Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ar: From Heaven's Crown to Eternity

Continued from "Harpily Ever After."

What later became the District of Heaven’s Crown had always been a quiet corner of Ar, tucked between Harpy, Griffon, and Ambur. It joined the kingdom later during its formative years, mostly as the result of pressure from the monarchy. An important Cloudstone deposit beneath the surface became the primary motivation for Alphatian settlers to accept royal infeodation, seeking protection and greater market access for their precious mineral.

Mystara Alphatia Ar Heaven's Crown Map
Lower Heaven's Crown District -- Map Scale: 8 Miles per Hex

A small town grew from the influx of miners and business-minded people, now known as Crowntrails-upon-Land. Floating islands soon came together, very high in the sky. Seven levitating mountains were sent aloft, with the one named Onyx bearing the viceroy’s capital. The islands were meant to follow a complex rotation pattern, but a miscalculation lead Onyx to fly out of control and capsize. A horrendous collision ensued, which destroyed Onyx and damaged nearby Amethyst, showering the land below with tons of debris. The rubble formed miles of tall hills west of Crowntrails-upon-Land. It is rumored that victims of the crash still haunt those rough and jagged formations, an eerie jumble of walls and domes torn apart, half-sunken monuments, and fragments of statues askew. Bits and pieces of the old capital still exist, trapped beneath the surface like upside-down dungeon-like pockets. The most striking thing is the profusion of bones strangely suspended in mid-air, petrified by Cloudstone dust. Most of the Cloudstones in Onyx were either destroyed, buried under rubble, or escaped through the skyshield. The dust from the collision and the ensuing crash covered much of Heaven’s Crown, and took months to settle.

Since then, the remaining six mountains came to a halt, and the idea of propelling them again was abandoned. These towering monoliths stretch 10,000 ft into the sky, reaching as high as 34,000 feet (10.000 meters). A few isolated laboratories exist on these mountains, all of them pressurized. Since the Onyx disaster, six huge monuments were erected on the highest peaks. They depict Alphatian wizards brandishing crystal spheres that gather sunlight during the day and release it after dark. Each beams a colored ray at a 45° angle toward the firmament, forming a crown of light wondrous enough to be the envy of all in the Kingdom of Haven.

Mystara Alphatia Ar Heaven's Crown Map
Upper Heaven's Crown District -- Map Scale: 8 Miles per Hex
During the summer, storm clouds reach the foot of the floating mountains. Denizens of the celestial billows fly in and out of the roiling darkness below, looping gracefully through the sky and releasing bolts of lightning before diving back into the storm. These are called thunderheads, lizard-like creatures that awaken when storms roll in, and return to their lairs beneath the mountains when the weather clears. It is also believed that giants inhabits these storms and that they are masters of the thunderheads. Due to the perils of flying skyships through storms, no one was able to contact them. Suspicion lingers that these giants come and go through the skies as they please, perhaps dwelling in castles hidden among passing clouds, and creating storms for reasons only known to them.

Diamond also harbors an important spiritual center, the Temple of Palartarkan. This immortal is none other than Ar himself, the mage who sparked the creation of floating monoliths, which earned him his quasi-divine status. Private skyships with pressurized decks commonly take passengers from Crowntrails wishing to go on a pilgrimage to the fabled temple. Services for the faithful take place three times per day, at dawn, noon, and sunset. An extensive library on air magics is also available there, as well as study facilities. Accommodations welcome visitors to stay more than a day, for a price. From individual bedchambers and the main temple hall, one may behold breathtaking views of Diamond’s frozen peaks with a stark celestial backdrop slightly darkened by the skyshield’s proximity. Winds pick up thin clouds of ice and snow, and blow them through the heavens like translucent, iridescent veils sparkling in the sun.

There is more to the Temple of Palartarkan than first meets the eye. The catastrophe that befell Onyx created a unique opportunity. The Cloudstones that escaped through the skyshield coalesced into a stone ball in open space. The High Priest of Palartarkan, His Loftiness Arvast III, and his closest followers crossed through a rip in the skyshield and reached the derelict monolith. They gave it an atmosphere, mostly from air that had escaped through the damaged skyshield, and built a fortress upon it, enchanting the monolith so that it would remain geostationary. It was thereafter rendered invisible, to keep it secret. Meanwhile, a translucent "patch" was devised to help repair the torn skyshield—one allowing temple skyships through, provided one knew the aperture’s exact position. As it were, prying eyes in Ambur witnessed the event before the monolith could be removed from sight. Quiet negotiations ensued, leading to Amburian witnesses earning a place on the monolith from which they could install stargazing devices, in exchange for their total discretion.


Mystara Alphatia Ar Heraldry
It’s been many decades since this event took place. On behalf of their immortal patron, clerical and wizardly followers now toil to recreate Old Alphatia as it was meant to be. For now, their work consists mostly in research; two topics dominate their efforts: aeroforming, to create vast bubbles of air in space, and the manipulation of dark energy to enable this brave new world to travel. Because of the enormity of the project and its cost, such an endeavor is likely to take a century or more to complete. Arvast III demanded total secrecy because he wasn’t willing to relinquish the project to imperial authorities, let alone King Qissling. He trusted neither, and the same can be said of his successor today, Arvast VI. There is dissention among his followers about this. Some believe that results could be reached more quickly with direct support from Skyreach or Sundsvall. Others fear the ghastly thought of the Alphatian public discovering their plan and all demanding a piece of it. So far, they all agree the "Alphania Quest," as they dubbed it, must remain under the supervision of the Temple of Palartarkan. This immortal is described below for the readers’ convenience. Thanks to Marco Dalmonte for his work on the Alphatian pantheon listed on Pandius.

Palartarkan the Lofty One
Developed from the original text by Marco Dalmonte

Patron of Ar, Lord of the Air
Nature: 12th level Temporal of Energy (Neutral)
Symbol: a flying mountain
Interests: Alphatia, Floating Ar, astronomy, astrology, elemental plane of air, magic related to gravity, air, and flight.
Locations: Alphatia and Alatian Islands on Mystara, and Hiakrai Neathar in the Hollow World.

Appearance: a tall and muscular human, with thick, pure-white, well-groomed hair, beard and moustache, dressed in a robe having tones of blues and whites recalling clouds. He’s usually represented as floating in a position of meditation, with crossed legs.

History: Ar was a native of Old Alphatia during the reign of Alphaks. When Alphatians were forced to migrate, Ar had just started on the immortal Path of the Paragon. He followed his compatriots to what would become the Alphatian Empire on Mystara. Fascinated by air and flight, he enchanted levitating monoliths that led to the creation of the famous floating islands. After teaching his knowledge to his students, Ar attained immortality around 840 BC, later revealing himself as Palartarkan to Alphatian spellcasters.  He'd created the first few Cloudstone deposits in Ar as part of his quest to immortality, and vastly expanded them afterward, knowing full well that they might provoke the sort of disaster as the one that befell Onyx.  It was all part of his plan.

Personality: Palartarkan is a recognized patron of Alphatian magic, as well as all those who are interested in the mysteries of the Elemental Plane of Air, the laws of gravity, the secrets of aeroforming, as well as the art of flight. He is generally magnanimous; his association with air make his moods unpredictable—they change as quickly as winds during a storm.

Liege: unknown (presumably Ixion)
Allies: Alphatia, Razud, Zalaj
Enemies: Alphaks
Followers’ Alignment: any; clerics must be Neutral
Favored Weapons: followers may spend proficiency slots on any hand-thrown weapon (daggers, hammers, axes, spears, etc), regardless of class limitations. Fighters receive a +1 bonus to hit with any missile weapon, including bows, crossbows, and siege weapons.
Clerics’ Abilities: 5th level clerics can fly up to two hours per day (innate ability, cannot be dispelled); +5% bonus for any attempt to create spells or magic items related to air or flight.

From a more general point of view, the District of Heaven’s Crown is home to 84,000 Coronians, of whom 5,000 live in urban areas. No more than a few hundred reside permanently on floating islands. Constructs, which aren’t counted in the district’s demography, handle much of the domestic work at altitude. Temperatures in Upper Heaven’s Crown drop 90°F (50°C) compared with conditions prevailing at sea level. Lower Heaven’s Crown is a net exporter of farming goods, and its Cloudstone mine, one of the latest to have been excavated, is still producing good amounts of the precious mineral. The viceroy keeps at his disposal about 1,000 troops, 400 of whom are serving on six small skyships and one flying troop transport. The smaller vessels are known as the H.H.M.S. Aethere, Argonae, Methylia, Heliuma, Kryptonae, and the Xenonia, and the troop transport as the Spirit of Ar.


His Loftiness Arvast VI, High Priest of Palartarkan

Mystara Alphatia Ar Heraldry
The top spiritual leader in Ar is a crafty fellow. Not only has Arvast demonstrated a prodigious ability as an administrator, but he’s also a talented negotiator. His skill has enabled him to advance the Alphania Quest, recruiting trustworthy followers and expanding the fortress while increasing the temple’s revenues. A few wealthy Aran aristocrats in on the secret provide regular funding in exchange for a place on Alphania. King Qissling, unaware of the quest, has agreed nonetheless to name the Temple of Palartarkan as the realm’s official faith. Although other philosophies are readily tolerated, this temple now conveniently benefits from a small percentage of royal revenues thanks to its official status, while none of the others do.

Arvast’s real challenge is one of security. As the project grows, more people need to be involved. Ensuring their discretion can be a thankless task. For this purpose the high priest devised spells not only to help keep the faithful in line with their vows of silence, but also to identify oath-breakers. Clerics of Palartarkan are neither evil nor chaotic, but for practical reasons they must rely on stealth to safeguard their veil of clandestinity. Specially trained monks handle security in the temple and, if need be, the elimination of oath-breakers and all associated individuals. Arvast must budget his time between visits to Alphania, heading services at the Grand Temple, directing guardian monks, and maintaining proper relations in Skyreach. Open rivalry with the Temples of Ixion, Alphatia, and Razud—established elsewhere in the kingdom—resulted from Palartarkan’s official status. It sparked many audiences before the king, which Arvast must monitor carefully and address with his usual tact and diplomacy.

Appearance: Arvast is tall and with a well-developed musculature that makes him appear stocky. His hair, hanging in ringlets to his shoulders, has been magically altered to deep sapphire blue. A full square-trimmed beard frames his rugged face. His intense eyes are a complimentary shade and appear very analytical. He never stops thinking about how to bring an enemy or a vacillating nobleman to his side of the discussion. The armor he wears most of the time fully covers his frame, but is embossed to resemble an ancient monarch’s lamellar protection. His bracers fit beneath his armor’s gauntlets. Arvast wears on his chest a thick gold chain with a flying mountain symbol carved in golden and brown amber.

C25, AC-8/-3, hp48, MV 120’(40’)/360’(120’), AT 1 spear, Dmg 1d6+2 or by spell, Save C25, ML10, AL N; St14, In13, Wi17, Dx12, Co11, Ch15. Magical Items*: +1 spear of the oath-breakers, +1 suit of airsteel armor, +2 bracers of binding, and amulet of protection from crystal balls and ESP. Special Abilities: as a priest of Palartarkan, he can use a spear and fly up to two hours per day (innate ability, cannot be dispelled).

Spear of the Oath-Breakers: when used in melee combat, this spear is equivalent to a +1 magical weapon. When thrown, it becomes a +3 projectile that reappears in its wielder’s hand at the end of the round. If an oath-breaker (see bracers of binding below), the target must save vs. spell or be struck dead.

Bracers of Binding (C): these leather bracers function as +2 bracers of protection. In addition, they enable a cleric of Palartarkan to magically seal an oath. The cleric becomes immediately aware of whether an oath was broken, by whom, in whose company, and where. Such oath-breakers and those implicated all become permanently vulnerable to the deadly effect of Arvast’s magical spear.

Suit of Airsteel Armor: this +1 suit of armor is made of enchanted blue steel. It is immune to air-based attacks and non-magical projectiles. It also generates an invisible shield of compressed air floating around the owner. During a battle, this mobile shield confers a +5 AC bonus against a first attack (regardless of the direction), +4 against the next, +3 against a third, and so on until it ceases to function. The shield magic needs 5 hours to fully regenerate. The suit has the encumbrance of leather armor.

Master Ellorian, Imperial Master Spy

Mystara Alphatia Ar Heraldry
Ellorian (code named Doppleganger) was assigned to look into a curious political development, so far one unheard of in the empire, concerning the establishment of Palartarkan as a state-financed philosophy in the Realm of Ar. The concern was whether this tithe adversely affected imperial revenues. Satisfied that Qissling’s bookkeeping was sound and imperial interests were safe, the spy decided to investigate Arvast instead. He observed that the high priest frequently absented himself from services at Grand Temple of Ar. Unable to pry loose any more information, he attempted to fly back to Crowntrails-Upon-Land aboard the Old Alphatia, a vessel privately owned by the temple. He’d been her passenger on the way up a few days earlier, along with a score of other pilgrims. He was abruptly denied boarding for reasons that appeared very suspicious despite apologies, since there still was room on the skyship. Standing in a service gallery away from beaten paths, he subsequently watched the Old Alphatia sail west and climb high enough that he lost sight of her entirely. Clearly, she wasn’t headed toward Crowntrails. She returned a day later with different passengers, and embarked new ones for their voyage back home. This time, the spy was allowed aboard, and the vessel sailed back to Crowntrail following a normal course. After reporting his concerns to his overseer in Sundsvall by way of a magical scroll of communication, he was ordered to infiltrate the ranks of Palartarkan followers and shed more light on their activities.

Appearance: Thin and of medium height, Ellorian bears commonplace features allowing him to remain unremarkable in a crowd. He divides his brown hair in the middle and ties it tightly at the nape of his neck. His eyes are a mild medium blue with darker lapis rings around the irises. A former actor, Ellorian prides himself on being able to think on his feet and improvise as needed. He’s always on the scent of information: somewhat badger-like, his nose searches out clues to follow. He customarily wears a dark red jerkin over ivory-hued collared and cuffed shirt, along with black pants and supple leather boots. An odd tattoo rendered in bluish-black ink covers his right hand and wrist, showing the masks of tragedy and comedy with a constantly moving snake coiling through their eyes and mouths.

T25, AC1, hp73, MV 120’(40’), AT 1 sword, Dmg 1d8(+1/+6), Save T25, ML9, AL N; St13, In14, Wi12, Dx17, Co14, Ch11. Magical Items*: ring of the blood-thorn, +2 leather jerkin of stealthy pilfering, +3 torque of protection, buckle of banality, doppleganger tattoo, and scroll of communication.

Ring of the Blood-Thorn: it looks like a silver ring on which is engraved a delicate pattern of thorns. With a flick of his hand, Ellorian can turn the ring into a sword, or back into its ring shape. The blood thorn blade, when used in a thief’s backstab, requires the target to save vs. spell or drop unconscious for 1d4 hours. It draws from the victim a small amount of blood and vital energy to "charge" itself. After a successful back-stab, the weapon gains a number of magical "plus" bonuses depending on the target’s experience level (or HD). Level 1-5: +1, Level 6-10: +2, Level 11-15: +3, Level 16-20: +4, and Levels 21+: +5. Earned bonuses remain in effect for a subsequent combat encounter, after which they vanish. The blade can be used for successive backstabs, in which case it accumulates charges up to a maximum of +5. When the blade is charged, at least partially, the ring’s thorn pattern turns red.

Leather Jerkin of Stealthy Pilfering: is a light leather garment providing no natural protection, but that can be enchanted to do so. In addition, this jerkin conceals normal tools a thief would need, which can be made to appear on command. While hidden, these tools do not count against the owner’s encumbrance and cannot be detected. The jerkin can accommodate up to 100 coins in addition to the tools.

Torque of Protection: it is equivalent to a ring of protection.

Buckle of Banality: this belt buckle prevents detect magic spells from functioning when directed at the owner.

Mystara Alphatia Ar
Doppleganger Tattoo: this strange tattoo is actually alive. It is a piece of enchanted doppleganger flesh that grafts itself to a host. Each time Ellorian uses its powers, he must succeed a Wisdom check or allow a bit of his psyche to fall under the tattoo’s control. Ellorian will die if the number of failures matches his Intelligence score, allowing the tattoo to travel to the next person/creature touching the dead body (usually a thief). If the number of failures exceeds half Ellorian’s Intelligence score, the tattoo may exert some control over his actions (further Wisdom checks resolve any conflicts). So far, Ellorian has already failed five Wisdom checks. A past failure can be "erased" provided the tattoo’s powers aren’t used for at least a month. The doppleganger enchantment has an Intelligence score of 9 and a Chaotic alignment. It belongs to a doppleganger shaman somewhere in the world. Its purpose is to travel Mystara and eventually return to its master and transfer its knowledge. Several of these tattoos exist, issued as preludes to possible doppleganger incursions. The tattoo enables its bearer to adopt someone else’s identity (including body and facial appearance, voice, and smell) for as long as needed. Like a doppleganger, the bearer also learns much of what the victims knows (other than spells or class abilities). The initial emulation process does not require the victim’s death, but takes nonetheless a full Turn. While the impersonation is in effect, the victim remains in a catatonic state. A dispel magic (rated against the bearer’s experience level) cast either at the victim or at the tattoo will end both deception and paralysis. Killing the victim achieves the same result. As it is a living thing, the tattoo does not radiate magic if such is detected, but its alignment will show if the tattoo has reached the point where it can influence its bearer. The tattoo cannot graft itself to someone with an active protection from evil spell. Only a wish spell can free a bearer of this tattoo.

Scroll of Communication: this curious parchment enables its owner to shout, speak, or whisper while the scroll is held open, resulting in a written message appearing on another similar scroll. The scroll can transmit as many as a hundred words in a single message once per day, and receive one other during that period. As part of its original enchantment, it remains connected to a specific master scroll. The master scroll can transmit and receive one daily message to/from each connected scroll. Without the proper command word, the writing on the scroll appears as a romantic letter to anyone studying it. There are no chances of error or malfunction for non-wizardly classes attempting to use it. The scroll does not work between the surface world and the Hollow World. Ellorian keeps the scroll folded and hidden inside his jerkin with his tools.

Special thanks to Janet Deaver-Pack for character descriptions and editorial support.

To be Continued.