How and where and when did the Forgotten Realms start? What's at the heart of Ed Greenwood's creation, and how does the Grand Master of the Realms use his own world when he runs D&D adventures for the players in his campaign? "Forging the Forgotten Realms" is a weekly feature wherein Ed answers all those questions and more.
ne of the oldest folk beliefs in the Realms, preserved in several twisted variants in as many old stories, temple warnings, and hearthside superstitions, is the idea of a throne or grand chair that harms those who sit upon it.
In some cases, it literally bites them on the backside, or extends arms to choke them or imprison them by throat, wrists, and ankles . . . but more often, it feeds on them subtly, either stealing memories (and, they may or may not realize, later) or intellect when they fall asleep or doze in the chair, draining blood wherever it can find exposed flesh to deftly pierce and suck, or taking life force without causing a wound at all. Dealing such subtle affronts, such a "dread throne" can work harm for years, on a succession of victims, before fear overcomes doubt and confusion, and as the old courtiers' saying goes, "Something Is Done About It."
The most striking of these "dangerous seat" tales comes from Athalantar well before the time of Elminster, and it concerns another and more southerly realm—a small and now long vanished human kingdom (or perhaps city-state; the best surviving description is of a port city and a small surrounding area of shore, near what is now Ormpur) known as Torltaeralyn.
The lords of this realm began styling themselves as "kings" several generations before the fall of the House of Aumar to the Magelords in Athlantar, but none of them lasted long. Almost all of them seemed to sicken, waste away, and die within a handful of summers of ascending the throne. And although the reasons for this suspected in the gossip of the day centered on foes of Torltaeralyn, fell magic, and poison by traitors in the royal household, nothing was ever proven. This lack of proof remained true even when the richest merchants of the land, desiring that a popular king (that they had in fact chosen and bribed well to take the "fatally cursed" title, and wanted to retain, as he was their willing puppet in matters of state policy and judicial rulings, the king being the highest judge of the realm) survive, hired the best willing human wizards of the time to try to magically protect the king and detect any fell magic menacing him.
Though the wizards tried many spells, working with great diligence and persistence, those wizards found no trace of fell magic. The king had on his person several useful and beneficial items of paltry magic, part of the accumulated regalia of a successful kingdom, but even after all of these were removed, and alchemists and tasters (convicted criminals) were installed to guard against poisoning, this popular king, one Narchel Barammath, fell ill, and eventually died.
His remains, "for the good of all," were subjected to the most rigorous examination; they were cut apart, boiled down, enspelled in divers means, and . . . nothing was found.
By then, long-lurking rumors had become strong: that the throne of Torltaeralyn itself was to blame. It was a "Dread Throne," either under a magical curse, or it was an actual beast of some hitherto unknown sort that was feeding upon those who sat on it.
The Dread Throne
Accordingly, the throne itself was scorched (to see if it was a mimic, doppelganger, or other shapeshifting creature), so enthusiastically that fully a third of it was burnt away before the fire could be extinguished. The reek of the smoke was both terrible and unusual, but after much discussion this was ascribed to many coats of paints and sealants that had been applied over nigh a century. The seat was revealed to be just that: a seat made of carved wood, with metal and gem-adorned putty inlay, over a skeleton that seemed to be fashioned of bone—large, very tough bones of unknown origin, that maintained their resilience despite obvious age.
These bones, too, were subjected to burnings, acid, arcane and divine magical examinations, and . . . nothing much was learned. That they radiated faint magic was both suspicious and confirmed, but that might just mean ancient, now-forgotten preservative spells had been applied, or that the bones came from a creature of essentially magical nature.
In the meantime, a new throne was constructed, superficially similar to the original, but carved entirely of solid stone and incorporating nothing at all from the original seat. Although no willing candidate to be king could be found, various of the merchants dared to try sitting on this new throne "frequently" for a tenday or more . . . and met with no ill effects that they or anyone else could detect. This was taken as "truth inescapable" that the Dread Throne was somehow to blame.
It was decided among the Master Merchants of Torltaeralyn that the original seat be taken out to sea enclosed in a several sealed wooden boxes that were coated in pitch and secured on a barge, and there blasted by magic and left to burn "until utterly consumed." So this was done.
No Easy Deliverance
The sea had other ideas, in that Umberlee took no special hand in altering the usual ways of wave and water. The shattered throne and its barge burned to the waterline, and what still remained sank, and was extinguished in the process. So although the folk of Torltaeralyn "knew" the Dread Throne had been destroyed, some of it actually survived.
And by a process that bespeaks the work of a malevolent and capable guiding intelligence, the throne eventually returned to dry land, to plague humans anew.
Fisherfolk of the city had for years used shallow "purse nets" to gather fish from the surface of the nearby sea, but as is so often the way, they had overfished, and their catches had suffered sharp declines in the years just before the death of King Barammath. So they had taken to using larger, weighted nets to go deeper—and in the case of the oldest, smallest fishing boats, that were safest close to shore where they could dock or beach before the full fury of the fiercest storms caught them, using drag-nets to scour the bottom. There they brought up much dross, but occasionally also valuables from shipwrecks, or even monsters of the deep that sometimes commanded high prices ashore.
Some of this dross, one afternoon, was a box of charred wood, enclosing another box that was merely scorched. These were cast aside, but then ignored, and outlander sailors, thinking there might be treasure inside such a nest of stout sealed boxes—for someone had clearly taken a lot of trouble to protect something, and so the contents must be valuable, yes?—broke it all open and found . . . a half-burned throne.
By morning, rumors had spread through Torltaeralyn—but as it happened, morning was too late.
The throne and some of the outlanders who'd found it were gone, vanished along the coastal roads in a direction and to a destination known to no one. The hired wizards who might have tried to trace them were gone to other places and new commissions, and . . . the tale faded in Torltaeralyn as nothing more was heard of the Dread Throne.
Its tale was not done yet.
Thralls of the Silent Lurker
Khelben Arunsun, he most famous as "the Blackstaff," was to stumble upon evidence of the fate of the Dread Throne centuries later, when concerned about another matter entirely. He dismissed it as a curiosity little worth pursuing in light of the more pressing political matters he was concerned with at the time, but from what he told his consort Laeral, it's clear the peril the Dread Throne posed to the living was due to its skeleton of bone—and specifically, to hitherto-unknown spells employed by what he termed a "Silent Lurker" working magically through the bone.
Laeral, busy with tasks given her by Mystra, took only a passing interest in the Lurker—enough to uncover the nature of this creature. She found it was a "fallen tyrant," Xiccarkulgath by name, working spells she'd never encountered before, that allowed it to cast other magic, or transmit the magical powers of its eyes, through the bones of the seat, to affect sitters.
In this way, the eye tyrant was able to steal life force, even from creatures who merely touched the chair fleetingly, though it took great care in most cases to do so subtly, and so escaped detection for long periods, increasing its feeding only when its needs became great.
According to Elminster, who later pieced tidbits of lore together from many widely scattered sources, it seems Xiccarkulgath is not the only eye tyrant doing this, and that Xiccarkulgath has apparently done it for thousands upon thousands of years—so there may well be more ancient, decayed ("fallen") beholders lurking in a hidden, twilight existence, preying upon the living and perhaps manipulating adventurers and others to their advantage.
A "fallen tyrant," according to the sage Ammarestra of Baldur's Gate, who coined the term circa 1382 DR, is a beholder who through age, magical mishaps (such as failed transformation spells) and duels, or other unknown causes, has lost its corporeal body. Through undeath or other means, it has continued to exist as flying, disembodied fragments; floating eyes or eyestalks, its huge maw, central eye, perhaps a scattered handful of chitin body-plates. All is directed by its fell surviving sentience and can move independently as long as they remain near enough (the range varies from entity to entity, perhaps according to mental strength) to each other. Elminster prefers to call them "sly tyrants" rather than "fallen" anything.
Uldeeth (described in "Xraunrarr Shall Triumph," the Eye on the Realms column in Dragon 406) is one such disembodied eye tyrant, Xiccarkulgath is another, and Elminster has come across the names "Vroarryx" and "Xynx" or "Xynxakul" that may or may not have been used by fallen tyrants in the past.
Elminster believes there are at least six fallen tyrants in all, and that two of them work together; from what he can gather, the other four all hate each other (and all other sentient life) and always work independently. A seventh fallen, Halortyixlorvarr, was definitely destroyed in 1369 DR by several Red Wizards of Thay working together.
Interestingly, several of these shadowy beholders have taken a great interest in the doings of Larloch, but they also have taken pains to remain hidden from him. Elminster warns that conjectures as to why (allying with him, making use of him to regain new bodies or the borrowed bodies of other creatures or just magical energy, or preying upon him in some way) can only be pure speculation, in the absence of useful evidence—and in his words, "in the ignorant depths of such utter absence is where we are right now."