“I am the way into the city of woe,
I am the way into eternal pain,
I am the way to go among the lost.
Justice caused my high architect to move,
Divine omnipotence created me,
The highest wisdom, and the primal love.
Within the game of Dungeons & Dragons, cosmology is the study of the cosmos—the structure, organization and composition of all that there is. What most people would call the “known universe” is labeled the Prime Material Plane. It holds the world of Toril, the moon, the sun, and extends out into space to the stars. How far out into space is a question of cosmology, and the answer may depend on what cosmological model is used to describe the Prime Material plane. But there are many other planes of existence, some very much like the Prime and some so alien that they almost defy description. Like other dimensions, these other planes may overlap, surround, or penetrate the Prime Material plane, or they may be connected by some mystic avenue, often requiring magic to explore. Together, all the various planes are usually referred to as the “multiverse” and they are the focus of cosmologists as they try to map, measure, and understand the planes and their relationship to life, to death, and to each other.
We are to assume the existence of an infinite number of co-existing planes. The normal plane for human-type life forms is the Prime Material Plane on which in this case, Faerûn exists. A number of planes actually touch this one and are reached with relative ease. These planes are the Negative and Positive Material Planes, the Elemental Planes, they Feywild, Shadowfell, the Ethereal Plane, and the Astral Plane. Typical higher planes are the Seven Heavens, the Twin Paradises, and Elysium. The plane of ultimate Law is Nirvana, while the plane of ultimate Chaos is Limbo. Typical lower planes are the Nine Hells, Hades’ three glooms, and the 666 layers of the Abyss.
Focusing then on the Nine Hells, also called Baator, we see that it is structured one on top of the other in a funnel shaped stack, the largest on the top and the smallest on the bottom. Each of the layers are separated by a featureless void, making every layer its own world with its own unique climate, ecology, and features. Each individual layer has its own sky, through which the layer above can be seen as a distant, dim shadow. There are access points leading through the Nine Hells like the River Styx, The Dark Wood, and the Lawful Path. There are also rifts and portals between the layers that shift and change. And, of course, there are doorways between the Hells and the Prime Plane created by foolish humans, powerful magics, and other wonderously vile events. Lastly the ruler of the Hells, Asmodeus, sometimes deems it proper to allow travel from layer to layer with a written agreement known as the Letter of Passage.
One of these doorways is what Tiamat desires to return to Faerûn. In the wake of the Sundering, the gods have stepped back and left their mortal worshipers to govern their own destinies. This has opened the door to Tiamat’s return. Brought together by the Cult of the Dragon, the evil dragons forge a powerful alliance. The leaders of the Cult view Tiamat as the unstoppable weapon they need to achieve total dragon supremacy and forge a powerful draconic empire, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in millennia. The only goal of immediate interest to Tiamat is finding a way to escape imprisonment in the Nine Hells.
Although the history of any villain as legendary as Tiamat is long and complicated, most hold to the same legends. She is known as the Dark Queen and the Nemesis of the Gods. She is queen of evil dragons and a servant of the greater god Bane. Like most other draconic deities, she was the offspring of the dragon creator deity Asgorath. Tiamat was also the eternal rival of her brother Bahamut, ruler of the good metallic dragons. She has been trapped within the plane of Avernus, according to Infernal scholars, since the Time of Troubles when her avatar was slayed by the demigod Gilgeam.
The first layer, Avernus, is a vast charred wasteland of rubble over which the iron towers of the Dukes of Hell stand. Legions of devils march across the plains in continual readiness for the next battle of the Blood War. A red light suffuses the sky and huge fireballs fly across the layer, randomly exploding wherever they hit. Beneath the blood-red sky balls of fire burst unpredictably.
The River Styx flows through this layer, as does the appropriately named River of Blood. From the gate in Ribcage the nearest site is the ruined city of Darkspine, where refugees desperately try to avoid the Baatezu thought police while trying to do enough good to shift their town back to the Outlands.
The Bronze Citadel is a huge fortress city, housing massive numbers of devil troops and war machines. It is constantly being added to in the form of new fortifications against attacks. Lord Bel, formerly a powerful pit fiend before his ascension to noble status, is the current ruler of Avernus, having betrayed the former lord, Zariel, to obtain the position. He resides in a personal fortress at the center of the Bronze Citadel.
The largest series of astral conduits on Baator lead to the Maggot Pit, a sea of squirming infernal larvae, beyond which the Dragonspawn Pits of Azharul sprawl in a cluster of tall hills and mountains. Tiamat, the five-headed deity of evil dragons, stands watch over the way to the next layer with her draconic and abishai servitors. Nearby exists the Pillar of Skulls, a hideous landmark of trophy-skulls of those killed in the Blood War that reaches a height of more than a mile close to the entrance to the second layer.
However, there are scholars within the Cult of the Dragon who reject the idea that Tiamat is trapped within the Nine Hells at all. Some believe that when the Spellplague occurred that the Pits of Azharul were dissolved and destroyed. This train of thought leads these believers to say that Tiamat sought refuge in Banehold, This is the current clack within the Cult.
Banehold, sometimes called the Barrens of Doom and Despair, or Gehenna, particularly in the past, is an evil-aligned plane of existence. It is one of a number of Outer Planes, one of inhospitable locales, including vast deserts of black sand and huge plains of dark granite. There is no water to be found anywhere on the plane, and no sunlight fills the blood-red sky. It links via the Astral Plane to the planes of the Prime Material (such as Toril) and a number of portals directly connect it with Hammergrim and the Blood Rift. Beshaba’s realm, the Blood Tor, links directly to the Abyss.
Banehold is ruled by Bane, the evil and malicious greater deity of fear, hatred and tyranny. Preferring to plot and scheme, Bane rarely appeared to act in a direct manner; instead acting through his worshipers and other various agents. His ultimate goal was to eventually control all of Faerûn. When summoned he had a dark and rather shadowy appearance with a resemblance of dark armor and his tell-tale jeweled dark gauntlet. He emanated an aura of vast power and cruel intelligence.
While Bane believed himself the rightful ruler of all the planes and could not tolerate subservience to anyone, the god was willing, unlike many evil deities, to work with others if it served his interests and the god formed multiple alliances. Most notable perhaps was his alliance with Myrkul, which stretched back to when both were mortals and which continued until both of their deaths during the Time of Troubles. Bane also had working relations with the gods Loviatar, Talona, and Mask; when Bane returned to life in 1372 DR, he quickly went about reforging these alliances, primarily by reasserting their fears of him. Besides allies, Bane also had servants, such as Bhaal and his own son, Iyachtu Xvim during his first life as a god, and Abbathor, Maglubiyet, Hruggek, and Tiamat during his second. Malar was also known to work along with Bane at times.
Recent events within the Realms seem to be leading up to Tiamat’s release from her otherworldly prison. The Church of Bane has renewed its power. Bhaalspawn have gained footholds within Baulder’s Gate. The Red Wizards of Thay discovered the Bloodgate. And the Cult of the Dragon has control of Dragonspear castle. All of these elements seem to lead to one end: The Rise of Tiamat.