Semberholme (Part 1)

Legend and Mystery

By Ed Greenwood

Together the King and Queen of Cormyr stepped forward, soft and yielding moss under their boots, to look around in shared, silent pleasure at fair trees and dappled sunlight through dancing leaves.

Then mist came racing at them from all sides, to fall on them like a purposeful, baleful cloak of gray-white dread. It smelled like a marsh or lakeshore, and it was cold.

The chill was eerie. Both Azoun and Filfaeril blinked as half-seen monsters snarled soundlessly at the corners of their vision, again and again. When either king or queen whirled to see them better, they were gone, leaving behind mind-images of death and screaming, mutilated friends and kin.

"Gods protect us," Azoun muttered, hefting his sword and peering into the mists for a foe he could use it against. "This is... less than friendly."

His queen had already moved to stand behind him, angled so as not to hamper his sword arm, facing back the other way against an attack from behind. "At the risk of sounding like a demanding Marsemban fishwife," she murmured, "I feel moved to ask again: where are we?"

Under her fingertips, she could feel her husband's shoulders slowly relaxing. His voice, when it came, was quiet, slow, and calm. "A place few humans have been privileged to stand in for centuries. I am awed."

Arrows zipped out from the mist, directly toward their faces -- but by the time the king and queen drew breath, the missiles were already melting away, consumed by protective magic that caused stones at their throats to glow briefly but angrily.

They watched the first volley fade to nothing, then the second, and the third.

"Awed and privileged," Azoun repeated with a wry smile, as quietly as before.

One of the most fell, mysterious, and legend-shrouded places in the wilderlands east of the Thunder Peaks is Lake Sember.

"The Haunted Lake," many human tales call it. These wild stories feature such improbable terrors as dragons the size of mountains that erupt out of the lake to pounce on adventurers -- dragons whose bodies are entirely composed of linked undead that break apart into hundreds of zombies, skeletons, ghouls, and worse to overwhelm their living prey.

Sages may scoff at such things but have little to offer in their place. Records and writings about Semberholme since the fall of Cormanthyr are non-existent. To elves of Evermeet and the South, the name itself primarily means a cluster of now-vanished settlements. To local elves and most N'Tel'Quess, the name is a word that refers to the lake and the area around it.

Mysteries and rumors cling to Semberholme -- it is bottomless, or it reaches clear down to the Nine Hells, or spawns dragons, or contains drowned gods whose remains poison the inky water so strongly that its merest touch is fatal. These fanciful legends were both begun deliberately.

Here, as certain hitherto-silent sources have now revealed, is the truth.

After the Fall of Myth Drannor, among the few elf survivors were a handful of very powerful practitioners of magic. These fled to the forests around Lake Sember, where the cluster of villages collectively referred to as "Semberholme" had been established thousands of years earlier as refuges for the infirm, children and their mothers, and pregnant elves. There they cast powerful High Magic spells (involving several of the casters sacrificing their lives, to in effect become "spirits of the mist") to discourage non-elves from following them.

The spells altered the area's mists and gave them powerful properties. (These near-continual mists occurred naturally when wind cooled by the Thunder Peaks reacted with the warmer water of Lake Sember. Except during gales, it's rare to see the lake without mist clinging to at least some of its shores.)

Infused with magic, the mists became able to sense and respond to living creatures, moving to physically intercept and enshroud them -- and infiltrate their minds.

Elves and half-elves could feel the magic and the awareness of the mists, but to all other minds, the mists implanted "don't go here" suggestions of menace and revulsion. They culled fears from minds and used them to spin vivid, frightening images back into those minds. Interlopers subjected to these images were frightened, disgusted, and subconsciously urged to flee in order to escape the images. These effects were strong enough to cause most humans to flee blindly through the woods. Many were blinded or killed after blundering into sharp branches, over steep slopes, or into the claws and jaws of forest predators.

In the minds of outsiders, the mists also caused actual pain (referred to poetically as "mindfire" by some elves). This affected daemonfey (the magic attacking the fiendish part of their natures despite their elf blood) as well as full-blooded demons and devils.

Over time, enough beings encountered the mists to earn them the name "the Nightmare Mists." They worked very effectively, though the magic faded over time. All it can achieve today is evoking in wakeful beings a vague but everpresent feeling of melancholy, desolation, and loneliness, plus fleeting frightening visions. Those who are asleep experience full-fledged nightmares.

In our next column, we'll explore more of the history of, and present-day conditions in, Semberholme -- an exploration that may even be as pointed as Azoun and Filfaeril Obarskyr are finding theirs to be.

© 2004 Wizards of the Coast, Inc. All rights reserved.