Elminster's Guide to the Realms
by Ed Greenwood, illustrated by David Day, (Dragon #291)
Not far from Zhentil Keep is the Skondarr, a cavern network popular for decades with smugglers, brigands, lurking monsters, and adventurers seeking shelter from howling winter storms. Named for Elgarth Skondarr, a long-dead brigand lord of the Moonsea North, this natural series of caverns lies inside the southwestern slopes of Mount Tesh, north of Teshwave and northwest of Zhentil Keep.
Skondarr ruled a large territory, roaming with his band of hardened warriors from stronghold to stronghold, and the caverns that now bear his surname composed one of his larger holds. Just who or what is inhabiting the Skondarr varies over time, as do particular traps and treasures, but a tour of its salient features follows.
As one descends from its mountainside entrance, the Skondarr begins with Dead Bear Cave, a cavern usually choked with fallen trees, boulders, and other debris brought in or washed in by snowslides, heavy rainfalls, and the occasional avalanche. The cave was named for a bear of gigantic size slain years ago by adventurers who blundered right into its sleeping form, and bears have often used this outermost cavern as a lair, when not displaced by more fearsome beasts.
Several adventuring bands that explored the Skondarr recently have reported finding runes or symbols scratched in the sand of particular ledges on the walls of Dead Bear Cave. These are simple markings made with fingers, sticks, or blades, and they change from time to time, seeming to be an active, ongoing means of communication.
The next cavern in from Dead Bear is Durgath's Death, so-called because a garrulous, wild-bearded prospector and adventurer by the name of Durgath met his doom therein over half a century ago when he triggered an unknown trap. Durgath's Death is a limestone cavern studded with stalactites and stalagmites. Although these continue to form as time passes, they have been energetically cut into by various visitors to form many small storage niches for flasks, coffers, daggers, and the like. These storage hollows are obvious to anyone entering the cave, and from time to time some of them have born cryptic labels, such as "Berith" and "Hooks" and "The Best." The containers in Durgath's Death have been found to contain kindling, nails, coils of fine wire from Calimshan, rings, keys, and scrolls.
Beyond Durgath's Death lies another, larger limestone cavern known as The Altar. So far as is commonly known, no formal consecration to any faith has ever been made in this cave, although the reason for its name is clear enough. A huge, flat-topped boulder (suitable for use as an altar or feasting table) lies in the center of the cavern. It is a dark rock, not limestone, and its presence is a mystery.
A cramped but readily climbable, rough-walled fissure in the ceiling of The Altar leads up into the Hidehole. The Hidehole has been used by many as a defensible sleeping and storage area, and it often contains both guards and treasure; it's easy for someone waiting up here to inflict slaughter on climbers with stones or cross-bow bolts. This small, rough-walled cavern contains two features of interest: a water seep that drips drinkable (but horribly mineral-tainted) water into a hollow that can serve as a drinking bowl or washbasin and a ledge high up on the wall, where a man of average height (or any smaller being) who lies flat can rest unseen by persons entering the Hidehole. This ledge has often been used to launch deadly attacks on intruders, and it bears two curious symbols scratched in the rock at one end.
Less agile intruders typically pass on from The Altar to another cavern, reached through a gap in one wall. This third limestone cavern is Coronal's Doom - a curious name because (so far as is known) no Coronal has ever been slain by any creature having anything to do with the Skondarr. Perhaps "Coronal's Doom" was the name of a renegade elf band from Cormanthor that opposed the rule of the Coronals and left messages or items for each other in this cavern.
The walls of Coronal's Doom are lined with many narrow cracks and fissures, most far too small to hide anything but insects and creeping worms. A few have, however, held scrolls and maps from time to time. The floor of Coronal's Doom holds its most prominent feature: the shaft known as Horthal's Neck that leads on to the lower caverns of the Skondarr.
Horthal's Neck earned its name because the once-notorious adventurer Horthal died here some eighty summers ago, breaking his neck in a fall from a rope partway down the shaft. Some say he was the victim of treachery, but others say he fell victim to a trap. The walls of the Neck are studded with scores of storage holes and niches - but many hold deadly traps that await the unwary.
From the floor of Coronal's Doom, the Neck descends over eighty feet before it opens out into the ceiling of Wyvernbone Pit.
The Wyvernbone Pit might once have contained the bones of a wyvern, but humans provided the bones that it's strewn with now. (Some tales insist these remains sometimes whirl up to form flying skeletons that attack intruders.) A long, low-ceilinged cavern rather than a pit, Wyvernbone descends to the short, aptly-named passage of Dunsral's Stair (whose floor consists of a series of step-like ledges, and which is often home to clouds of small, harmless black bats), which in turn leads down into The Vault of the Crown.
The Vault is a tall, upright-egg-shaped cavern bristling with stalactites and stalagmites, with a floor of wet sand. It's named for a curious apparition that appears in it from time to time: a glowing crown of white light - a radiance that takes the shape of a circlet topped with many slender upswept spires of irregular lengths. This phantom crown is intangible, and it moves about the Vault as if someone of about six feet in height is wearing it and taking an interest in intruders and their deeds. The crown or its unseen wearer seem to have no hostile or malicious intent. On rare occasions, many small, star-like motes of twinkling white light emerge from the spires of the crown and drift around the Vault, only to fade away again. These pinpoints of light never leave the Vault and have no effect on magic or creatures they touch (they pass through solid objects, and living creatures feel no sensation from such contacts).
The Vault opens - via a short, nameless chute - into Darkpool Delve. This half-flooded cavern was thought by many to be a flooded dwarven mine, with riches waiting for those who dared to venture beneath the inky waters into water-filled passages below, but in truth it has never been more than a natural sump, and no dwarven hammers have ever touched its bottom or the surrounding stone.
The water is cold and a menacing inky black in hue - thanks to a harmless algae that grows there - but quite drinkable.
Even in its shallowest spots, the water is deep enough to hide an upright human. Although creatures are seldom encountered in these lightless depths, all manner of items - from treasure and useful items to drowned corpses and refuse - are often found here. It most often serves as a dumping-ground for items folk desire to remain hidden.
DEAD BEAR CAVE
The sand-scratched symbols are signals from one thief to another. Although the code is constantly changing, I know five of them, thus:
- A triangle with a single dot in its center means "mission accomplished; meet at the usual place."
- A triangle with two dots in its midst means "complication with mission; use fallback plan."
- A circle with a triangle in it means "we have been found out; use full passwords."
- A circle with a dot in it means "we have been found out; break off mission."
- A circle with two dots in it means "great peril or opportunity; meet at the agreed-upon place as swiftly as possible."
If these symbols are accompanied by a second symbol, it usually identifies a meeting-place or rendezvous, often by a dimple pictograph like a single tree, a cave mouth, a well, a candle to denote a articular building, a horse to denote a stable, or a wavy line topped by a straight horizontal line to denote a bridge.
Among the treasures lying in the hollows of this cavern are a complete set of keys to the Royal Palace in Suzail. Last time I looked, there were also scrolls for the arcane spells spectral hand, charm monster and eyebite, but these things seem to disappear swiftly when adventurers happen by.
This cavern was often used for the worship of Malar, but these blood-sacrifice rituals ceased when the wizard Tharaundarr of Calaunt, enraged by the loss of his favorite hunting cat, slew all the cult members. There's seldom anything of interest to be found here today, but individual Malarites occasionally slaughter beasts here in the name of their god, a practice that attracts carrion crawlers and worse monsters.
The symbols scratched on the ledge are the sigils of long-ago mages: two triangles touching points within a circle belonged to Thamburkh of Athkatla, and the staring eye trailing three tears was the mark of Dathlarra of Iriabor. Once, they were sigils of power that allowed those who touched them properly to teleport to the home of the wizard who taught both mages, but now the magic has faded.
The name of this cavern was indeed born of its use by a cabal plotting the death of someone - but their intended victim was the head of a Zhent human family known as "Coronal" (a human surname borrowed, with the arrogance typical of the human species, from the elf rulers of Cormanthor). The cabal succeeded not only in slaughtering their quarry, but his entire family, looting his cache of wealth before burning his grand mansion in Zhentil Keep. The cache was all gems, which they brought to the Skondarr - and then slew each other in squabbles over; it's thought that many of the stones still lie hidden elsewhere on the Tesh mountains, not far from these caverns.
The holes in this shaft contain many traps, which are constantly changed over time as various individuals and groups use the Skondarr as a hideout. Many contain poison needle traps for searching hands, but traps of poison gas and even spells triggered by intrusion have been encountered.
Typical items stored in the Neck's holes include wands, potions, stolen purses full of coins, and rarer things, such as maps, spell scrolls, and deeds to valuable properties in Suzail, Selgaunt, and Yhaunn.
The bones won't animate without the usual sort of spells being cast on them, but skeletons have been animated here in the past. There's seldom anything of interest in the Pit except whatever items a corpse might be wearing or carrying; this tends to be the part of the Skondarr where refuse of all sorts ends up. There are rumors - which I believe - of a portal to the Underdark that opens here at random times.
Named for a gnome adventurer who was famous in his day, this passage once contained a stair crafted by Dunsral himself. Nowadays, all traces of Dunsral's construction are gone and rough, crumbling steps have been hewn here and there out of the rock. The bats are harmless (bitter-tasting if fried on skewers, by the way), but on more than one occasion, powerful magic-using creatures have hidden among them by taking bat shape - so beware any bat that is larger than the rest, no matter how much care they take to stay hidden.
THE VAULT OF THE CROWN
The crown apparition is very old and, I believe, divinely powered. It defied my attempts to probe its origin and properties. It seldom appears on more than four occasions during a month, never for more than two hours as a time. Casting or unleashing powerful magic in the Vault seems to be the only trigger that causes the crown to appear, and it remains less than reliable. The appearance of the stars seems to herald the appearance of a magic item or spontaneous magical manifestation in the cavern (from what source, and for what reasons, remain mysterious). In the presence of the crown, spells seem to be boosted in damage or efficacy. Treasures are often buried in the wet sand floor. Unless someone very persistent has spent hours digging, I know of at least three stolen chests full of Sembian coins that lie there.
The waters of the Delve can hold just about anything - and usually do, from small, lurking monsters to rich treasures. Among these, unless someone's found it and carried it off, is a throne that can be commanded to fly by anyone sitting on it.