The Adventures of Volo
the Crumbling Stair
By Ed Greenwood
Volothamp Geddarm at your service, gentles, setting truths of the Realms before you like hot buttered snails steaming in green Valgrath wine! This day I write of a ruin of the Sword Coast North many have heard of, but few know about beyond the impression of mystery and deceit imparted by the Waterdhavian expression "as curious1 as the Crumbling Stair."
What All Know And The Eye Beholds
Well-learned folk know the Stair to be a ruin that stands in what some call "the Sword Hills," a lawless, brigand-infested hill country east of Waterdeep, betwixt Ardeep Forest and Uluvin.
Some in the City of Splendors and places nearby (such as Amphail) can also recall fanciful nursery tales of elves dancing with unicorns and pegasi in the air by night around a glowing ruined stone stair in the wooded wilderness. Some might have also heard tales of the humans foolish enough to join the dance who were spirited away and changed in wits and powers, to be human no more.2
Merchants, drovers, adventurers, and a few brigands know it to be a broken marble staircase that rises in a grand, curving sweep up out of treacherous, pit-filled ground that's obviously the overgrown foundation of a once magnificent building. A mansion of the Fallen kingdom, most folk think -- and most also believe that the Stair is haunted.
I can now report that I have seen this ghost with my own eyes3 and can swear to the utter truth of this belief. The ghost of a slain knight strikes at those who try to camp near, ascend, or descend the staircase. Sometimes, this apparition is a phantom sword, floating alone, or a helm, or an actual ghost. Whatever its true nature or powers, it always glows, flickers in and out of visibility, and its insubstantial "touch" always brings a sickening sensation of weariness and utter, bone-chilling cold (though such contact seems to do no damage to the flesh).4
The ghost slays some, is never seen by others, and menaces most who venture near the Stair until they withdraw in fear or exasperation. Its origin remains mysterious, although many claim that it is the remains of this or that mage-cursed warrior or suchlike.
Know that I, Volo, have parted many curtains of mystery and folk-falsehood to lay bare for all readers many truths of this beautiful wilderland site.
The History of the Stair
This ruin was once the site of Taeros, a grand mansion adorned with many turrets, set in wooded gardens adorned with fountains and pools stocked with jewelfish.5 The house sprawled along a curving ridge in the heart of the region known as Loravatha, in the realm sages now call the Fallen kingdom, and was home to the human sorceress Ybrithe. She spent her late husband's merchant fortune building the mansion and founded a school for young lasses who desired to master sorcery. Ybrithe named the house for her dead husband, Taeros Smaragdoun, who grew very wealthy trading with dwarf-holds in the North (running goods to them through country others dismissed as too dangerous and over routes these same rival merchants dismissed as too long to be profitable).
The House of Taeros had a many-pillared central hall with a lofty, domed ceiling. This foyer was called "Echofall" because it was hung with two frozenfalls, the spectacular waterfall sculptures once popular among Myth Drannan elves, wherein thousands of smooth-polished gems are assembled in midair, lit internally and hung in place with a webwork of minor magics. Few of these rarities survive today outside hidden inner rooms of elven abodes in Evereska and on Evermeet. Even if one cares nothing for their beauty, the component gems are worth staggering amounts. The most valuable frozenfalls are ensorceled to chime softly and musically when touched, on contact with the rising sun or moonlight, or with any other general or specific magical enchantments.6
The surviving Stair is thought to be one of Echofall's three grand ascending staircases, kept aloft in its precarious and decaying state because of the many supportive spells practiced upon it by Ybrithe's students.
After twenty-odd seasons of peace, the mansion was attacked one night by unknown mages bent on seizing what magic they could. In the fierce spell-battle that ensued, the house was torn apart, destroying Ybrithe and most of her apprentices. A trap (or perhaps a contingency spell linked to her death) blew apart most of the ridge soon after, taking the attacking wizards with it. Fearful elves who dwelt in the forests nearby kept the curious (and magic- hungry) away from Taeros for years until the kingdom failed and the land became wilderness overrun by a succession of goblinkin7 raiders.
The Stair Today
Adventurers today will find no trace of the grand mansion except for the bit of staircase atop a curving ridge in broken lands overgrown with scrub woods. The Crumbling Stair is a length of weathered, green-veined white marble that rises unheralded out of uneven turf to reach six or so steps into the empty air. Its other end descends into a dark hole.
The Stair is obviously held up and preserved by (failing) magics, but these enchantments lead to nothing above-ground. (Many adventuring bands have tried levitating and flying at various heights above or near the stair, fruitlessly seeking invisible chambers or portals there.) A will-o'-wisp hovers around the stair on most nights, so that it can be easily located from afar.
The lower end of the Stair splits, one end curving grandly to where the main floor of Echofall once was (very close to present-day ground level, though the paving slabs of the hall were carried away long ago for use in less grand homes).
The other end descends below ground, leading into a long corridor and a few attached rooms of what were quite extensive cellars before the battle and the ravages of time caused most of the underways to collapse.
Adventurers who have penetrated into these depths speak of a giant slug or similar creature that leaves glowing slime-trails on the walls, floor, and ceiling, as well as ghosts or haunts (quite separate from the one that sometimes lurks aboveground) that manifest near the base of the stair and lure certain intruders into deadly traps. Other times these spectres glide along and simply watch visitors or ignore them altogether. These apparitions include a disembodied human hand cupping a glowing selection of (sometimes whirling) gems; a dark, shadowy, cowled human figure that glides along in swift, eerie silence, pointing, beckoning, or gesturing with a drawn sword; and a wild-eyed and finely-gowned elven lady in chains, who screams soundlessly and gestures imploringly to be rescued or released. Their origins and purposes are unknown.8
Over the years, various adventurers have reported finding all sorts of strange objects in the cellars (most of which they carried out as booty and examined elsewhere). These include staves, footstools, and cloaks bearing weird magics, that can be assumed9 to be unfinished student projects stored in the isolated underground chambers where the spellcasters-in-training attempted their most delicate or powerful castings.
Judging by past reports, their powers might or might not function properly, or (lacking any instructions) might simply be inexplicable to finders of today. For those who can dare the dangers, of course, magic treasures are always worth recovering -- if only to sell to wealthy Waterdhavian collectors or hopeful mages everywhere.
Another phantom has also been reported by several survivors of forays into the ruins. When the door of a certain empty cellar is opened, the apparition of a young women appears floating upright with eyes closed, her bare feet well clear of the floor. She then opens her eyes, screams piercingly, and rushes forward to fade away. Anyone she passes through suffers the effects of a chaotic onslaught of wild magics.10
"Bare of all but fell magic and roaming monsters" is how the Bold Axe of Beregost, a recently-whelmed band of a dozen young bravos from up and down the Sword Coast, described the labyrinth at the bottom of the Stair. Others have stressed that although many visitors have scoured the chambers closest to the steps, few or none have reached every distant corner. Treasures might yet lie waiting to be discovered, especially to those who have a means of digging. It should be noted that one recent report warns that a beholder might have begun to do just that. Adventurers are further warned that some of the walls and ceilings of the surviving cellars of Jaeros are demonstrably unstable; a skeletal hand protrudes from beneath one collapse in the main passage reached by the Stair, where an entire band of intruders might lie buried.
Finally, the chaos of the spell-battle still lurks fitfully along the ridge. Any spells cast on the Stair, in the cellars, or in the immediate vicinity are apt to go wild, unleashing unintended and uncontrolled effects rather than the desired and expected results.
2. Such romantic tales are based on a true incident involving humans intruding on a service of worship to Lurue. I'm not at liberty to say what became of the humans, but I will reveal to ye that they live yet, far beyond their normal lifespans, and now regret nothing of their boldness though their fate was regarded at the time of infliction, by both themselves and the worshippers, as a punishment.
3. Ahem; our diligent scribe somehow neglects to inform ye readers that his eyes were protruding in utter terror from his backside at the time, as he fled (with a swiftness that would do credit to a roused stallion) in the general direction of the Sea of Swords. Had several dozen trees of Ardeep forest not stood in his path, he might well have found the waiting waves of that handy ocean. Let it never be forgotten that our Volo is a brave man. (We've no excuse doing so, given the frequency with which he reminds us of this. Sufficient unto the common need, indeed.)
4. Volo here stumbles into being correct. The chill does no physical harm and has actually warned sleeping sentinels to defend themselves against stealthily-approaching brigands or goblinkin raiding bands. It might spur nightmares to trouble the dreams of some sleepers and has a more lasting effect on some: Contact with this phantom, which is the fading remnant of some mage of the Fallen Kingdom altered by his own over reaching spells (the "true ghost" also seen here is someone else linked to the Stair by other deeds) awakens in some persons the power to receive, henceforth in their lives, visions of things past. Such visions are unpredictable and uncontrollable, but they are almost always vivid, accurate, and spurred either by proximity to a relic or place, or by the awakening or stirring of something long hidden, silent. dead, or undead.
Most are troubled by such a talent, but some have made a career of employing it.
5. Then, as now, jewelfish were things of fashion, employed by the idle rich as living decorations. They are tiny, inedible iridescent silvery fish whose scales can be dyed to take on vivid metallic hues. The popularity of this practice died out long ago, and only a few guild crafters of Waterdeep, Neverwinter, Nemnon, and Esmeltaran still have complete particulars of the procedure, and then only in dusty books. Jewelfish look attractive in large numbers, swirling and darting in graceful unison, but have a habit of dying en masse whenever the weather grows too hot, and stink thereafter like, well, dead fish.
6. Frozenfalls were much more than Volo realizes. They were often the foci for minor house mythals, governing the building in which they were located, or housing the vigilant sentiences of family ancestors who lingered, like baelnorn, to watch over their descendants, guarding and guiding. An adventurer should not be surprised to feel observed or listened to when in the presence of such a sculpture-and should speak accordingly (many enjoy conversation, if one knows the right elves tongue).
Those who seek to pluck gems from a frozen fall, or damage its surroundings, should be aware that many frozenfalls can unleash spells as deadly as those of many a living mage.
Even "unadorned" frozenfalls often include gems that store or can be made to emit magics, if one touches them and knows how to call forth their energies.
8. Unknown to Volo, that is. I can reveal that all of these spell-battle manifestations have a single source: a now-insane shred of sentience belonging to one of Ybrithe's students, the would-be sorceress Analeithla. A bad-tempered and graspingly ambitious lass, Analeithla habitually defied Ybrithe's rulings and teachings, boldly and rashly experimenting on her own and plotting to someday seize all of Ybrithe's power for herself. She'd just put some of her own flesh (the smallest joint of her left little finger) into the pommel-stone of a blade and created a magical link between her body and its amputated part (enabling her to see and speak out of the pommel-crystal), when the spell-battle that destroyed her occurred. Somehow her sentience was hurled through or drawn along the collapsing link into the pommel, where she remained, able to see and speak, but do nothing else.
Trapped in the cellar with the shattered, buried blade, Analeithla went mad. The blade's twisted magics power her ghostly manifestations (the beautiful elf is how she sees herself, though in life she was a human of rather homely and sullen appearance), and she seizes on all intruders as entertainment, luring them and exulting in their misfortunes.
If anyone finds the blade, however, she'll be seized with hope and try to cajole the new wielder into carrying the weapon along, promising to guide the unfortunate to treasure, watch over the individual's slumber, and so on -- so long as the person wears the blade and allows Analeithla to see the world.
She'll not tell the truth about herself (and indeed will spin grand tales about godly purposes for the blade and the adventurer who's found it), and her insanity dooms to failure all attempts to magically read, influence, or control her mind - and endangers the sanity of those trying such contacts.
9. Correctly, as it happens. Adventurers should be aware that some such projects still survive, though some of them were magically twisted in the wild discharges of the spell-battle. All of them have at least three magical powers or properties (one of which is almost always the ability to either glow akin to a faerie fire spell or to levitate upon command). Many have six or more, though these will always be minor magics, useful as weapons or sources of profit only to the resourceful.
10. This is nothing to do with Analaithla, who ignores it, and I believe it to be the last remnant of another student. Jalastra Bluenthar, who was in a magical trance when the battle erupted. She no doubt perished just as her phantom records.