his current goddess. Captured by a cult and beaten to near death in an attempt to forcefully convert him, the red Dragonborn received a vision from the progenitor of his draconic ancestors.
Arkhan: A face you can trust.
Source: Descent Into Avernus
Tiamat granted Arkhan powers, and with them, he broke his chains and murdered his captors. He in turn swore fealty to Tiamat.
And so started Arkhan the Cruel’s legend. An Oathbreaker paladin who served his five-headed dragon goddess faithfully, and who would one day come to work arm in arm with Exandria’s greatest heroes.
But for two of those heroes, their tales would become entwined much sooner than later.
Percival de Rolo and Keyleth of Critical Role’s famed Vox Machina adventuring party would come to be employed by Arkhan during their earlier adventures. Arkhan had been guided to a mysterious cave by a vision from Tiamat, but concerned of the dangers within turned to a tactic as old as Gygax himself: hiring mercenaries.
In addition to Percival the human gunslinger and Keyleth the half-elf druid, Arkhan also hired a human monk known only as The Headmistress, and a dwarven monk named Dupont Dupont. Arkhan’s target was an artifact of Tiamat within, but between him and his prize was a snake-themed vault that was home to a band of Yuan-ti.
Despite being aligned to the forces of evil, Arkhan proved himself to be loyal to his companions. When Dupont Dupont was poisoned by a trap while gaining entrance to the cave, Arkhan immediately cured him of the poison. Arkhan delved into the vault alongside his hired help and proved instrumental in defeating its guardians.
In the depths of the vault, past the Yuan-ti, Arkhan and his party fought with a spectral guardian. Arkhan managed to seize control over the ghost with Control Undead, and also tamed a manticore within.
The manticore wore the artifact Arkhan sought around its neck, the Wreath of the Prism. With it, he also claimed the manticore as his own and named it Changó.
Following this adventure, Arkhan took up arms with a different band of allies. Among them were a half-elf named Vander, who was like a brother to the Dragonborn paladin, and an unnamed goliath. However, on their adventures, an ambush brought tragedy to the band.
Perhaps seeking the Hand of Vecna, Arkhan’s band was ambushed by a death knight of the maimed god, and a human wizard in his service named Delilah Briarwood. Arkhan watched as Vander was burned alive and the heart was torn from the chest of his ally, the goliath. The Dragonborn himself was left for dead, lying in the dirt.
There he laid, motionless until vultures landed thinking that they’d found a meal for the day. However Arkhan would not die, for Tiamat had other plans for him.
From there, Arkhan sought out those that had wronged him.
Like Mordenkainen before him, Arkhan was Vecna’s enemy. And he would have his revenge.
Vecna collects enemies like you collect Magic cards.
Source: Deities and Demigods
Riding a white dragon named Obatalá that he had helped raise, Arkhan made chase.
Vox Machina prepared for their final battle. For the moment they hid within a building in a city atop the shoulders of a reanimated primordial titan. Here they would face the forces of Vecna, or Exandria’s version thereof, newly ascended to godhood.
Then they heard a thump against the wall.
And then the wall broke down.
Through the rubble tumbled a winged beast known as a gloomstalker, and the red Dragonborn wrestling it. With the help of half-elf ranger and rogue Vex'ahlia and the goliath barbarian and fighter Grog, Arkhan managed to subdue the beast.
With the beast subdued, Arkhan then used an artifact called the Wreath of the Prism in order to bend it to his will. Now named “They”, the gloomstalker was attuned to Arkhan as his mount.
Now free, Arkhan greeted his old comrades in arms and offered the rest of Vox Machina a deal. If they were able to look past the differences of their gods, past the conflict of good and evil, he would work with them.
And not just work with them.
If they helped him to gain vengeance on Vecna and his followers, Arkhan would, “fight for their lives with the fury of a man who was already dead.”
The group agreed and set to work.
First, they targeted a Sigil protecting the fallen city. With Arkhan’s help, Vox Machina managed to bring it down, collapsing part of a dome like a slice of pie. Of course, destroying magical protections tends to draw the notice of those responsible for them.
And Arkhan and his new (and some old) companions found themselves confronted by the servants of Vecna.
Delilah Briarwood and her vampiric husband in Vecna’s service, Sylas, swooped in to deal with these threats to their lord. And more insulting to Arkhan, they arrived upon the back of an undead white dragon. A white dragon Arkhan was all too familiar with.
Kind of like this, but more skeletal.
Source: Monster Manual
The battle was fierce, but the adventurers managed to slay Delilah. And with her death, the spell reanimating Obatalá ended, leaving the dragon to collapse. Arkhan felt remorse at having seen the dragon's corpse.
But there was work to do. And vengeance to be had.
Despite having slain her, Arkhan took a touch more vengeance upon Delilah by reanimating her corpse, just as she had done to his companion. And just like Vecna had done to the rest of his companions.
As they ventured further into the ruined city of Thar Amphala, the party climbed the central tower of Entropis. As they worked through, Arkhan was greeted by more of his former companions who had been raised from the dead.
Vander, who he thought of like a brother, and the gnomish mage Grubby stood in his path. Arkhan managed to use Control Undead to bring Vander’s zombie under his command while the reanimated Grubby was cut down by Pike, the gnomish cleric of Vox Machina.
But Arkhan was not the only one who had friendly faces awaiting them in an unwelcome surprise. Further up the tower, the adventurers found a room with three armoured figures. Believing these to be death knights, Vox Machina fell upon them. Two were cut down in a moment, but the third was merely wounded.
By a stroke of luck, Arkhan’s first strike failed to land and his second only wounded the armoured figure.
When the figure failed to respond, or move, or even speak, Vox Machina realized something was amiss. Removing the helmets of the fallen, Vox Machina were horrified. Instead of killing Vecna’s cultists, they had instead slain the daughter of the gnome bard, Scanlan, and Percy’s sister, paralyzed by magical bands.
The third figure was revealed to be Shaun Gilmore, a friend and backer of Vox Machina.
Vecna's followers had kidnapped the three and set them up in a trick for the adventuring party. Punishment for their pursuit of the dark god. And they had only learned the truth because Arkhan had failed to kill his mark in a single blow.
Perhaps not noticing the horror of his newfound allies, perhaps not caring, Arkhan moved to cut the head from Shaun’s shoulders. Thankfully, for all involved, he was stopped before he could land the killing blow.
But as the party revived their loved ones, Vecna’s forces pursued them. With thundering footsteps, the death knight ascended the stairs and met Arkhan in combat once more.
Blocking the stairs, Arkhan had the undead Vander and Delilah grab at the death knight’s arms while he bought time for Vox Machina to make their way to Vecna for the final battle.
The Hand of Vecna
Arkhan’s distraction gave Vox Machina enough time to climb the tower and face Vecna.
But Arkhan would not die. His queen had other plans for him. And so, as the battle raged, Arkhan reappeared, having triumphed against his foe at the cost of his undead minions. Flying into battle on a pair of magical chromatic dragon wings, Arkhan dealt a massive blow to Vecna and broke his concentration at a key moment. Vecna had banished both the goliath Grog and Scanlan from the battlefield, but thanks to Arkahns’ attack, they returned.
And together, they triumphed.
Using magical items known as the Divine Trammels and the Tome of Isolation, the adventurers defeated Vecna and watched as his form imploded. All but the Hand of Vecna. As the party took in the victory, Arkhan prepared to destroy the artifact.
Now, the Hand of Vecna is a powerful artifact that has appeared in many campaigns throughout the D&D multiverse. From Greyhawk to the fourth edition “Points of Light” setting, to the Forgotten Realms, it has traveled many different worlds. But generally, the way to use it has remained the same...
It also looks pretty creepy.
Source: Vecna Lives!
You amputate your own hand and place Vecna’s hand in its place. Arkhan’s blade cut his hand from his wrist.
“I’m sorry. It was just business. Until we meet again.”
The red Dragonborn placed the Hand of Vecna in place of his freshly fallen hand and teleported away, leaving Vox Machina in shock.
Elsewhere, one of Arkhan’s companions awaited him. Krull, a tortle cleric waited for his ally, draconic writings engraved upon his shell. Upon Arkhan’s return, the two left Exandria itself, descending down into Avernus, where Arkhan’s queen laid trapped, and where Arkhan built a mighty tower to dwell while he worked to free her.
Krull, not your friendly, neighbourhood tortle.
Source: Descent Into Avernus
So, what should we make of Arkhan the Cruel? Often, from what we’ve seen, he doesn’t appear to particularly live up to his moniker. Yet at the same time, he didn’t hesitate to betray those he fought beside, while never harming them.
According to his appearance in Descent Into Avernus, Arkhan falls under the alignment of lawful evil, and I believe it shows. Throughout his dealings with both Vox Machina and his hired help, the Dragonborn upheld a code of honour. Even in the betrayal of his allies, Arkhan was polite and seemed to wish his fellows well.
In addition, we can see that his faith is true through his dealings with Tiamat. He is ever faithful to his queen, and even in Avernus still seeks to free her from the shackles of the hells. He now resides with a cadre of dragons within his tower, alongside Krull. In addition, Arkhan is accompanied by his minotaur bodyguard Torogar Steelfist, his manticore Changó, and his friend and ally the chimera, Asojano.
Honestly? If you mess with this bull, you're gonna get more than just horns.
Source: Descent Into Avernus
If, for whatever reason, your travels take you to the hells of Avernus, you may discover that you stand at the foot of a great tower where the Dragonborn resides. Should you have something that piques his interest, you may even find an ally in him too.
There are tales about an Arkhan in the Forgotten Realms as well. An Arkhan who served in Waterdeep’s Force Grey, but that is a tale for another day.
If you’d like to explore Exandria, be sure to pick up the Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount, available at the Wizard’s Tower. Or, if you’re looking for a more infernal adventure, grab a copy of Descent Into Avernus instead.
And until we meet again, may fortune favour you.