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Netheril, the Archwizards, and the Return of Shade
By Sean K Reynolds
The main villains of the Return of the Archwizards trilogy by Troy Denning are the mysterious wizards of Shade. These wizards have an ancient legacy in the world of the Forgotten Realms that dates back over five thousand years to the lost empire of Netheril, the greatest human empire ever seen on the face of the world. The story of Netheril is one of discovery, exploration, and terrible destruction. The people of Shade are survivors of Netheril who escaped the catastrophe that obliterated their civilization.
The First Age
Just over 5,200 years ago, the land that is now Anauroch was lush and green, with plains, forests, rivers, and lakes. Several fishing villages along one of these lakes chose to ally for mutual protection and called their new country Netheril. Eventually this young country drove off or eliminated its nearby enemies and turned to expanding its borders, which brought them into contact with elves. The elves taught the humans arcane magic, and the Netherese took to it with an amazing aptitude. Every citizen gained an education in magic and learned at least the basics of spellcasting. Those with a talent for magic, called arcanists, became a powerful political group second only to the nobility, surpassing even the priest class. The people of this time of early magic and learning called it the First Age of Netheril, but the peoples' education was only beginning.
The Nether Age
Three hundred years after the founding of Netheril, an adventurer now known only as Finder discovered the ruin of an older nonhumanoid civilization. Within the ruin he found one hundred scrolls made of flattened gold, each bearing keys to powerful magic, its learning, and its use. He bore these artifacts (which he named the nether scrolls for his homeland) back to Netheril and shared them with the arcanists there, who made their contents available to all citizens. Once again magical research skyrocketed -- this time beyond what most mortal creatures believed could be possible. This period, called the Nether Age, resulted in the creation of many new kinds of magic items and innovative spells. During this time, the Netherese made contact with the dwarven kingdom of Delzoun, and, after several years of negotiations, they developed a profitable and peaceful trade between them.
The Mythallar Era
Perhaps the greatest invention ever to come out of Netheril was the mythallar, a magic device that would forever change the way of life for all people of the empire of magic. First created eight hundred years after Netheril's founding, a mythallar was a brightly glowing crystal 150 feet in diameter that served as a magical battery, drawing huge amounts of power and sending it outward to a radius of one mile. Within this radius, other magic items could draw on the mythallar's power instead of having to tap into the source of magic directly, allowing the creators of these items to make them more quickly, efficiently, and cheaply. Suddenly these quasi-magical items (which did not function away from a mythallar) were as common as jewelry, and even the common people of Netheril had access to powerful and convenient magic that would make their lives easier. With less work to do, the Netherese turned to art and architecture to bring joy into their lives, creating flying sculptures of precious metals and strangely shaped beautiful buildings held up by the sheer power of magic itself.
The most important consequence of the creation of the mythallar was the flying city. The most powerful Netherese arcanists used magic to slice off a mountain peak, turn it over, and affix a mythallar to the center of its flat side, using the power of the mythallar to hold the mass of rock in the air. These arcanists then created buildings on these flying rocks, which became flying cities. Eventually one could see over a dozen of them in the sky, and on a flying city the arcanist that created it held absolute power. These flying cities, or enclaves, were the supreme manifestation of Netheril's power and glory.
The Silver Age
With the great cities darkening the skies, the most powerful Netherese arcanists -- the archwizards -- began to fear that they would eventually crowd themselves out of existence and decided that another wave of expansion was in order. Avoiding their sometime elven allies to the east and the constant battles with orc hordes to the north, they chose to expand westward into the lands of the "barbarian" humans who did not practice arcane magic. The Netherese created several well-guarded outposts along their border with the barbarians, which would allow them to spy on their neighbors and protect trade caravans in that area. Because these outposts were not near a mythallar, the arcanists found themselves forced to develop powerful magic items that would work outside the influence of a mythallar, and some of these powerful items still exist to this day. These outposts laid the foundation for what would be Netheril's greatest era.
The Golden Age
Sixteen hundred years after Netheril's founding, enough arcanists were developing advanced magic that a new floating city lifted into the skies every year. On these cities, the common people eventually had less and less say in their government and were taxed and forced to work on projects to further the experiments of the city's archwizard founder. Some archwizards used their cities as staging grounds against old rivals or even as forays into other dimensions ("planes of existence"). Everything on a floating city became secondary to its archwizard's quest for knowledge and power, and dozens of enclaves wandered the skies above Netheril's loose borders.
During the Golden Age, the Netherese began to take an interest in their land-dwelling neighbors. They taught arcane magic to barbarian tribes, helped tribes fight against orc hordes, and did other similar activities of benign intent. Unfortunately many of these plans backfired, with rival tribes attacking their magic-using neighbors and arcanists slaughtered at the hands of devious orc tribes. Meanwhile, many interpersonal conflicts between rival archwizards and acts of rebellion by the common people of Netheril, as well as many arcanists delving into necromancy to preserve their existence by becoming undead creatures, signaled the end of this age and the start of the last.
The Shadowed Age
The landmark event of the last age of Netheril was the birth of Karsus about 3,100 years after the nation's founding. A magically precocious child, he instinctively cast his first spell at the age of two, and at age 22 became the youngest arcanist to ever create his own floating city. Gifted with magic, but lacking the necessary discipline that comes with hard work and research, he founded a school of magic on his enclave and encouraged the attendance of radical thinkers and those interested in taboo projects. One of his students, now known only as Lord Shadow, wrote a treatise on the exploration and exploitation of other planes, such as the Plane of Shadow, which garnered initial criticism but was eventually embraced as the key to an infinite source of shadow-creatures as slave laborers as well as a dumping ground for unwanted garbage.
One non-arcanist earned a name for himself during this time: Olostin, an outcast and sympathizer with the downtrodden nonhumans that were the constant targets of Netherese battles and magical experimentation. It was Olostin who first encountered the strange underground magic creatures known as the phaerimms. In his first meeting with the strange, toothy, four-armed creatures, he was told that some magic on the surface was killing phaerimm young and causing the infirm to die before their time. Olostin advised of the wasteful and decadent magic of Netheril. In gratitude for the information, the creature gave him a powerful magic item and told him of a fortress where he would be safe from Netheril's influence. Olostin eventually gathered followers and earned a reputation as a ruthless murderer of Netherese, having killed over twenty-eight thousand beings in his lifetime. A powerful arcanist eventually killed him, but the information Olostin gave the phaerimm had planted the seeds for Netheril's fall.
The phaerimm developed powerful spells to drain magic from the surface, hoping to cut off the source of Netherese power. Unfortunately, the spells also drained life energy from the surface, creating places of barren wasteland. The Netherese avoided the barrens by moving their flying cities, but as the damage followed the enclaves, they realized something unnatural was afoot. The phaerimms' magic also interfered with the functions of mythallars, causing quasi-magical items to fail but (fortunately) still keeping the enclaves aloft. The arcanists tried to battle the phaerimms, but they had difficulty tracking them with magic and could not discern the location of their underground lairs. As more magical effects in the enclaves began to fail, many archwizards left for other parts of the world, some founding normal cities on the ground and others going into hiding. The common folk panicked as more arcanists and archwizards left, and Karsus feared that a revolt would destroy his people.
Shouldering the responsibility for preserving his civilization, Karsus finished creating a spell he had been developing for years. This spell would steal the power of a deity and transfer it to the archwizard that cast it. Karsus believed that with the power of a deity at his disposal, he could destroy the phaerimms and unite his people. Karsus cast the spell in the 3,520th year of Netheril (just over 1,700 years ago) and chose Mystryl, the goddess of magic, as his target, feeling that she was the most powerful deity and the most appropriate choice for his purposes. His spell worked all too well, and Karsus gained the powers over all magic.
Unfortunately, his choice was a terrible mistake, for one of the responsibilities of the deity of magic was to regulate the flow of magic to and from all beings, spells, and magic items in the world. Lacking the experience to do so properly, magic surged and fluctuated. With her last remaining bit of power, Mystryl sacrificed herself to block Karsus's access to the weave, causing all magic to fail. The flying cities of Netheril plummeted to the earth. The severing of the link also killed Karsus and transformed him into stone, and the last thing he saw was his entire civilization being destroyed because of his actions.
Mystryl's sacrifice saved magic from being completely destroyed, and she was reborn a few moments later as Mystra, a new deity. Her rebirth caused magic to function again, and the three highest-flying cities of Netheril landed safely on the ground. Mystra changed the laws of magic so that such terrible spells could never be worked again. Netheril was destroyed, its lands were now a desert, and its people found themselves forced to relearn how to use magic. Eventually the expanding desert swallowed even the three surviving cities, ending Netheril's legacy. Or so it was thought.
The City of Shade
Lord Shadow saw the Plane of Shadow as more than a source of slaves and a place to dispose of unwanted things. He loved the strange realm of muted light and darkness, its responsiveness to his magic, and the things he could learn from its strange energies. Over time he developed ways to transport more and more material to and from the Plane of Shadow, and he was preparing to test an experiment where he would transport his entire enclave to there and back. A few days before Karsus's doomed spell, he informed the residents of his enclave that they should prepare for the experiment. He cast his spell on the eve of Karsus's casting, and he was pleased to find that his city and its inhabitants suffered no ill effects from the trip. He was surprised to find that he could not transport them back immediately. (Unknown to him, the goddess of magic had died and was reworking the laws of magic at the time, which left interdimensional transport ineffective.) When they did return several weeks later, they found nothing but ruins and the dead.
The people of Shade were horrified and cried for vengeance, assuming that the phaerimms had caused this destruction. Lord Shadow grieved, but he knew that one flying city was no match for the might of the phaerimms, so he vowed that some day his city would return, avenge the Netherese, and recreate the old empire in its former glory. He then transported the city back to the Plane of Shadow, where (due to unforeseen circumstances) it remained for centuries and returned only recently.
Most of the people of Shade are normal humans just like those who lived in Netheril thousands of years ago. They are mortal and are the descendants of the original inhabitants of the city from centuries before. A handful -- only five hundred or so -- have learned how to infuse their bodies with the energy of the Plane of Shadow, becoming the beings known as shades. These shades are the leaders of the city and the architects of their plans in the Forgotten Realms. Shades in shadow or darkness are more powerful than normal humans and can heal from mortal wounds, become invisible, see in absolute darkness, and shrug off magical attacks. The people of Shade are planning to make the world theirs again, and they have the power to accomplish their desires.
For more information and Realms product on the Netherese and the Netheril empire, See Also:
Return to Traveler's Notebooks
Return to Alaundo's Library