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Maldin's Greyhawk

Secrets of Mordenkainen and the Circle of Eight

by Denis Tetreault
with material from Erik Mona and Fred Weining
 Version 1.0


The Circle of Eight has had a long history, some of it known to scholars that frequent certain academic circles, but most of it secret, hidden from the eyes of the curious and from the pages of history. It began with a conversation over a fine meal between Mordenkainen and his apprentice Bigby, eventually giving birth to the Citadel of Eight (named after Mordenkainen's Obsidian Citadel), a group of like-minded individuals who decided that the balance of power between good and evil required an active hand to maintain. They felt that if one side or the other were to triumph, the face of Oerth would be changed... for the worse. This original group consisted of Mordenkainen, Bigby, and Tenser, all wizards, the warrior Robilar, the cleric Riggby and his assistant Yrag, the supposedly dim-witted Serten, and the woodsman Otis. Mordenkainen believed that the balance of the Flanaess was threatened by the conflict between good and evil, as represented by the Knights of the Hart and St. Cuthbert on the former side, and the Hierarchs and Aerdy on the latter. He felt that, with his group of associates, he could weaken and diminish the danger posed by those groups by manipulating them to play off each other.

The group's efforts were concentrated in the areas of Greyhawk and the Selintan, the Cairn Hills, and the Suss Forest, and their ever-more spectacular successes brought them fame, great rewards, and more power. Over time, bickering between the disparate members of the group began to weaken their resolves, and members began leaving the group to persue their own personal goals. Robilar had problems with Mordenkainen's philosophy and Tenser's morality. Serten felt he didn't get the respect he deserved, and Otis tired of the seemingly endless caverns and city suburbs. The years saw Prince Melf Brightflame, Quij the half-orc, Felnorith, Robilar's brother Terik, and even a disguised Murlynd, all spend some time as members of the Citadel.

A turning point for the Citadel of Eight occurred in 569 CY. While most of the self-absorbed celebrities of the Citadel were off pursuing their own personal indulgences, the forces of good and evil clashed in one of the century's most critical battles... the Battle of Emridy Meadows. As the forces of Prince Thrommel stood against the hordes of Elemental Evil, only the unappreciated Serten was present to stand against what appeared to be overwelming evil. When Serten fell, none of his friends stood at his side.

The repercussions of Emridy Meadows razed the Citadel to the ground. Tenser blamed Mordenkainen for the death of his friend, and retired to his castle on the shores of the Nyr Dyv. Terik and Yrag walked away into anonymity, some say into the Bandit Kingdoms. Bigby even left the side of his one-time master and returned to Oldridge. Mordenkainen simply shrugged and returned, with cold eyes, to his studies.

Mordenkainen's indifference would not last for long, however.

A Darkness Foreseen

His arcane research and exploration led him that next year to stumble across a reference most vile, the Tome of the Black Heart, in the dungeons beneath Maure Castle. That simple discovery in 570 CY would change the face of the Oerth forever. After reading from the profoundly disturbing book, he came to realize that the true danger to Oerth was not what he had thought was its major threat and now considered to be the petty bickering between good and evil, but rather it was an all-consuming force of pure evil and chaos, the Destroyer, Tharizdun. A force which has destroyed entire civilizations before, and threatens the Multiverse itself.

Mordenkainen began to hatch a complex plan. He believed that were he to introduce a great evil equal and opposed to the Heirarchs and Aerdy, none would be able to gain much headway and allow him time to ponder the threat of Tharizdun. As well, bound to the Flanaess by its very nature, this new (or rather reinstated) evil would likewise want to preserve Oerth for itself and counter the Destroyer's plans as well.

With the gift of special sword, the Blade of Black Ice (which he specially further ensorcelled with powerful dispelling magics) and a subtle push in the direction of Castle Greyhawk, Mordenkainen aimed his weapon, his powerful friend Robilar, towards the magical prison of a demi-god. As Mordenkainen planned all along, the Blade sundered the magical fetters imprisoning Iuz the Evil, apparently accidentally. Though Robilar attempted to make good his mistake by assailing the foul godling, Iuz fled to reclaim his Throne of Skulls in Dorakaa, just as the master puppeteer had planned all along. The echos of that action would set the Flanaess on fire in a few short years.

A Time for Rebuilding

As Mordenkainen watched the chaos surrounding the return of the Old One, and even as Iuz moved to check the growing power of the Horned Society and kept Furyondy's eyes on its northern borders, he knew that things were not going quite as he expected. Mordenkainen had to consider other options. The dissolution of the Citadel had left Mordenkainen without a tool to directly shape events as he saw fit, and besides, he missed his adventuring days.

He had come to believe that the failing of the Citadel was not a result of its mandate, but its make up. Even friends, carrying the differing philosophies of their backgrounds and diverse chosen careers, were doomed to disagree on many things. This time he would choose intellectual men intimately familiar with the world of the arcane, powerful magi all, to form his Circle. By the beginning of 571 CY, he had gathered 7 other like-minded men, including Bigby, Otto, Rary, Nystul, Drawmij, Leomund, and Bucknard.

The Circle worked together, particularly in Eastern Oerik in the early days, it worked separately, by exploring legendary sites near Blackmoor, in Castle Greyhawk, and on other planes, and most significantly, it worked through an ever-increasing number of agents, many of whom had no idea who they were working for. An example of one of those oblivious teams was the group of sponsored adventurers that sacked Iggwilv's former lair at the Caverns of Tsojcanth in the mid-570's.

Over the years, the membership of the Circle changed, with Tenser, still bitter over the dissolution of the Citadel, replacing a retiring Leomund in 574 CY. Mordenkainen was soon finding that his research and deliberations were limiting the time he could devote to pro-active actions with his compatriots, and besides, the master puppeteer considered himself more of a manager. For that reason, in 576 CY, the addition of Otiluke not only allowed him to stand outside of the Circle of 8, but brought political power to the group. As president of the Society of Magi, Otiluke brought with him a seat on Greyhawk's Directing Oligarchy. Despite his temper, Otiluke had the political savvy and contacts to allow the Circle to influence the policies of leaders throughtout the region. In 581 CY Jallarzi Sallavarian was invited to replace Bucknard after he had mysteriously vanished two years earlier.

Darkness Falls

Six months later, the Circle would be shattered. Signs pointed to the rising of a new evil so dangerous that Mordenkainen rallied the Circle for a nearly unprecedented field operation. With Mordenkainen staying behind to monitor the group just in case of problems, the group entered the tomb of a long-dead Oeridian tyrant in the hills south of Verbobonc. Caught by surprise by an entity fortified with the incredibly powerful artifacts known as the Hand and Eye of Vecna, the ill-prepared Circle was destroyed, beginning a chain of events that almost allowed the Lich Lord deity Vecna to achieve incredible power and hegemony over Greyhawk. Mordenkainen, however, mobilized his allies, who managed to thwart Vecna's plans at Tovag Baragu, some hinting that the assistance of Iuz may have been instrumental.

Some of this author's colleagues have suggested that Mordenkainen remained behind because he knew he was sending the Circle to their doom, as part of a devious plan anticipating the coming war and wanted to keep the Circle (by destroying them) from preventing evil from checking the side of good as part of some balanced equation. This sage does not support that theory. Mordenkainen knew already that it was evil that was rapidly becoming a problem, not good, hence his original reason for forming the Circle, and his rush (at the expense of careful planning) to halt this new unknown before it could complicate the situation even further. Unfortunately, the attempt failed and the unstoppable cascade of events began to snowball out of control.

Mordenkainen knew that what was coming was beyond his ability to tackle alone. He immediately focused all of his energies into restoring his friends and colleagues by cloning them. The effort required to do so for eight high-level mages so consumed his time that he failed to see the importance of the reports from his allies of alarming developments in Stonefist and the Barbarian Lands. When the first conflicts of the Greyhawk Wars erupted, the Circle's clones were still undeveloped and half-aware. By the time the clones reached maturation, Mordenkainen and his Circle could only react to events rather then take proactive actions. Mordenkainen, Bigby and Otto fought against Iuz's army at the Battle of Critwall Bridge, Drawmij assisted the flood of refugees escaping conquered lands to sanctuary in the Good Hills. Nystul worked alone in besieged Tenh. Otto and Bigby later left Mordenkainen in the Vesve Forest to assist the Iron League. Citing pressing personal needs, Rary retreated to his tower in Lopolla and refused to come to the aid of his companions.

Eventually the conflicts of the War began to wane, and political stability through negotiation was made possible by the signing of a treaty in the Free City of Greyhawk. The Circle was there to help insure the safety of the diplomats. What could not have been anticipated was sabotage not from outsiders, but from within the Circle itself. When the dust of Rary's treachery settled, Tenser and Otiluke were dead, and the Archmage of Ket fled to the Bright Desert. Robilar, Mordenkainen's once trusted friend, led strike teams to eliminate the clones of several Circle members, and fled with Rary. Countless theories have been postulated of what motivated Rary to kill his friends... everything from a malignant mutation during his cloning, mental control of a powerful evil outer-planar entity, influence of a corrupt artifact, even a mysterious imposter who had previously killed Rary and taken his place. All of these theories are wrong. Rary was neither evil, possessed, or replaced. Nothing more or less than cold logic motivated Rary. But more on that statement later. Robilar was another, far simpler matter. In one of Robilar's last forays into Greyhawk Castle, he had accidentally touched an artifact that swapped his consciousness with his counterpart from a parallel plane. That being, known as Bilarro, was morally quite capable of the actions he did commit in Rary's service.

Since the war, the Circle has been restored with the addition of new members to replace Tenser, Otiluke and Rary. Alhamazad the Wise hails from the ancient Baklunish lands. Theodain Eriason from the Yeomanry is the Circle's first demihuman member. Warnes Starcoat, counselor to the Courts of Urnst, had risen to the Circle's attention by helping to recover the powerful Crook of Rao from the clutches of Iggwilv, and thus making possible Canon Hazen's heroic use of the artifact in 586 CY. Warnes also had a hand in the return of Tenser from the realm of the dead.

Much of what I have related thus far is relatively well known, at least among those well-connected and informed sages (see the primary reference at the end of this essay). What follows is not.

Secrets within Secrets

All in all, the continent-wide suffering caused by the wars, all begun by the simple gifting of a sword to a friend, was not lost on Mordenkainen and weighed heavy on his mind, only tempered by the knowledge that something far worse, something that threatened all of existence itself, was still forming in the mists on the edge of reality. The coming of the Destroyer, Tharizdun, remained unabated, unstoppable. It seemed unfathomable that a mere mortal... or group of mortals... could do anything to prevent it. Indeed Mordenkainen had learned yet again that he could not trust anyone else around him to stay true to what he believed needed to be done. To combat this ultimate threat, he thought, Mordenkainen would have to personally become much more powerful... he must... for the good of the Flanaess, for the Balance, for the stability of reality. It was a weight he must endure. As much power as he had already acquired, he knew it was not enough, and he knew that he was not the most powerful mage of Oerth's recent history. That honor belonged to a mysterious individual known to virtually no one. Mordenkainen knew his name. Basiliv.

Go back to the year 570 CY. During his studies of the Tome of Black Heart, Mordenkainen gained another interesting piece of knowledge that he filed away at the back of his mind. The powerful creators of the Tome had themselves been destroyed. By a lone individual no less! That individual was known only as the Demi-Urge, Mage of the Vale. A wizard of such power, gods would be reluctant to interfere with. Someone who could tap into the arcane energies of the planet. Over the decades, Mordenkainen spent a great amount of time and resources into researching this individual... and in keeping said research absolutely secret from his colleagues. As he gained power, experience and contacts, eventually winning the opportunity to communicate directly with Zagyg himself (who gave him some insight into the topic), he learned that the Mage of the Vale was a position of arcane power that was passed down from one individual to another. Now this had possibility, he thought.

Nobody knows why the power of the position has a connection to the Vale, however it is important to say that the Vale does not DEFINE the position. If one can hold the Valley, one does not automatically become the Demi-Urge (nor even have any idea of what it is). The Vale has some sort of unknown greater arcane secret, possibly an even larger reservoir of Oerthblood than that found beneath Tenser's castle, a massive deposit of another yet unknown type of arcane material, an elder-artifact such as the Earth Stone beneath Castle Greyhawk, perhaps even the buried carcass of a powerful yet long-dead Oerth god, or it may just be something as abstract and simple (and powerful) as a magical nexus, a meeting or concentration of flowing arcane energies the likes of which have never been witnessed before. Whatever the source, it is something that may not even be divinable by the Demi-Urge, let alone the gods themselves. (For example, even Zagyg never knew about the Earth Stone.) Or perhaps the full power of the seat cannot be had until the hopeful finally does divine the secret. However he finally learns how to access the power (whether or not that individual understands its ultimate source), once he does, the position grants the Demi-Urge of Oerth arcane powers on the scale of, well... Powers. But very tightly tied to Oerth. The fully invested Demi-Urge could easily stand toe-to-toe with Iuz, or any other god that chose to manifest on Oerth.

The Fool on the Throne

Many knew already that a wizard ruled the Vale. This is certain, however... Jaran Krimeah NEVER obtained access to the full power of the position. He did acquire enough of a taste to perhaps understand what it potentially meant, which is probably why he eventually gave up and moved on. It was clearly beyond even Jaran's abilities, and no doubt a humbling epiphany. Finally realizing that he would never acquire power and immortality by becoming the Demi-Urge, Jaran turned his efforts to something more obtainable, though still requiring great arcane skill and knowledge... the merging with shadowstuff. After doing what he could in his own residence, he finally had to take his research to the source, and left the Vale and Oerth for the Plane of Shadow, where he presumably still is.

In Jaran's absence, an interloper took advantage of the unoccupied castle. A Bisselite wizard named Nyeru Darkspring pretended to be Jaran for a short time, but he never had any idea whatsoever of what "Mage of the Vale" meant, nor did he ever have the slightest shot at learning anything about it. Although, Nyeru did (incorrectly) believe that just by poking around the Vale and calling himself Mage of the Vale, he eventually could somehow become the Mage for real. No mage of less then 20th level could ever have a chance at success. Casting ability of at least 18th (giving access to 9th level spells) is required to even begin uncovering some of the secrets of the Demi-Urge position - which Jaran did have. Nyeru certainly could never become the true Mage of the Vale. When the court fool sits on the throne, he does not become king.

Nyeru's plans to seize the power of the Mage of the Vale, and return to wreak vengence on Bissel were interrupted when he was captured during an invasion of giants into the Vale. Elock, one of his compatriots, had always planned to do away with Nyeru after his usefulness was over and seize the position for himself. With Nyeru out of the way, Elock claimed the title for himself. Elock now spends his time searching for the "Secrets of the Vale" as he thinks he (incorrectly) understands it, and has even succeeded in breaking into a few of Jaran's abandoned structures, however, has as of yet found no clues to help him in his quest. As with Nyeru, Elock does not possess the skills and knowledge necessary to truly claim the position, and just like his former associate, he has no idea that he could never succeed. In the meantime, Tysiln San, Jaran's former assistant and consort, is biding her time with this series of new professed "Mages" in hopes of someday finding Jaran again.

The Truth Behind the Veil

The last individual to have gained the position of Demi-Urge was the mysterious Basiliv. Eventually, he surpassed even that granted by his position and has left Oerth to travel distant planes. No one has yet been able to fill the presumably now vacant position.

Who does have a legitimate chance at becoming the Demi-Urge? Not surprisingly, across the entire face of Oerth, the number is quite small.

Mordenkainen is one of the few that know something of the position of Demi-Urge. And he wants it! After his carefully thought-out plans failed to produce favorable results, he began to feel that the only way to stem the rising tide of Tharizdun's evil was to handle things personally... and the only way to acquire enough power to do that was to become the Demi-Urge and tap into Oerth's arcane heart. As such, the Machiavellian schemer has even resorted to manipulating the Circle in his attempt to gain the position. While Jaran Krimeah was around, Mordenkainen was somewhat inhibited in his search for information. For one thing, he could not determine how much power the reclusive Mage of the Vale had acquired and how much of the position of Demi-Urge he had managed to attain. But as I said... "ownership" of the Vale is not required, nor does it automatically grant the position... and Mordenkainen has still been researching the topic in other ways. The occupied Vale is one place, however, that he hasn't explored for information. Now that he has discovered that Jaran is gone, and it's been mere pretenders who have been keeping the pretext of his presence, he is beginning to carefully extend his reach into that area. Still, he intends to proceed with great caution, as the price of a misstep here may prove unrecoverable.

One other wizard of the Flanaess is high enough level, and knowledgable enough, to uncover and understand the true meaning of Demi-Urge, and want the position for himself. One savvy enough to finally realize that, through his machinations, Mordenkainen was also vying for the position. Rary. There had been other reasons for the slow buildup of Rary's discontent. Firstly, he was angry that he and the rest of the circle had been sent into that tomb in the Kron Hills ill-prepared, and, rightly or wrongly, he held Mordenkainen responsible. Then, Rary, through divination and his own extensive intelligence network, had discovered that Mordenkainen was responsible for the loosing of Iuz, and ultimately, for the Greyhawk Wars. "Mordenkainen had caused the mess... he could damn well clean it up himself."

The last straw came when Rary realized that his colleague had designs on the position of Demi-Urge, and was willing to manipulate and, if necessary, sacrifice the Circle to get it. When the powerful (and himself ambitious) mage found out that he had been manipulated by his only real competitor to the position, the Machiavellian Mordenkainen, (and just a little angry with himself that he had allowed his former colleague to get an early lead) Rary decided that he had to stop Mordenkainen and didn't much care who or what got in the way. The stakes were much too high. This final realization of what Mordenkainen was doing finally drove Rary to shatter the Circle of 8, the echos of which still reverberate throughout the Flanaess.

Why so messy? Mordenkainen was a difficult target, and a trap of narrower focus had a higher probability of failure. The catching of Tenser within the trap was not accidental, as Rary believed Tenser was on the verge of discovering information about the Demi-Urge (and if precautions against recloning failed, the clone would not remember as the samples would have been taken earlier). The loss of Otiluke was just a pleasant bonus... Rary cared little for the aggressive and abrasive upstart. When Rary failed to get his target, he fled to his new stronghold, where he intended to continue his quest for the position by searching for certain knowledge and artifacts among the ruins of a long-dead civilization. The end result of all this is that now Rary and Mordenkainen are in a death-grip competition for the position, each taking different approaches to uncovering the arcane secrets of the Demi-Urge. They each have fragments of the necessary knowledge, as do others.

As a side note, Elock has no idea of the mess he's getting himself into. Of course, the interested parties may decide that Elock is such a non-entity that they may just ignore him, assuming his presence there will help keep others out of the valley. That is, until Elock tries to block their prying into the Vale's secrets. If he gets in their way, both Mordenkainen and Rary would think nothing of smoking him... without even breaking stride.

Beyond Mordenkainen and Rary, there are very few wizards of Oerth that have a chance at taking the position. There are at least two, however, that have the skills to try, likely don't have the ethos to qualify, and have other reasons preventing them from trying. The first, Marchanter Melkotia, an incredibly powerful and very evil wizard, is not likely interested in the Oerth's best interests (if that is a necessary qualification), has been missing for a half century, and would likely not be interested if he were to return.

The second, the mysterious Philidor the Blue Wizard, clearly sides with good in motivation (which may or may not disqualify him from Mage of the Vale). Since his arrival to the Flanaess, various events have caused many to question who... or what... he is. He seems to have a strong affiliation with the Flanaess, yet no one knows from where he came. The timing of his arrival, and his prediction of several events and magical effects, seem to indicate unusual knowledge of the future. One theory that this sage once had (formulated shortly after the death of Tenser, himself quite fond of blue), and one that may yet prove valid, was that Philidor was in fact an aspect of Tenser either returned from some point in the future to redirect time's arrow, or from an alternate prime. Tenser has since returned, the meaning of which, in the context of this theory, remains cloudy. Another theory was soon thereafter relayed by a fellow colleague named Watcher who in turn was told this by a highly respected sage. That sage, Csargent, may have been in a position to know many hidden things, however, shortly after his communication with Watcher, appears to have vanished under mysterious circumstances. Csargent's esteemed opinion was that Philidor was in fact not human. The Blue Wizard was a construct, much like a golem is fabricated, except with the intelligence and self-awareness granted by his two creators, the deities Pelor and Corellon. Csargent's theories on the reasons for this partnership, the details of his construction, and the implications for his abilities and ultimate purpose have been discussed in certain academic circles, however it is outside the scope of this work. Suffice it to say, if true, this would almost certainly disqualify Philidor from becoming the next Demi-Urge.

Much of the first half of this article is summarized and paraphrased from...
Wheels within Wheels: Greyhawk's Circle of Eight, by Erik Mona and Gary Holian. Living Greyhawk Journal #0. 2000

Other references from which this page (and Mona and Holian's article) borrows and steals...
S4 The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, by Gary Gygax. 1982
WG5 Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure, by Robert J. Kuntz and Gary Gygax. 1984
WG6 The Isle of the Ape, by Gary Gygax. 1985
Greyhawk Adventures hardcover, by James, M. Ward. 1988
Greyhawk: Folk, Feuds, and Factions, by Carl Sargent and Rik Rose. City of Greyhawk Boxed Set. 1989
WGR1 Greyhawk Ruins, by Blake Mobley and Timothy B. Brown. 1990
WGA4 Vecna Lives!, by David "Zeb" Cook. 1990
WGR3 Rary the Traitor, by Anthony Pryor. 1992
Return of the Eight, by Roger E. Moore. 1998
Maure Castle, by Robert J. Kuntz and Gary Gygax. Dungeon Magazine Issue 112. 2004

As well as discussions with Fred "Psychlops" Weining, Erik "Iquander" Mona, and Noel "Watcher" Graham.

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