Friday 17 February 2023

The Isles of Woe


“But afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea.”
― Plato, Timaeus and Critias

The Isles of Woe
Little is known about the past. It is lost to time, buried under layers of lava, windswept dunes, the contemporary tiers of conquering cities, even beneath the undulating surface of the seas. But it persists, too, on the walls of tombs, the etchings of baked clay tablets, on shards of pottery, in song, and in the memory of the aged, who keep it alive in the tales they tell, when the night is cold and dark and the firepit crackles.
One persistent legend among the Flan is that of a wondrous citadel, said to have sat near the very heart of the Flanaess in ancient times, when kingdoms of the Ur-Flan spanned the length and breadth of the subcontinent. Known as Veralos, a word meaning “aerie” in the ancient tongue of the Flan, the structure was supposedly erected somewhere near the cracked and broken ridge of the Rift Canyon, in what is now referred to as the Bandit Kingdoms. According to the oral traditions, the stronghold was the retreat of princely Ur-Flan scholars, artisans, and mystics in ancient times. It was a repository of great knowledge, learning, and contemplation, drawing disciples from many neighboring kingdoms. These highly-skilled Flan were said to have created extraordinary wonders (such as magical tablets, statuary, ensorcelled jewelry, and astounding weapons) often by commission for the lords of lands such as Sulm, Itar, Ahlissa, and Nuria. The gathered lords of the citadel even paid fealty to the Wizard-Priests of the Isles of Woe, until that fell dominion sank beneath the waves early in prehistory. [Dragon #293 – 90]
Sulm, Itar, Ahlissa and Nuria; and the Isles of Woe.

The Mysterious Magical Isles
What became of the mysterious Isles of Woe, and who dwelled there?
[LGG – 13]
According to legend, the Isles of Woe once stood in the Nyr Dyv, but no reliable source catalogs their size, exact location, population, or even their number (usually put at three but ranging up to seven, depending on the story). The isles are said to be so ancient as to predate the arrival of the Oeridians. The origin of their name is unknown, but they are always said to have been highly magical. [TAB – 5]
The lake of Unknown Depths is said to have once held a number (sources vary between three and seven) of very magical islands called the Isles of Woe, which apparently sank beneath the waves over a thousand years ago. [Slavers – 17]
A great deal of mystery revolves around the Isles of Woe. Did they exist at all or were they an allegory of evil, designed to frighten children and wayfaring mariners?
Rumors abound that the lake holds the sunken remains of an ancient pre-Migration civilization known as the "Isles of Woe," though many have explored the lake to no avail. [LGG – 149]
Long story short, they did indeed exist.
The isles seem to be peaks associated with the easternmost branch of the Cairn Hills, just north of the Duchy of Urnst. [TAB – 5]

North of the Cairn Hills
Clues to that wash up upon the shores in the wake of winter’s storms.
Occasionally, strange silver coins and jewelry and even stranger obsidian carvings, found by lucky divers, make their way to market, but these are generally discounted as forgeries. [LGG – 149]
But are they? Scholarly circles believe that the Isles existed, even if the cause of their ultimate fate remains in question.
The fate of the so-called Isles of Woe has also caused much controversy amongst scholarly circles. What prompted the isles to be swallowed by the waters of the Nyr Dyv and why do ancient maps show the inland sea strangely shrunken? [OJ#21 – 4]
Perhaps the Lake of Infinite Depth rose upon their sinking? Who can say? Legends suggest that the Isles hosted fabled beings and enclaves of great wizards, both of which are reputed to have been able to reshape the very Oerth, itself.
Lake Aqal is thought to have once hosted a reclusive group of wizards as powerful as those of the Isles of Woe or the Wind Dukes of Aqaa. Indeed, tales tell of how their magic still pervades the place, giving the islands that dot the lake an unnatural sentience and the fauna of the region incredible fecundity. This civilization may have been destroyed by a falling meteor. [OJ#21 – 7]
Some of the [Nyr Dyv]'s islands are likewise said to have been home to a group of very seclusive and ancient wizards as powerful as the Wind Dukes of Aqaa or the Glittering Wizards of the Isles of Woe in Oerth's pre-history. These islands are said to be almost alive as entities in themselves, assaulting those who set foot on them with hails of stone and rock as the very earth churns underfoot. Whether any of these tales are true and what remains of the long-dead wizards' magical treasures and hoards, is a matter of pure conjecture. [WGR5 Iuz the Evil – 60] (1993)

The Glittering Wizards
Who then lived there? Legends suggest the Wind Dukes. Tales tell of the Glittering Wizards. Were the Isles themselves alive? Are these little more than local lore and legendarium, fragments of myth and song, likely sullied over centuries in the retelling?
Nightsong knows the burial laments for the victims of the Invoked Devastation, the poetry of the necromantic invocations of the Ur-Flannae, and he can sing the whispering hymns of the long-dead Wind Dukes of Aaqa. [Ivid – 86]
When then did these isles thrive above the waves? Surely the Wind Dukes predated all, didn’t they? One wonders though when these Glittering Wizards shone upon their shores? Did they weave their Art before the Ur-Flan? Where they Ur-Flan? Or did they come after? What is known is that the Isles disappeared long before the Great Migrations. That would mean they are old. Ancient, in fact.
Sages claim that the Isles [of Woe] predate the Oeridian migration. Others believe that the isles were once the location of Vecna’s spider-throne. [LGJ#2 – 19]

-1711 CY
Vecna erects a black tower in the middle of the Nyr Dyv. He claims chieftanship of his tribe, the Ur-Flanae and slays the former chieftain in combat by use of magic. (3805 SD/2752 OC/440 FT) [OJ#1 – 13]
Might the Glittering Wizards have been Flan then? Might Vecna have been a Glittering Wizard? That’s doubtful. He’s been called a great many things, but never that. Who then were they? Which other magi are mentioned in the same breath as the Isles of Woe? Yagrax and Tzunk.

Next to nothing is known about Yagrax, except that he wrote a book.
“Alterations of Tangibles and Intangibles” by Yagrax
(melt, transmute water to dust, item, material, fabricate, crystalbrittle) [Dragon #82 – 58]

As did Tzunk.
“Dissimulation and Obscuration by Tzunk
(blink, invisibility, invisibility 10’ radius, improved invisibility, darkness, continual darkness, vacancy, avoidance , mass invisibility) [Dragon #82 – 58]

Although Tzunk is far more famous in his use of anther, far more powerful tomb.
Codex of Infinite Planes
An ancient book containing forbidden lore and the secret to travel between planes and dimensions. Also called Yagrax’s Tome, after the fanatical wizard-priest of the Isles of Woe. [Dragon #299 – 101]
Yagrax, it would seem, was a resident of the long-lost isles.
As was Tzunk:
Long ago the wizard-cleric who ruled the Isles of Woe lost in the Lake of Unknown Depths used this work to gain knowledge of great power. It is told that this arcane wisdom is what eventually wrought the downfall of the mage-priest and caused the waters to swallow his domain. In any event, the Codex of the Infinite Planes somehow survived the cataclysm, for the Wizard Tzoonk, before his disappearance, recorded the following:
“. . . and thereupon the voice belled forth in tones of hollow iron and spoke of the Coming of the City of the Gods. Such future events interested me not, so I gave the command: ‘Answer in th …’ (here the fragment becomes entirely illegible) … so knowing both the secret and the spell which would unlock the Way to this horde of the Demon Prince Nql … (another break in the writing unfortunately occurs here) … gathered the nine as required and proceeded forth. With me in addition were the dyoph servants necessary to transport the Code, for I would not leave it behind on even so perilous a journey as this.” (Here the entire fragment ends.)
[Eldritch Wizardry – 43]

In the distant past the High Wizard Priest of the Isles of Woe (now sunken beneath the waters of the Nyr Dyv […]) discovered this work and used its arcane powers to dominate the neighboring states, but legend also has it that these same powers eventually brought doom to the mage-priest and his tyrannical domain. It must be that somehow the Codex survived the inundation, for the archmage Tzunk scribed the following fragment prior to his strange disappearance:
“… , and the two strong slaves lifted it [the Codex] from the back of the Beast. Thereupon I commanded the Brazen Portals to be brought low, and they were wrenched from their hinges and rang upon the stone. The Efreet howled in fear and fled when I caused the page to be read, and the Beast passed into the City of Brass. Now was I, Tzunk, Master of the Plane of Molten Skies. With sure hand I closed Yagrax’s Tome [the Codex], dreading to – ”
[DMG 1e – 156]

Did Tzunk eclipse his predecessor, and presumed master? I propose that he did.
[I]t was reported that the archmage Tzunk once used the power of the Codex of Infinite Planes to raze the armies of his enemies and subjugate the entire region. [LGJ#2 – 19]
The Isles are reputed to have been the home of the wizard-priest Tzunk, who used the Codex of Infinite Planes to rule an empire. [Slavers – 17]
But Tzunk, in his ambition and hubris, would reach too far. And it cost him his life.
The Tomb of Tzunk's Hands: Tzunk, Wizard-Priest of the quasi-mythical Isles of Woe which sunk below the Nyr Dyv in prehistory, is said to have had his body sundered into a hundred parts to thwart any attempt at resurrection. The portions were scattered to the winds, burned in fire, dissolved in acidic waters, and buried below the earth. Great golems with special powers such as paralysis, petrification, and worse are said to guard a tomb holding his hands here. The approaches to the tomb chamber are riddled with traps, mazes, secret portals and passages, and many magical hazards. [WGR5 – 64]

c. -500 CY
Sunken Woe
When then did the Isles of Woe sink below the dark surface of the Lake of Infinite Depth?
Legend suggests that they met their fate more than a millennia ago. Legend also suggests that they fell to the vengeance of a single hero. A Flan hero-deity.
Krovis’s avatar has, in the past, emerged from his crypt to bring down several empires that dominated the central regions of the Flanaess, including the dominions of the Isles of Woe and the Empire of Lum the Mad (both of which occurred more than 1,000 years ago). [Dragon #167 – 13]
Be that as it may, the Isles fell and sank below the waves, whether by the wrath of Krovis, or the hubris of Tzunk, we might never know. We will only know that sink they did.
Perhaps the best known of the mythic kingdoms of Oerth’s prehistory are the Isles of Woe, said to have sunk beneath the waters of the Nyr Dyv millennia ago. [OJ#21 – 7]

-330 CY
One wonders then why there are those who persist in believing that this fabled kingdom of yore was Oeridian?
The Isles of Woe, a small Aerdian enclave ruled by Wizard Priests (led by Yagrax), sink into the Nyr Dyv. (5186 SD/315 OR) [OJ#1 – 15]
Aerdian? I think not! How might that enclave be Aerdian when the Isles are the sunken remains of an ancient pre-Migration civilization [LGG – 149], when the Oeridians had still to conquer the Flanaess?
If [t]he Flan were the first known humans to live in eastern Oerik, [LGG – 5] then surely Yagrax must have been Flan. One could argue the word “known” predicates the possibility of other peoples, but as they are never noted in any published sourcebook, who might they be?
What became of the mysterious Isles of Woe, and who dwelled there? [LGG – 13]
The islands now lay somewhere beneath the surface of the Lake of Unknown Depths. [LGJ#2 – 19]
Gone, but not forgotten.

591 CY
Concerned by stories of the resurfacing of the Isle of Woe, Warnes Starcoat is sponsoring an expedition into the Brass Hills to explore a site called the Zochal. According to the Nesser Opuscule, [the] only surviving fragment of a greater work attributed to Tzunk, the Zochal is an echo point for the planar confluence that infuses the once lost sunken isles. [Dragon #297 – 91/ COR2-08 Echo]
I wish Warnes Starcoat luck. His sponsored expedition, as well.
I would let long-dead Flan wizard-priests lie, myself. They were/are all obsessed with the continuance of their life – the necromantic ones, anyway.
If retrieved from their resting place, the hands are said to animate themselves, serving the one who rescued them as divinatory tools, but seeking out the other parts of Tzunk's indestructible, scattered body and slowly beginning to take over the mind of their owner. [WGR5 – 64]
Tzunk, like others of his ilk, doesn’t care a whit for the expedition members’ lives. Or Warnes Starcoat’s.
Or yours, for that matter.

The long trek through the limestone caves has brought you to this strange underground cove. The cave entrance to this place is obscured by seaweed, and only a little light trickles in through the vegetation. The walls are decorated with strange symbols and artwork in a style unlike anything you have ever seen.
Upon the shore sit three longships. None have sails, and all are made of what appears to be corroded copper. In the center of each ship stands a column with a steering wheel attached. [Dragon #295 – 96]
This is the Heraan Boathouse—the once-lost passage to the strange, obscured city that dominates the Isles of Woe. [Dragon #295 – 96]

Memory keeps the Past alive. Memory and myth and song. Who then could forget fabled Heraan, the capital of the long-lost empire ruled from the Isles of Woe?
Sail on to the Isles of Woe
“Gone, like the three of Heraan.” – A strange saying among the Flan hillfolk of the Cairn Hills. [Dragon #294 – 90]
[A]ncient Heraan – the city where the Codex of the infinite Planes was supposedly first inscribed and where countless other treasures still rest. [Dragon #294 – 90]

“Everything faded into mist. The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth.”
― George Orwell, 1984

One must always give credit where credit is due. This piece is made possible primarily by the Imaginings of Gary Gygax and his Old Guard, Lenard Lakofka among them, and the new old guards, Carl Sargant, James Ward, Roger E. Moore. And Erik Mona, Gary Holian, Sean Reynolds, Frederick Weining. The list is interminable.
Special thanks to Jason Zavoda for his compiled index, “Greyhawkania,” an invaluable research tool.

The Art:
The Isles of Woe map, by Sam Wood, from The Adventure Begins, 1989

1015 World of Greyhawk Boxed Set, 1983
1064 From the Ashes Boxed Set, 1992
2011A Dungeon Masters Guide, 1st Ed., 1979
9025 World of Greyhawk Folio, 1980
9309 WGA4 Vecna Lives, 1990
9399 WGR5 Iuz the Evil, 1993
9577 The Adventure Begins, 1998
11621 Slavers, 2000
11743 Living Greyhawk Gazetteer, 2000
COR2-08 Echo
Oerth Journal #1, 2
Living Grayhawk Journal #2
Dragon Magazine #82, 167, 293, 294, 295, 297, 299
Greychrondex, Wilson, Steven B.
Greyhawkania, Jason Zavoda
The map of Anna B. Meyer

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