Monday, July 9, 2012

The Hidden City of Sundsvall

Everybody knows it's located on that magnificent road dubbed Garterfall.  One might wonder whose garter it refers to, were it not for the old tradition of imperial newlyweds riding in the ceremonial coach toward The Capital, fast and with curtains down.  One can imagine what happens inside.  The Imperial Wedding Ceremony takes place at the Great Temple of Valerias in Consecration, about a hundred miles away.  The scene of the imperial retinue and its military escort following the ceremonial coach at top speed sometimes leads to unpredictable and occasionally comical results.  In some instances, a magical garter will fly out from behind the curtains and bring great joy and prestige to the one standing among the throngs of beholders who might catch it.  Other clothing elements have been known to fall out as well, but these are promptly confiscated by the guards.  As practical and expeditious as it may seem, teleporting remains most definitely out of the question.  It would be an insult to ancient protocol and the masses of people crowding the roadsides since the previous day.  Imperial life revolves around old traditions, from quaint and charming to utterly outlandish and annoying.

There is a great deal more than the above tradition to make commoners believe Sundsvall indeed lies on Garterfall Road.  In a way it does, at least a part of it.  Several layers of indoctrinated Vertilian bureaucracy, key aristocracy, and the imperial family are involved in a vast conspiracy to dupe most of the population, the army, and foreign visitors about the capital's true location. Sundsvall is a hidden city on the banks of the Greenlake River.  It huddles beneath a magical cloak that conceals the sprawling city and its half-million inhabitants from the outside and from the air.  But before getting too involved with the true capital, let us first have a look at Ampulia, a nearby town on Garterfall Road made to look like Sundsvall.
 
What would have otherwise been a quiet country town was built and meticulously maintained with a single, unerring purpose since Alphatia grew into a burgeoning empire.  Ampulia, whose name is known only to those who orchestrate the wizardly ruse, duplicates almost exactly the capital's  appearance.  Every change in Sundsvall is rapidly replicated in Ampulia. Unilateral alterations in the pseudo-capital are strictly prohibited and will be remedied at once by watchful wizards acting for an exclusive circle called the Smoke and Mirrors Department.

In addition to its appearance, an elaborate illusion paints upon Ampulia's streets a simulacrum of activity consistent with a bustling city of half a million residents.  Genuine Ampulians, all 4,800 of them, live there, profoundly proud and thoroughly convinced that their natal town is nothing but the illustrious capital.  Added to this are cohorts of loyal workers and spies assigned to the Smoke and Mirrors Department and whose responsibilities include quietly watching the inhabitants and, most importantly, visiting outsiders.  Spies address any threats to the illusion.  Anyone behaving suspiciously, in particular if reacting to some puzzling effect of the town's many phantasms, is most likely to disappear.  Such individuals are abducted, their recent memories magically altered, and their faces forever marked with some arcane sign visible only by those empowered to detect them.  Undesirables wake up somewhere outside Vertiloch's borders several days later.  The Smoke and Mirrors Department also hosts a large number of indoctrinated actors whose roles are to interact with visitors for the benefit of the illusion.  At their sides reside an even greater crowd of convicted criminals, geased to enact imaginary lives in a fictitious city.  They handle much of the dirty work, literally and figuratively, obeying the spies without hesitation.  Their penance is meant to leave the convicts painfully aware of their sad fate, yet unable to depart, reveal their fates, or alter their daily behavior in any way.  They are euphemistically referred to as the S&M Squad.

Encounter odds of running into various sorts of people are as follows (d20):
  •   1-5   Genuine Ampulian
  •     6     Vertilian spy
  •   7-11 Vertilian actor
  • 12-14 Vertilian convict
  • 15-18 Phantasmal "extra"
  • 19-20 Visiting foreigner
Beyond the above table, roll for encounters as listed on the city stats shown at the end of this article.  Naturally, illusory characters and street events tend to ease interaction with Vertilian actors or, in an emergency, with Vertilian spies. The nature of this arcane masquerade is to depict a giddy, happy, carefree fantasy of Sundsvall, to the point of nausea for the more rugged visitors.  The truth is more sinister.

From a gaming point of view, a DM should roll quiet saving-throws for all characters, provided an event took place that could arouse suspicion.  Those who fail will never believe the truth, even when presented with incontrovertible proof.  Those who succeed do not automatically see through the illusion.  They are merely allowed to conclude it probably exists, after piecing together available clues.  These phantasms cannot be dispelled.

Naturally, there are many non-residents coming and going:  for example, Imperial Courtiers bringing in or taking out goods to be traded. The goods either end up on Ampulia's streets or underground where river barges await to transport them through a tunnel to and from Sundsvall.

Uninvited travelers seeking to enter the Imperial District, visit its capital, or seek an audience with anyone at the Imperial Palace, are sent to Ampulia, provided they satisfied Vertilian bureaucracy.  If it is determined that a solicitor has legitimate business with someone at the Imperial Palace (or the Council of Thousand Wizards, etc.), the solicitor will be permitted into the palace in Ampulia.  During the visit, passage through a certain hallway will secretly teleport the solicitor to the same place in Sundsvall, and back after the audience.  If the solicitor somehow gets the chance to peek through a window and observe Sundsvall, some clues may be visible, such as a brewing storm that wasn't visible yet from Ampulia, or missing roads, hamlets, and farms beyond city gates.  Ampulia's gates connect with two roads and a military trail--Sundsvall shows none of them.  To avoid the risk of giving away such dangerous clues, especially if a visitor is someone meaningful yet untrustworthy, the counterpart in Sundsvall (including anyone in imperial circles) might instead teleport to Ampulia and meet the guest there.  This often depends on how important the guest is, and how busy the audience's target may be at the time.  The palace in Ampulia is as well guarded as the one in Sundsvall, except that the real Imperial Guard roam the true palace's hallways.

When watching from the outside, the twelve-mile-radius Imperial Cloak alters the appearance of the capital's site to look like peaceful countryside.  The city is plainly visible to those within the cloak. The affected area is officially called the Greenlake Imperial Gardens, and entrance is strictly forbidden.  There are no farmers, trappers, or other residents outside the city.  Anyone caught prowling there will be summarily executed.  Bounty hunters will be dispatched for manhunts if needed.  Imperial Courtiers may shuttle merchant barges in and out of Sundsvall, and galleys may patrol the estate, but all aboard have been properly indoctrinated if not copiously geased.  This is an exception for the military, since they don't normally receive such arcane conditioning.  The vast majority of merchant traffic otherwise funnels through Ampulia by road. 


Once inside the capital, apart from fake city gates leading nowhere, Sundsvall resembles Ampulia in all ways.  There are full-time surveyors whose role is to note any alteration to the streets and buildings, and report them to their colleagues in Ampulia.  Not that the latter truly matters, because the vast majority of resident commoners remains completely unaware of the scheme and certainly can't go around making comparisons: they are simply not permitted to leave.  For them, Sundsvall is a prison.  People are born and live their entire lives there, dying without ever seeing what lies outside the city's great walls.  Those who are caught escaping are "reconditioned" (please look at the wand!) and promptly returned to their former existence.  Recidivists are quietly executed.  Should the population of commoners decline, uninformed families would be permitted to move in (to Ampulia) and obtain gainful employment, only to discover soon afterward that they are forever trapped (in Sundsvall.)

Vertilian aristocracy benefits from a different treatment altogether.  Families of native Vertilian nobility are taught since birth about the importance of the veil and keeping quiet about it.  They are fully cognizant of the consequences of betrayal.  The nature of the families' allegiances to the empire, an immaterial web of divination magic linking each of them to the Grand Prosecutor, is such that any indiscretion will inevitably be traced back to them.  Felonious families are stripped of properties and titles, their memories altered, and exiled at once from Vertiloch.  Non-native aristocrats, if the situation comes up, will be asked whether they wish to be part of the empire's Inner Circle of Secrecy.  It is explained that they will be required to pronounce the Oath of Silence, and informed of the consequences for breaking it.  Non-natives betraying the inner circle are cast out of the empire altogether, if not executed along with their entire families and other associated individuals.  After taking the oath, new members are given the details about the Imperial Cloak and the pseudo-capital, and are granted unrestricted access to Sundsvall.  If the offer was declined, the masquerade continues until the aristocrats are discretely pushed away from the empire's all-powerful center of authority.  There is no second chance.

Major establishments like the Council of Thousand Wizards, the School of Magic, the University of Sundsvall, the military academies, (etc.) are all fitted with many teleporters connecting with twin-buildings in Ampulia.  These teleporters are typically located at entrances leading into classrooms, laboratories, and other key areas.  These chambers do not have clear windows (they use vision-limiting stained glass) or other visible exits.  All aristocrats who are members of the Inner Circle of Secrecy wear talismans preventing their teleportation since they reside in the capital.  Other attendees are unwittingly transported back and forth between the two locations as they pass through these portals.  This commonly leads to people "vanishing" from the sight of those heading back to Ampulia, but in a world of wizards, this hardly arouses suspicion.  In order for this to work, the lines of sight in and out of the affected chambers are altered.  When looking through a portal, one sees and hears what happens in the corresponding hallway in Ampulia, and vice-versa.  On the other hand, spells or spell-effects (except those altering light or sound, or producing physical projectiles like arrows and such), do not travel through teleporters.  In other words, one cannot cast a fireball from a hallway in Ampulia into a chamber in Sundsvall.  The spell would instead affect an empty room in Ampulia.

Some might believe Sundsvall a gleaming, magnificent megalopolis befitting a wizards' empire.  Most of it is.  Aristocrats own entire city blocks and are responsible for their upkeep and appearance.  Many owners take pride in their properties, at least for the sake of prestige and resale value.  Not all property owners are as thoughtful.  Some are downright stingy.  If their blocks usually look good on the outside, they may hide a sordid or hive-like interior.  In the worst cases, financially strapped owners may resort to neglecting their share of the city's upkeep, failing to maintain pavement (or even to finance any paving at all), to pay for garbage removal, pest control, or to repair decrepit old buildings.  In sprawling Sundsvall, such things happen.  These failings are usually glossed over in Ampulia--yet another clue about the illusion.  Eventually, these aristocrats are bought out by the city and replaced with new owners.  The seedier parts are hotbeds of criminality.  Although thieves and other miscreants are eventually caught and permanently assigned to the S&M Squad, new ones always seem to grow from the mass of well-dressed but poor commoners.  Criminal or abusive exactions perpetrated by nobility are officially frowned upon but rarely prosecuted, unless another aristocrat was the victim. 

Sundsvall Imperial Library
Sundsvall's nicer boroughs include buildings of monumental proportions, with bridges arching six or seven stories above the streets, the towering mausoleums of long-forgotten emperors, great temples, and illustrious monuments.  Some streets have been turned into canals.  Forums may be located on top of buildings, along with idyllic artificial gardens featuring garish, animated flora some think were bred from species imported from faraway Frisland.  Many a structure, including the Council of Thousand Wizards and the Imperial Palace, are fitted with landing pads and skyship hangars; however, there is no air traffic entering or leaving Sundsvall.  All such flights take place above Ampulia, from where select passengers may teleport to the capital city--another clue about the illusion.  There are, however, large numbers of Yellow Roof-Hoppers for hire, armed Hover-Chariots belonging to the Imperial Guard or bounty hunters, and a plethora of private airborne vehicles, flying carpets and other luxury devices owned by the more affluent aristocrats and employed exclusively for intra-urban transportation.  Beneath it all lie web-like layers of catacombs, dungeons, and city sewers awash with the underground waterway's overflow.  Used waters are then pumped into the Greenlake River, a few miles downstream from the capital, contributing to the river's muddy aspect (and its summer "fragrance") in Coronation.  Incidentally, it is one of the ways to enter the capital city unseen. 

One of the largest structures is the Council of Thousand Wizards.  Entirely coated with white-veined red marble, it is easily recognizable from statues of current and past councilors ensconced in the outside walls.  The painted sculptures animate when corresponding councilors are attending, mirror-imaging their gestures and facial expressions, right down to their clothing.  There are exactly one thousand statues.  They stand in twos or threes in magically lit, heavily adorned alcoves reinforced with marble columns.  When the council is not in session or when someone is absent, statues represent instead past councilors enacting their most memorable moments.  Simply watching a statue enables anyone to hear it telepathically.  Streams of schoolchildren and their teachers come to watch these displays and learn about Alphatian history.  An immense stained glass dome covers the center of the building.  Beneath lies the main council chamber, a circular, arena-like space vast enough to enable councilors, their scribes, and their servants to sit at individual hemicycles.  At the center stands the Speaker's Rock, a spiral staircase and platform carved from a black monolith.  The Speaker of the Council administrates the sessions.  When speaking, the Speaker or a councilor given The Voice (the ability to address the august assembly) appears above the platform in three magnified and luminescent images facing outward.  Their voices are amplified to be clearly heard despite the usually loud background noise.  Circular galleries overlook the chamber, allowing visitors to observe from behind the stone railings or sitting in private loges.  Observation terraces are permanently silenced.  The Council of Thousand Wizards boasts its own uniformed watchmen, separate from the Imperial Guard, and whose role is to protect the assembly and handle any disturbances.

The Flying Carpet, by Victor Vasnetzov
Glaring in all of its sickening faux-Gothic-Baroque grandeur, the Imperial Palace is everything one might imagine, with spotless white walls and gleaming azure roofs, elegant turrets, slender towers reaching for the sky, enormous vitrailed bays, and an eclectic stone-built menagerie of arcane fauna adorning every corner, archway, and balcony.  It is the towering result embodying eons of former emperors' whims and second thoughts.  Alas, Vertiloch does not another Haven make.  Although air transportation outside the city is forbidden, the imperial yacht, glittering in her black and gold livery, sits conspicuously on a landing pad atop of a bastion in the back of the palace.  She's a fake.  The real vessel is moored at the twin-palace in Ampulia.  Although the replica hovers gracefully if sailed off its landing pad's edge, it would gently descend to the street below to resume its hovering.  As can be expected, the inside of the palace shines at least as much as the outside suggests.  Perhaps even worse.  Magical lighting, disconcerting tile patterns, odd floral arrangements, tapestries, paintings, and sculptures of every sort and style clutter the overloaded architecture. Everything is animated, provoking mild dizziness to splitting headaches for those unaccustomed to the palace.  Pomp and circumstance is the daily order of things, replete with little nothings in the name of protocol and tradition.  Much of it is entirely superfluous; the remainder is meant to circumvent magical guards and wards which are best left untriggered.  Every event is highly stylized to the point of madness.  Should one be unlucky enough to have to stay at the palace, the only respite is within personal quarters.  Yet, despite the chaotic and frivolous appearance of their dwelling and the idiosyncrasies of Alphatia's capital city, the monarchy and its government run the empire well and efficiently.  It's the way of wizards and magocracies.  Embrace it.

Or leave.



With the gracious participation of Janet Deaver-Pack.