Surely the most dangerous items are those designed to deceive. Adrift in the world, they lurk like icebergs in frigid seas. One might see a bright axe or a fine cloak, never suspecting the danger that lies beneath such surface beauty.
Artifacts are liars by their nature. They often do not appear to have much power at all, and yet they contain magic of devastating strength. I have encountered too many in my time, and never has the confrontation ended well. Any artifact puts the scales out of balance.
War leaders scour the world with their armies, fighting over the ownership of artifacts. Planes disgorge their demons or belch genies or unleash angels to claim them. Friends and family turn on one another just for a chance at gaining the power of an artifact. Yet when has anyone who gained such a prize died happy? Unfortunately, destroying artifacts has proven . . . inefficient. Better that they remain unfound and inaccessible.
I would say the same thing of cursed items, but curses have proved themselves useful on occasion. Curses can afflict the innocent, of course, but rarely has a great entity contrived a cursed item for such a shallow purpose, nor does fate tie itself in knots to twist dark magic about an everyday object or person. No, every cursed item has its own story. It exists because someone sought to punish another.
Like artifacts, cursed items usually do not reveal themselves to superficial investigation. This is because those who create cursed items often act under the mistaken assumption that those who covet a magic item would not use it if they knew it was cursed. Had they any sense about them, those who craft curses would realize that an obvious curse can be more effective. Even the most avaricious learn to look askance at good fortune, but bad fortune seems as normal to them as clouds in the sky. When a gift or a discovered treasure carries an apparent danger, a more insidious and hidden second curse proves most efficacious.
—Mordenkainen, from a treatise in his master copy of the Magnificent Emporium
For the DM: This chapter is meant for the eyes of the Dungeon Master. Players are encouraged to avoid reading this material so that their characters can discover it through seeing how the DM incorporates artifacts and curses into the campaign.
Legends swirl about them. Kingdoms go to war over their possession. Generations of heroes die in their pursuit. Artifacts are the most powerful items in existence, essential parts of the world’s weave and pieces of the story of the universe.
Artifacts break the rules.
They aren’t normal items that you account for in treasure distribution, and you don’t need to worry about play balance. They exist to help you tell the stories you want to tell in your game.
An artifact can’t typically be created, disenchanted, or destroyed by any of the normal means available with other magic items. The characters’ access to artifacts and their retention of recovered artifacts is entirely within your control. A character can quest after a particular artifact whose existence is known or suspected, but even then the character acquires an artifact only if you say so.
Similarly, a character can research a specific method to destroy a known artifact, if destroying it fits with your plans for the campaign. Destroying an artifact should require an extraordinary effort—artifacts are normally immune to all forms of damage or unwanted alterations to their form—and each artifact might have a unique means of destroying it. For instance, you might decide that to destroy the Book of Infinite Spells, one must cross out each of its pages with ink made from the memory-stealing water of the River Lethe.
Jacinth of Inestimable Beauty
A famous eladrin heirloom, the Jacinth of Inestimable Beauty is a large orange jewel cut in the shape of a flower and mounted in a brooch of gold.
Long ago, an eladrin master jewelsmith named Immeral Silverleaf invented a way to use high elven magic to enhance the beauty and durability of natural gemstones. The magic gems he created were the wonder of the realm, and with each one he made, his skill and confidence grew. One day the dwarves of a neighboring realm unearthed a striking gemstone of perfect orange corundum—a blazing sapphire the color of fire. Immeral acquired the great gemstone from the dwarves in exchange for lavish gifts of his earlier work and promises of more to come, and then set about the task of creating his masterwork. Utterly devoted to his queen, he crafted a piece for her that would capture and reflect her beauty forever, which he dubbed the Jacinth of Inestimable Beauty.
When the eladrin queen donned Immeral’s jewel, all who stood before her fell under the influence of her beauty. Her realm flourished for many years, and she was famed far and wide for the aid and comfort that she provided for her subjects through the power of the artifact. Yet finally the long golden afternoon of her realm faded into dusk; her enemies grew strong, and the untold value of the jewel incited avarice in the hearts of the wicked. One dark day the queen was murdered by her husband, who was half-mad with jealousy because of the love so many nobles and courtiers held for his queen. The prince-consort was put to death, but the deed was done. The jacinth was sequestered away in the royal vaults, only to disappear when evil forces sacked the kingdom a few years later. As for Immeral, he never made another jewel after the jacinth.
Since the days of the ancient eladrin kingdoms, the jacinth has appeared now and again in the possession of a series of monarchs. It is associated with gracefulness, justice, and prosperity . . . but also with vanity and avarice. Any monarch in the world would be strengthened by mere possession of the jacinth, and yet all too often the owners who have come after the queen have become obsessed with continuing to add to their own splendor, seeking to gain ever more objects of art and other items treasured for their beauty. Scholars speculate that the jacinth began planting this objective in the minds of its owners after leaving the queen’s care. It prompts this greedy behavior in them precisely for the reason of making them vulnerable to others who envy their exquisite treasures. In such a way do these items of utmost value change hands from time to time, perhaps destined to land ultimately in the possession of a great ruler whose appreciation of their beauty knows no bounds, and whose ability to hold onto them despite threats is just as great. So it is with the jacinth itself, which is said to gravitate from owner to owner in a search for one who can truly replace the queen.