Historical Context to Siff’s Underground Lab

The Mighty Nein got a glimpse into Wildemount’s deeply ancient history when they puzzled their way into the secret laboratory in episode 15. Siff’s ramblings indicate that he lived so long ago that the gods still mingled with their creations on Exandria. Ahead, we’ll break down what we know of the history of that time that informs everything The Nein saw in their exploration.

Two notes before we begin.

  1. We’re drawing from the Myth of Exandria straight out of the Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting. It’s wonderful, and if you can get a copy, you should.
  2. Spoilers for episode 15 of this campaign, and for episodes 81, 82, 83, and 89 of Campaign 1!

In the beginning…

Thanks to @IDrawBagman for this art piece!

During the time period known as The Founding, the gods created all the races, starting with the elves, dwarves, and humans. The world was a harsh place to live, so to help their children survive and control the landscape, the gods taught them divine magic. However, unbeknownst to the gods, the Primordials, ancient beings who rose out of the earth and wreaked havoc, were inspiring evil from the Abyss to do the same. (If you watched the final arc of Campaign 1, you witnessed the awe-inspiring titan that is a Primordial.)

Handling this situation divided the gods into two lines of thought: abandon this realm and start anew, or help their children to subdue the Primordials so they could thrive. Those who left fell to evil, and became known as the Betrayer Gods. Those who remained, the Prime Deities, taught their followers arcane magic, magic that drew from the powers of creation without the need of divine power. The Primordials were destroyed, the Betrayer Gods were exiled, and everyone lived happily ever after. (Editor’s note: everyone did not live happily ever after.)

With great power comes great responsibility

Thanks to @kromiprice for this art piece!

With the advent of non-divine magic, the peoples of Exandria went to work building kingdoms and developing new ways of using magic. This era is called the Age of Arcanum. Some arcanists rejected the gods, seeing arcane magic as proof that the gods were irrelevant. These mortals pushed the boundaries of magic, and some, in their greed, attempted to master the magic to control the spark of life and the continuation of it. It was during this time that the powerful mage later known as the Matron of Ravens developed the rites of ascension, challenging, defeating, and taking the place in the pantheon over the god who formerly lorded over death.

This inspired another mage, Vespin, who sought power and knowledge from the Betrayer Gods, freeing them from the planes from which they were imprisoned. The Betrayer Gods, in turn, created the kingdom of Ghor Dranas (within present-day Xhorhas on Wildemount). Their evil poisoned the land, and they sought out mortals to corrupt and entice with the promise of unlimited arcane power. Once they had built up an army of terror, they descended upon Vasselheim. The holy city was nearly destroyed but for the intervention of the Prime Gods. The peoples of Exandria turned their focus towards developing tools and magics for war. This sparked the Calamity, of which there is very little record. Ghor Dranas was ruined, and the Prime Gods banished both themselves and the Betrayer gods behind the Divine Gate to prevent further corruption.

Siff Duthar

Thanks to @RickOrangeJr for this art piece!

This brings us back to Siff Duthar, whose journal Caleb read at the end of episode 15. Siff was an arcanist during the Age of Arcanum who fell squarely into the camp of mortals who saw the gods as inferior to the arcane power of the beings in Exandria. Siff clearly opposed the Betrayer Gods, though not necessarily because of the gods’ inherently evil nature. He instead suggested that all gods threatened to take or destroy everything the mortals had created for their own purposes.

Siff, like many other mages during the Age of Arcanum, experimented with pushing the boundaries of life and death. His journal talked about experimenting on refugees (which could explain the pile of charred remains Fjord found beneath the floor of the upstairs chamber). The will-o’wisps upstairs also may hint at their tragic ends, as we discussed in our monster analysis. The whole urns-in-a-cage setup, complete with the empty metal noose above one of them, paints a macabre scene for just how obsessed Siff was with extending life beyond its natural boundaries.

Siff’s experimentations were cut short, however, by his equally obsessive fear of the empire in Ghor Dranas, and, specifically, the Crawling King. The Crawling King is one of the Betrayer Gods, a neutral evil deity of death, blood, pain, and darkness. He tunneled underneath Exandria, and his eternal hunger was described by Siff. If Siff’s sanctum was underground then as it is now, the fear of the Crawling King tunneling in was a very real one. As Siff felt the quaking of the world, he destroyed evidence of his knowledge, but with the promise that, from those ashes, that knowledge would rise again.

Opash

Thanks to @IDrawBagman for this art piece!

There’s precedent in Critical Role for reading journals of necromancy-obsessed mages. In their hunt for Raishan, Vox Machina transported themselves to an island that contained the secret laboratory of Opash, a wizard who was banished there after his necromantic work was discovered in Marquet. Opash lived during the Age of Arcanum, like Siff, and was equally obsessed with experimenting with the boundaries of life and death. Likewise, he eagerly experimented on the unsuspecting inhabitants of the nearby islands, seeing their torture as a necessary step in conquering death. He even attempted to use a certain heavily-injured ancient red dragon in his work, which led to his death.

After reading Opash’s journal detailing his work, Vex had to make a saving throw to prevent him from controlling her mind, as his essence was still somehow contained in his writings. Though the circumstances surrounding Siff’s journal were similar (someone read it, and some essence of the author made itself known), Matt mentioned to Liam that Caleb’s Detect Magic spell detected no magic coming from the book. Matt also told the group that the figure didn’t rise out of the scarred teleportation circle, but Molly saw a flicker in the ashes of one of the urns right as the figure started to appear.