Anauroch - Part Five: The Underdark of Anauroch
I save this discussion for last, because I like to speak of it least of all things. There is no more terrifying place than the Underdark, and it holds secrets regarding the Great Desert that are both difficult to tell - and difficult to hear.
Winters are harsh all across Anauroch, even in the Sword. When the winds howl and the temperatures plummet, the Bedine retreat into subterranean tunnels beneath the sands. We have no choice. To stay above ground would be to freeze, for there is no shelter in the endless dunes. The wind harries all before it.
This is the most trying time for any tribe, for there are beasts below ground that resist our intrusion with fearsome powers and surprising organization. These forays into underground caverns are a constant fight, but death above, in the cruel winter winds, is certain. The Bedine have only to endure the horrors of the Underdark, and count the days till they can emerge once again.
The first time I lead my tribe into the dark underworld, we entered through the caves south of the Shoal of Thirst. Immediately, eye tyrants attacked us and barred our way. Many of my people died, and only our sheer numbers drove the foul creatures back.
One victory did not secure us lasting peace by any means. The eye tyrants later retaliated by sending endless hordes of orcs and hobgoblins to assault us in our makeshift camps. Apparently, these goblinoids were under the mental control of the beholders. No matter how bravely we repelled them, more came. Still, we held our ground. Many more brave Bedine warriors died, and their wives sang the songs of mot'azim, or death, for many days. Finally, the creatures gave up. Although occasionally one of our people disappeared, wandering too far from the fire we kept stoked night and day (for what are night and day in perpetual darkness? The firelight held back the noisome little beasts), we made the best of it, and awaited the coming of summer with the same eagerness with which a hawk springs into flight.
That was my last winter as sheikh of my khowwan. I did not return to the Underdark for many years after that, for I knew I could not survive there alone. It is not in my nature to seek death in so cowardly a fashion. Little did I know that when next I journeyed there, I would indeed travel alone. It was on my second sojourn that I learned the horrible secrets I will now reveal.
An ancient, inhuman race called the phaerimm rules Anauroch's Underdark and controls, one way or another, all of its inhabitants. These monsters control many of the events on the surface of the Mother Desert as well. Most of the asabis, and even some of the Bedine tribes, are directed by phaerimm magic.
It is the phaerimm who have made Anauroch into the waterless, lifeless region that it is. Even were I to reveal this secret to the Bedine sheikhs who were once my equals, however, the power of the phaerimm is too great. Even a united Bedine force, astonishing as such a prospect is (but remember, too, that my own father once united half the tribes of the Sword), powerful and brave though my people are, is too weak to ever confront them.
Perhaps no one can stop them - and they seek to spread the desert over all the Realms! I know this to be true, for I have beheld these monsters with my own senses. They had control of me for some little time, as well, but I managed to break free and flee to the surface.
Knowing these facts, a traveler from the outlands may at last truly understand Anauroch and why things are the way they are in the desert. It may be that no man in Anauroch can truly be trusted, due to phaerimm influence. I have faith, however, that my people - more than soft outlanders and greedy adventurers, more indeed than any other people - have a chance to resist such evil sorcery for at least a short time longer.
They are a strong race, the Bedine. They reject magic absolutely, and they abhor the very idea of slavery. How long this desert-honed strength can last, I do not know.
For those actually wishing to enter the dark realm of death after all the warnings I have given you, I will relate what I have seen of the most commonly encountered beings.
Creatures of the Underdark
More commonly called eye tyrants among my people, beholders are an evil race. They arrogantly believe themselves to be masters of the Underdark (a place my people call ard'amiq). Few eye tyrants realize that their own leader, Rilathdool, an Elder Orb, is a mere phaerimm pawn.
Upon seeing an eye tyrant for the first time, my thought was "how could such a thing exist?" Years later, I still find the same question burning in my mind. Beholders and their kin (for, much to my horror, I have discovered there are many types of beholders) are unlike any creature I have ever encountered. They are not natural, they are abominations of nature.
Most of them are completely limbless, and they fly hideously ungracefully, by some sorcerous ability. The strangest thing about eye tyrants is, of course, their ability to fire magical blasts of energy like spears from their many eyes.
Beholders of Anauroch have developed a magical item called an eye-ring. In my dreams I have gathered all of these foul constructs and flung them into a remorhaz's maw, to melt in the infernal heat.
What a quest that would be! What a fitting end for base magic! But I must tell you what these eye-rings can do, so that you will recognize the justice of my dream vision.
These magical rings fit onto the eyestalks of a beholders' many eyes. Each ring is keyed to a specific power of a beholder's eye, and changes the ray fired by the eye it is worn on to the power designated. What this means is that if a particular beholder likes the sleep ability of one of its eyes, it can wear "sleep" eye rings on the nine other eyes so that they all fire rays of sleep.
The eye tyrants of Anauroch dwell mainly in a city called Dakspar, roughly below the Dragon's Back Peaks in the Plain of Standing Stones. This city is ruled directly by Rilathdool, and has many different beholder-kin types, including gauth, spectators, and even death kiss beholders. Despite rumors to the contrary, beholders are able to coexist, and they do so in Dakspar in numbers of at least a thousand.
Gauth, those beholder-kin that consume magical power, are rare, but often hold positions of authority in the subterranean beholder society. Spectators are extremely rare and serve only as guards. Death kisses are often sent as assassins or special agents.
The beholders of Dakspar keep both orcs and hobgoblins among them as slaves and soldiers. Almost every beholder has charmed at least one such slave/bodyguard. These slaves become the "hands" of the beholder, allowing the master - through the slave - to manipulate objects they otherwise could not. Other slaves are organized into military units, each commanded by an eye tyrant which has charmed all of the orcs or hobgoblins in its unit.
Beholders, as far as I could tell in my time among them, do not distinguish at all between orcs and hobgoblins. Occasionally, a charmed Bedine like myself may also be discovered among the slaves. We humans are treated the same as any other slave. Apparently, eye tyrants do not bother to recognize any differences among other races. They seem to think only in terms of "us and them."
Some small-minded Bedine feel that way about outlanders, but observing beholder society has shown me the folly of such narrow thinking. That is a weakness among both the eye tyrants and the Bedine - they are quick to underestimate that which they are unfamiliar with.
Beholders never imagine any human is a threat until they are shown otherwise. A smart adventurer can use this arrogance to his advantage. Once a slave or foe demonstrates a great deal of ability or skill, however, beholders will be on their guard, for they are quick to recognize power. Power is the one thing they respect.
Since the Bedine are familiar with the eye tyrants that dwell in the Underdark, having encountered them every cold season in their underground sojourns, displaying a dead beholder or some vestige of it, such as an eye, is a quick way to gain a small amount of respect from a desert tribe. But do not be too ostentatious. A cloak tasseled with beholder eyestalks, the way some northmen trim their fur capes with tails, is more likely to turn stomachs than to inspire respect among the tribes. Many great Bedine warriors have eye tyrant trophies, but they are rarely displayed openly. To speak of the denizens of the Underdark any more than necessary is considered bad luck and bad taste.
Dark nagas are evil agents of the phaerimm that operate above ground as well as below. Unlike beholders and illithids, these creatures are both aware of their masters and serve them willingly - there are no spells which force a naga into servitude. I am told by those more knowledgeable about such things than I that these creatures obtain a feeling of security by working with, or for, others.
Perhaps nagas feel more secure knowing the awesome power of the phaerimm supports them and their actions. On an even more practical level I have observed that nagas often learn new spells from the phaerimm as rewards for duties smartly completed and missions accomplished. Given the limitless magical knowledge the phaerimm possess, I imagine a powerhungry creature like a dark naga has no reason to ever leave service to a generous master.
Dark nagas serve most often as a kind of field commander, leading a group of lesser slaves in combat or on other important missions. They are almost never encountered without a retinue of orc, hobgoblin, asabi, or human underlings. However, there must be some friction or jealousy within their species, as they also never operate with other dark nagas. Their masters teach dark nagas spells to charm and control these lesser troops.
Some dark nagas appear to serve the beholders in their foul city of Dakspar. They operate as slave unit commanders for eye tyrants, just as they do for the phaerimm. It is my belief that these Dakspar nagas are actually spies and infiltrators sent by the phaerimm to make sure the beholders do as the phaerimm wish.
Dark nagas are not fastidious, and they eat all types of flesh, even that of other nagas if they must. In a desperate situation, a naga does not hesitate to kill one of those under it for food. They are selfish in the extreme. But they do have some concept of loyalty. at least enough not to turn on those in positions of authority.
Dark nagas have fully adopted the goals of the phaerimm as their own - these being the complete domination of both the Underdark and the sunlit world. Each naga has its own individual plans as well. Some scheme simply to gain more personal power, others develop plans so esoteric they are difficult for humans to comprehend.
In their quest for more power, dark nagas value magical items above all else. They always plunder their foes for such booty. If they find treasure worth taking, they swallow it, placing it in what would seem to be some special storage stomach whence they can regurgitate it later.
Dark naga lairs are usually filled with magical items. Unfortunately for the would-be wizard, these base leftovers tend to be weapons and charms that were not worth the creature's time or that they could not use. An item a naga finds useful is kept on (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say in) its person.
Illithids - or mind flayers - are for the greatest part directly controlled by the phaerimm. There is no illusion here, as there is in the eye tyrant's lairs, that the species chooses its own destiny.
Phaerimm control is not absolute, however. There are supposedly a few independent, rogue illithid bands - particularly near the frozen city of Anarath.
The number of illithids in Anauroch's Underdark is actually small, being less than a few hundred. Because of this, the phaerimm use their illithid slaves sparingly, and rarely in groups. Instead, mind flayers serve as the phaerimm's special enforcers.
Illithids may occasionally even venture onto the surface of the Great Desert, carrying out some mission for their masters. Usually, they act as spies, trying to discern the meaning and probable outcome of Zhentish activities, the plots of lamias, and directives of any other active power group in the desert. (The phaerimm usually disregard my people, for which forbearance the Bedine would no doubt be grateful, if they were aware of it.)
In the Underdark, a mind flayer is sent by its phaerimm masters to investigate whenever a powerful threat enters their dark domain. I have heard that sometimes when a Bedine tribe flees underground to avoid a harsh winter, an illithid may be sent to spy on and perhaps harass them. If a powerful band of adventurers begins killing large numbers of phaerimm servants, they too might gain an illithid spy as an unwanted and most likely undiscovered companion.
Everyone has heard stuttering noises in the dark, and inexplicable rustles, then a pause in the small noises that whisper through a living tunnel. In the blackness, it is almost impossible to discover all the hiding places, all the listening crevices. Much as a person dreads the possibility of total isolation, neither can he be sure he truly is alone.
A mind flayer spy uses its mental powers to confuse and mislead any intruders into its assigned territory. If it can, it isolates them one by one from their companions, and kills them. Even though an illithid's will is not its own, mind flayers are still a cowardly lot, without honor of any kind.
The tales you might have heard are true - these monsters really do eat the brains of other creatures. I had heard they regard humans as humans might in turn regard their goats. This, however, is not true, at least not in the case of Anauroch mind flayers. They are cautious, and actually overestimate their enemies (again, they differ from beholders in this respect). They do not attack unless they are sure they can win.
I believe the mind flayers' extreme respect for human powers comes not from the sparse confrontations with Bedine and ulugarr adventurers of the current Anauroch. Though I value my own worth in fighting highly, I have seen too much of the world to imagine that I am among the most fearsome creatures in it. I think perhaps the mind flayers are recalling far earlier contacts with the Netherese, that race of powerful sorcerers who once lived in what is now the Great Desert.
Since illithids almost never so much as see each other, there is no illithid culture to relate to you. How they procreate is beyond me. I suspect from some incidents whose details I will not bore you with, however, that mind flayers are actually incredibly long-lived. Perhaps their natural life spans have by some means been lengthened by some dark phaerimm magic.
If this be true, then the illithids that run such foul errands for the phaerimm now may even be the original mind flayers captured and controlled by their masters over a thousand years ago.
Orcs (and Hobgoblins)
Most of the goblinoid creatures under Anauroch are slaves, probably taken from the sunlit world above in raids and wars. Orcs are more common, with hobgoblins being fewer in number. Asabis are frequently slaves of the phaerimm as well.
All of these races are kept and all are treated as slaves, but they are magically charmed or controlled, so there is little discontent or rebellion. Slaves. wills have been so successfully taken from them that they exist only to serve. Their masters encourage them to breed, in order to increase their numbers.
Orcs in particular have been slaves so long and have adapted to the life of servitude so well that even though the species has all but disappeared from surface Anauroch, they are a common odor in the Underdark.
Phaerimm slaves are almost never encountered alone. They would not know what to do by themselves, so degraded are they. Usually some more intelligent creature, perhaps a beholder, a dark naga, or rarely even an illithid, commands a group of twenty to thirty slaves.
Slaves most likely carry the same sorts of weapons and equipment that their above-ground brethren use, for those are the tools they had when they were captured. But since no attention and no pride is paid for the armaments of servants, the weapons are almost always of poor quality.
Since their masters do not care for their welfare, it is not uncommon for these creatures to be underfed and sickly, as well. Many turn to cannibalism, even eating their fallen foes if their masters allow it.
The phaerimm are the black masters of the Underdark of Anauroch. It is they who cast the dreadful lifedrain spells that have dried the surface world above them into the husk that today is the Great Desert Anauroch. Magic has done this! My people are right to despise its gruesome workings! To be sure, some creature or power, greater even than the phaerimm, slows and hinders their actions, but the monsters remain a threat to all that lives nonetheless.in the desert and beyond.
How can I describe these most inhuman villains? Their unnatural physical appearance is nauseating even to imagine. Phaerimm float and fly through the air as beholders do, but where an eye tyrant is rounded, the hideous phaerimm is shaped like an antelope horn stood on its point. The narrow end dwindles to a barbed tip. The widest end is surmounted by jaws lined with vicious teeth. Waving around the cruel lip of this maw sprout four amazingly humanlike arms.
When first I beheld one of the beasts, in fact, I thought it had failed to swallow its previous meal. But the limbs are its own, retractable, and ending in deformed grips. Such a monster is clearly the result of dread magic, gone horribly wrong.
Many are the servants of the phaerimm. They influence beholder society through their elder orb leader. They control other creatures directly: illithids, orcs, hobgoblins, asabis, umber hulks, giants, dragons, undead, doppelgangers, a few drow, and even humans and other upperworlders. Some few slaves, such as dark nagas and aboleth, serve the phaerimm willingly. Servants are most commonly encountered in the Underdark (where their masters control almost everything), but they can be found spying and fomenting trouble above ground as well.
Indeed, phaerimm accomplish most of their goals through their servants. From the numbers of slave parties I saw set out, and the objects I caught a glimpse of when a group returned, I fear their chief short-term goal is the accumulation of ever more new spells and magical items.
To accomplish their foul ends, they not only send out their servants to pillage and steal, but they also bid them spread word among the surface races that great wealth can be had in Anauroch. Rumors spread with every campfire, and of course, they only grow more alluring with each telling. By these rumors the phaerimm obviously hope to draw to themselves those armed with even more powerful items.
Like every other creature of dark power, phaerimm rarely collaborate together, although each individual does keep a large force of servants with it to do its bidding. There is no true leader or king among their kind. Instead, they revere and honor those of their number whose skill in sorcery is greatest, and those who develop new spells.
Phaerimm eat whatever servant is handy when they get hungry. If an explorer penetrates deep into their lairs, a strange and horrible sight confronts him - living humans, completely paralyzed, floating in the air through magical levitation. Each of these victims is injected with a phaerimm egg. (Occasionally, the victims may be other creatures, but humans are apparently preferred.)
As the foul larva grows, it devours its victim from the inside. Though paralyzed, these poor souls appear to feel a great deal of pain. I suppose it is possible magic may be able to save the incubators from their dread parasites. It must be capable of some good. But the easiest and most honorable thing to do is to put these tortured people quickly out of their misery. However, to insure the immature phaerimm is dead, the host body should be burned to ashes.
That I know of, phaerimm have no weaknesses to exploit. Their power can only be matched with equal power. Each phaerimm is a sorcerer, and most have developed unique spells for their own use. I myself have seen phaerimm magic drain all of the life-sustaining fluids from an enemy, turning him into a dry, dead husk in just a few minutes. Those magics involving charms and mind control are among their most powerful. Faugh on magic! Even El'Minster, who counts himself a powerful sorcerer, says he must be wary lest he fall prey to a phaerimm charm.
Phaerimm are supremely arrogant and self-confident, positive their magic can overcome any threat. I am not so sure that they are wrong.
Beneath much of Anauroch there exist strange beings known as thaalud, or tomb-tappers. These creatures are oddly shaped, being in a man's general form, but with a faceless head. Large, tooth-filled maws are located in their midsections, and they appear to be sexless as well as hairless. Their skin looks to be of granite, and it is said that their claws can burrow through solid stone at an amazing rate.
Tomb-tappers, known among the few Bedine that have seen them as the Faceless, do not live on the surface of the desert, nor even in the caves and caverns of the Underdark. Instead I can report - because I have seen them with my own eyes - they tunnel up to our land from the very bowels of the world. They seek the ancient tombs of those long dead sorcererkings who ruled in ages past.
Why do they come? The creatures revere magic. Like the phaerimm, they seek magical items - but unlike those sorcerous monsters, the Faceless do not seek to use their treasures. They choose only to honor them.
Unlike all other creatures of the Underdark, thaalud are not servants of the phaerimm. In fact, they do not seem affected by the dark lords at all. The Faceless completely resist phaerimm mind-controlling magic, and the monsters know it. Because of this failure, the phaerimm have a special hatred for the Faceless. They are always looking for methods to interfere with or destroy thaalud.
For myself, I have neither seen nor heard of a young thaalud. I suspect that they are incapable of reproduction, which explanation would fit with creatures of a solely magical origin.
An ulugarr priest by the name of Demoiliss once told me he had read in a book called the Bestiary written by someone named Hlammech the Naturalist. (He graciously offered this slender, leather-bound volume up for my inspection, not knowing books and reading are somewhat beyond me. I would never embarrass a priest by pointing out his error, so I just nodded and smiled.) The text tells a little of the nature of thaalud.
According to this clever and learned book, tombtappers eat stone, although they can extract nutrients from blood and bone if they have to. I shudder at the thought. They can also absorb water directly through their skin.
Demoiliss began to tell me thaalud reverted to stone when they were killed. This was not news to me. I had learned about the reversion some time ago on my own. In fact, I beheld the phenomenon with my own eyes on that ill-fated journey across the High Ice.
An unfortunate encounter in that frigid land put me in a fight with two thaalud. Both had the huge metal hammers that tomb-tappers always seem to carry, which proved to be formidable weapons. My companions and I slew one, and ran from the other. But our flight was to no avail. If only Demoiliss had read his book to our traveling party before that day. Just as the book confirmed to me when Demoiliss read from it, these beings can sense magic (almost like a camp dog scenting lizards). Unfortunately, my gnomish allies were not willing to part with theirs. The tomb-tappers insisted.
A word to the wise: If you encounter thaalud, and they demand that you hand over your magical possessions, do not refuse. Do not lie to them, either - it does not work. You are better off without the taint of magic in any case.
- A Great Man's Journeys
- Part One: The Lands of Anauroch
- Part Two: Ecology of the Sword
- Part Three: Ecology of the Plain of Standing Stones
- Part Four: Ecology of the High Ice
- Part Five: The Underdark of Anauroch
- Part Six: Legends and Rumors