Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Alphatian Province of Ambur

This small kingdom at the northeastern tip of the Alphatian Empire has been variously described as a quiet, underdeveloped, fog-shrouded realm engrossed in its passion for theaters and stargazing. There is far more to the story to explain the success of Ambur. This picturesque image, however, serves to veil a most peculiar and sinister secret.

Mystara Alphatia Ambur Hex Map
Kingdom of Ambur -- Map Scale: 8 Miles per Hex
There was a time when this land and much of what is now mainland Alphatia belonged to ancient and primitive tribes of eastern Neathar folk, known as the Yan. They became strongest in the north after the Alphatian Landfall, two millennia ago. During the following centuries, when Air Wizards pushed from the south, Yani tribes were forced to cohabit with the Fey, mystical forestfolk who’d claimed vast boreal woodlands. Those of mixed Yan and Fey stock, known as the Yanifey, eventually supplanted the old Yan folk.

With their ancestral hold upon the cold, misty woods increasingly challenged, pureblood Fey yearned for greater magic with which to keep the Alphatian invaders at bay. At the Fey’s bidding, the Ogam, a swarthy people hailing from unknown shores, responded to the call and, for a time, stalemated the Alphatian onslaught. But as the fight lingered, these dark mages engendered a mysterious calamity. It withered woods in the northwest, impoverished the soil, and invited a harsher climate. As a result of the magical mishap, the Fey vanished overnight and surviving Ogam retreated into the northern Kerothar Mountains, leaving the dumbfounded and distressed Yanifey to hold the plains.

Under a new impetus spearheaded by the visionary wizard Jarastharram, Alphatians poured northward. A few eastern Yanifey escaped to the weather-beaten shores of the so-called Yannivey Chain and were forgotten. Ever so adaptable, the remainder joined the conquering Alphatians. In defiance to their allegiance to Sundsvall, followers of Jarastharram founded the Kingdom of Argonath, stretching from today’s Frisland to Ambur. In time, it succumbed to local wars, internal strife, and sea raids from Qeodhar.

Imperial forces struck down the tattered dregs of Argonath, and split its territory into three realms: Frisland, Ar, and Ambur. These were little more than royal domains surrounded by city states, military outposts, and petty agrarian oligarchies centered around Alphatian families—or Houses. Their loyalties shifted as often as the prevailing weather. Larger domains gobbled up smaller ones, until they settled their borders as legitimate dominions of the three northern kingdoms that we know today.

Mystara Alphatia Ambur Heraldry
Ambur Today: The realm largely turned inward. The land was poor to begin with, and struggled to emerge from centuries of conflict. The northeastern realm bore a reputation as a cold, dreary backwater. Theater became one of the few sources of entertainment for both the mighty and the meek. While this art form grew in popularity with the addition of magic to enhance performances, a mage became curious about the local glassmaking tradition. In particular, she observed the skills of master crafters to produce near-perfect crystal objects—spheres, cubes, tear drops, prisms, disks, and occasionally skulls of various sorts. She identified the ancient technique as one dating back to the time of the Yanifey. Isolated shamans of a somewhat swarthy complexion said these objects enabled them to contact the world of spirits. Intrigued, the mage—one Lady Alathazam—dug deeper. Although failing to uncover evidence about the spirit world, she earned an uncanny understanding of optics as applied to the arcane. Sought after by many a younger wizard eager to learn her technique, she opened several schools across the realm. The savvy Amburian monarchy intervened to regulate these learning centers and make sure their knowledge stayed within the realm’s borders. After Lady Alathazam’s death, these schools became private competing establishments, and financially successful. To reward itself for its shrewd foresight, the monarchy imposed hefty taxes upon the schools and their students, sparking unrest among academic circles, known as the Ocularian Riots. It was quickly put down after the monarchy agreed to yearly research grants, scholarships, and royal support for the expansion of the school system within the realm.

As a result of heavy controls over the source of Ambur’s special knowledge, students were obligated to reside permanently in Ambur and submit to geas and other magically-induced oaths in exchange for access. Optical mastery established Ambur as the leading source of telescopes and other magical viewing devices in Alphatia. In time, this specialty attracted many mages from southern realms, along with their extended families and their retinues. With the increased presence of wealthy aristocrats, farming was developed to sustain their extravagant lifestyles. Seasonal enchantments, now a legal obligation for land-owners, helped alleviate climatic limitations, leading Ambur to grow from predominant wilderness to an emergent borderland dotted with farmsteads and urban centers.

Ambur boasts more than 470,000 residents over an area of 11,369 sq. miles (29.446 Km2), yielding a population density of 41 inhabitants per sq. mile (16 inh. per Km2). The kingdom exports farming products such as root vegetables, sheep, and goats, as well as some fishing. More than 18% of the population lives in urban areas, in addition to slightly more than 1% serving in the military. Amburian armed forces count 5,000 troops, including 11 seagoing vessels, three skyships, and two submersibles. Airborne ships are known as Her Watchful Majesty’s Ships Eye in the Sky, Wargaze, and Immortal Focus. The submersibles are the HWMS Sea Vision and Marine Ocularium. Diplomatic relationships with the Kingdom of Ar have remained reasonably good, except for the Twin Peaks Campaign largely seen among Amburians as the theft of a rightfully-claimed dominion by their western neighbor. As a result of this conflict, contacts between Ambur and Foresthome are polite but generally cool and reserved. The stargazing realm has otherwise no direct enemies.  Contact with Frisland has been sporadic despite regular merchant trade along the Argonath Road.  Suspicion marred Ambur's view of Frisland as the result of tales surrounding the disappearance of visiting traders.  These may be exaggerated accounts of highway robberies, but one cannot be too sure.

Ambur’s royal domain centers around the City of Starpoint. The other five dominions making up the rest of the realm are counties owing fealty to Queen Elshethara. The royal capital is the starting point of the old Argonath Road. Since the demise of the earlier kingdom, the road was repaired and paved, running 500 miles to the City of Shiell in Frisland (800 Km). Nearly half of Ambur’s army and a great deal of its fleet guard Starpoint, a fortified city overlooking the southern end of the strategically invaluable Ambur River. Much of the port remains within the defensive enclosure, with two large towers protecting the entrance. The river is the only outlet to the sea from Crystal Lake. All merchant traffic in and out of the region channels through its ninety mile length (145 Km), and must stop at Starpoint. Although deep, wide, and generally calm, the river can prove a challenge to navigation during the spring thaw. Swollen with melting snow, its muddy waters generate a strong northward current carrying large chunks of ice. During the winter, the river’s surface is mostly frozen, enabling foot traffic to cross at several points.

Mystara Alphatia Ambur Hex Map
Domain of Skyguard (Royal Domain) -- Map Scale: 8 Miles per Hex

Lands beyond the eastern bank bulge several hundred feet high, preventing the river from cutting a shorter path to the sea, just south of the Great Observatory Peak. There has been talk at the Royal Palace about building a sheltered canal to enable year-round navigation eastward from Starpoint—at least for military purposes. Propositions have been made to fortify such a canal, which would make it relevant as a defensive position as well. Arguments about its financing have so far kept the project from getting underway. Yet, the vision of Wraith Prime floating 9,000’ up in the sky, no more than 24 miles southeast of Starpoint, offers a stark reminder of the need for caution when military matters are concerned. One can never be quite sure of the whims of kings and history. And so, the debate goes on.

The Theaters: Starpoint is best known for its theaters, ranging from shoddy salacious cabaret to the glorious Royal Opera. Many rely on the skills of illusionists, some of the best hailing from Wyvern Prime, to enhance their spectacles. The most illustrious establishments master the art of balancing true talent with magic, the latter merely to enhance the former. Cheaper shows invariably replace talent with magical fakery. No self-respecting aristocrat would want to be caught dead in such sordid places. True theater and opera rely on the adaptation of literary masterpieces, brilliant acting, fabulous choreography, heart-rending musical performances, and divine singing—with magic coming last. In this respect Ambur holds its place with distinction when compared with Haven’s virtuosity. Among Amburian intelligentsia, everyone is an expert, a critic, an ardent supporter of fabulous writers or divas, as well as their financial backer. Her Watchful Majesty—dubbed the Drama Queen—spent her youth as a memorable tragedian before inheriting the throne from her father, King Elshetharam. As a side note, her skills in the performing arts prove invaluable on the political scene, not so much within Ambur since everyone of noteworthy standing at the very least dabbles in acting, but when negotiations with foreign dignitaries are concerned. No one in Alphatia can tell what Amburians really think, unless the latter want to share. Diplomats are masters at timing and staging their negotiations, using wit, theatrical flair, and insightful psychology to put their counterparts at a disadvantage. Amburian council members in Sundsvall and high-placed lawyers are most popular, not so much for what they advocate, but for the manner in which they do it.

Astromancy: The other aspect of Starpoint lies with quite another specialty. The capital city harbors one of the famous schools founded by the legendary Lady Alathazam. Its area of expertise is astromancy. The illustrious founder built her technique from two specific approaches, which is true with all of her Amburian schools. One concerns the proper use of optics, high-quality crystals, and shaped mirrors. The other relies on enchantments to manipulate light in order to produce a desired effect. Starpoint’s School of Astromancy specializes in the analysis of images carried by light. The concept is that an image one sees through a telescope is merely a reflection of the source carried by light through space. Given the speed of light and sufficient distance, one actually gazes at a version of the source that may be millennia old. The nature of astromantic enchantments consists in observing various points along a stream of light, yielding different views of the source, effectively traveling forward or backward in time. Astromancy enables its masters to build viewing devices that can perceive imagery beyond the present reflection. However, astromancers can never look into the future.

Mystara Alphatia Ambur Heraldry
For example: the smallest astromantic telescope has extremely precise adjustments that allow a trained viewer to watch something or someone at least a mile away but no more than 360, slowly backing up in time to the instant the target is no longer in sight. Astromancers are historians and sometimes crime investigators. By simply positioning a telescope to observe light refracting from a particular site, they can refocus their devices to see what happened there. Because of the distances involved and the difficulty of properly aiming a device, a locate subject spell is sometimes needed. For this first-level spell to function, the subject must be known by the viewer, or discovered through a seventh-level magic-user lore spell.

Scales and Scopes: Devices are built with a specific scale of operation—miles, hundreds of miles, thousands of miles, up to billions of miles. The scale determines how far back in time one is able to go. Instrument scale might require observation from great distances, including from beyond Mystara’s skyshield. The latter explains the singular interest of Amburian stargazers in Ar’s secret Alphania Quest (see Heaven’s Crown District). The enchantment of a telescope calibrated for miles can only go back up to a day per mile, up to a year. Larger viewing devices can go much farther forward or backward in time, as shown below:

Scale (in Miles)
Cost (in gp)
1 day/mile
1 year/100 miles
1 century/10,000 miles
A million to a billion
1 millennium/million miles
A billion and beyond
1 eon per full light-year*

(*) Maximum range is 15 billion light-years.

The size and weight of these viewing devices increase drastically with their scales and scopes. The smaller device weighs about 10lbs and is about a foot long, with a series of smaller sights, mobile reticles and colored lenses, one or more convex mirrors, knobs, trombone-like controls, and a collapsible tripod. With each subsequent category, weight increases as follows: 500lbs, 3,000lbs, 10,000lbs, and 30,000lbs. Length increases threefold to 3’, 9’, 30’, and 90’. The three largest telescopes must be mounted on a permanent supporting frame.

Unsolved Issues: Although Amburians became masters of stargazing and telescope technology, they have failed to truly fathom the deepest nature of their enchantments. It so happens that Lady Alathazam had “borrowed” certain shamanistic rituals as the basis for her magical methods, now the core of Amburian teachings. These fundamentals came from writings etched underneath some of the crystal objects she’d uncovered. The archeological artifacts had been kept at Starpoint’s Royal Gallery, but over time were misplaced or stolen. It was never realized that they weren’t remotely Yanifey, but rather of ancient Ogam origins. Whether this has had any tangible impact on Ambur’s brand of wizardry or its illustrious alumni remains to be proven. So far, a few unexplained incidents have occurred. It isn’t uncommon for fleeting visions to manifest themselves during long hours of telescope usage, appearing at the limit of one’s peripheral vision and vanishing as soon as one attempts to look its way. As a result, no one quite knows what the visions are—only that they are odd and leave strange ominous feelings that can linger for days. The phenomena have been reported variously as the result of subconscious stress, eye strain, questionable eating habits, bad theater influence, cheap ale, optical illusions, accidental reflections in the lenses, lack of sleep, or the abuse of snorting under-torrefecated juju leaves. One observer reported creatures of cosmic proportions cavorting within his telescope’s sight—but the poor fellow was proven quite mad. Oddly, no magic could restore his mind, and he was entrusted to mystics caring for the hopelessly deranged. Some decades later, another alumnus made a similar claim, but when they sought him, school academicians discovered only that his telescope had been activated and a cup of tea sat on a table next to his chair, still steaming. No other trace of the astromancer was ever found, despite the use of lore and contact outer plane spells.

Her Watchful Majesty Queen Elshethara

Mystara Alphatia Ambur Heraldry
The monarch spent her youth honing her acting skills and developing her love of fine literature, with very little time devoted to politics and administration. Her older brother Tharramden was the one slated to inherit the throne. A trained battlemage and astromancy alumnus, he was prepared for the succession, but fate decided otherwise. The heir apparent had left Ambur with a group of eminent wizards in search of a crystal artifact missing from the Royal Gallery. His investigation took him into Frisland. He was never heard from again. In grief, his father abdicated, leaving Elshethara in power. Although the Drama Queen, after her trademark fit of temper, proved a quick learner, she would have rather left ruling responsibilities to her older brother. She ordered royal spies to look for any clue regarding his whereabouts. The queen didn’t trust the Frisland monarchy to be of help—she suspected instead they might have something to do with Tharramden’s disappearance. Over time, the spies identified the ill-fated expedition’s last camping site near the Kerothar Mountains, and unveiled signs of foul play. A fight had taken place there, possibly resulting in the prince’s abduction. . . or his death. No bodies were found.

Without any other indication of who was behind the attack, the queen decided to take matters into her own hands. She consulted the royal magist, an accomplished astromancer himself, and requested he shed light on the attack. Several days later, Master Erzebor confirmed to the queen that her brother had been attacked by people unknown. At least, they did not look like Frisland troops but more like wild mountain men. Unable to ascertain the prince’s fate, Erzebor appeared visibly shaken and asked to retire. He became ill soon thereafter, and was taken from the palace to his personal residence in Starpoint to recover. The queen immediately ordered her spies to return to Frisland and search the Kerothar Mountains. None ever returned. Elshethara began looking instead for a group of mercenaries unconnected with either the Amburian or Frisland aristocracy, with the skills needed to survive a foray into the Kerothar Mountains. Meanwhile, she ordered her remaining spies to quietly re-examine circumstances surrounding the artifact’s disappearance from the Royal Gallery, and determine who might be involved.

Appearance & Personality: Queen Elshethara is a tall curvy woman with a strong stage presence. People, especially men, always look at her when she sweeps into a room. She never just walks: Elshethara processes, glides, or swoops. Her gestures are always wide and graceful. The queen has lovely features framed by long fine platinum-colored hair, and she understands their impact on others when she is insisting on her way. She is also quite narcissistic. Any situation becomes an opportunity to milk it for all the drama it can provide; she also enjoys pitting people against one another to glean additional information from their disconcerts. Her brother had worn a mystical amulet of carved green jade, the same hue as his eyes. Elshethara is therefore fascinated by finely wrought jade, and collects it whenever the opportunity presents itself. She wears a silver-embossed dagger sheath on her belt.

Elshethara: MU24, AC2, hp 47, MV 120’(40’), AT 1 dagger, Dmg by spell or special, Save MU24, ML8, AL N; St10, In17, Wi11, Dx16, Co 13, Ch15(17). Magical Items: periapt of clear memory, robe of glamour, dagger of deathly fakery, and cloak of dramatic entrance (or exit).

Periapt of Clear Memory: this pearl necklace enables Elshethara to recall all that she reads or sees without error. Any visual detail can be clearly remembered if needed. At the neck of a wizard, it enables the memorization of one extra spell per level.

Robe of Glamour: this garment’s appearance changes every Turn, switching at random between any other formal outfit the queen owns (regardless of who actually wears the magical garment). The robe provides a +2 bonus to Charisma (up to 18) and a basic AC of 4.

Dagger of Deathly Fakery: this magical weapon’s blade is fake, harmlessly withdrawing into the handle when pressed against someone. If used against oneself, it enables the owner to appear dead for up to an hour—complete with an illusory bleeding stab wound. When used against someone else, the weapon only requires a successful hit against AC9, in which case the victim must save vs. spell or become paralyzed for an hour. In all cases, the weapon forces victims (or the owner) to act out over-the-top theatrical deaths as they collapse to the ground.

Cloak of Dramatic Entrance (or Exit): about floor-length and fitted with a tall collar and a pectoral chain, the cloak produces bursts of light and smoke accompanied with dramatic music and choir (or whatever artifice required for a theatrical scene) when activated. It enables the owner to dimension door either to make a memorable appearing or disappearing act.

Master Erzebor, Royal Magist

Mystara Alphatia Ambur Heraldry
This old man is an eminent graduate from Starpoint’s School of Astromancy. His distinguished career gained him employment at the royal palace. In his long hours behind telescopes of all sizes, he’d experienced first hand the sort of strange visions reported by others. Unable to explain them, he dismissed the visitations as resulting from fatigue and eye strain. In truth, he came to fear them. Yet, he never admitted to the visions, like many others in his trade, to avoid being thought of as an old fool and lose his lucrative employment at the palace. All was for the best in the best of realms, until Queen Elshethara summoned him to shed light on her brother’s disappearance.

Master Erzebor dutifully took his telescope aboard the royal flagship, the HWMS Eye in the Sky. The vessel flew to a high altitude and approached Frisland's border. From there, the magist correctly aimed the device at the crime scene. Looking back in time, he observed a night attack. Under a gleam of starlight, he witnessed a confused melee, with wizardly spells flashing ominously and eerie glowing shields blocking them. Erzebor was able to focus on the attackers’ leader, a wild man with a headdress bearing the flat, twisted horns of a goat. The individual stopped for a moment, slowly turned to look up and gaze into Erzebor’s eyes, a wicked grin on his lips. The old man was so shaken, he backed away from the telescope and refused to resume the observation. Although he reported his findings to Queen Elshethara upon his return, he was soon thereafter taken ill, wracked with nightmares and fevers.

In the weeks following his strange encounter, Erzebor seemed to come to terms with the vision. In truth, he became secretly obsessed with it. As he resumed stargazing, he felt a new peace and a higher state of mind allowing him a better understanding of cosmic reality. Eager to learn more despite his failing health and the dreams disturbing his sleep, he sought the mysterious astromantic visions. He experimented with telescope settings to yield more of them, and above all, the enhanced awareness that seemed to dawn naturally within his mind. It beckoned him to search deeper. It told him where to look, and perhaps what else to do.

Appearance & Personality: Erzebor is of small stature, and has very wrinkled skin. He peers through faded blue eyes, with his head thrust forward from a scrawny neck at anything that interests him. His gray eyebrows look like they might take off by themselves, and are too heavy for his oval face. Mist-colored hair, bushy and cotton-like, covers the back of his head. This astronomer’s voice is high and on the edge of squeaky, both precise and pedantic. Since he is fairly short, he takes more steps than others do to get anywhere, which often makes him look like a quickly-trotting cat. Erzebor smokes a lot when puzzled. He carries a small bag of tobacco with him at all times, and a case that protects his precious pipe. He also wears on his belt a tooled leather case for a set of ocularia. Erzebor is always impatient to get to his telescopes, therefore he can be short with people. Occasionally he likes to wax eloquent with other magists over a small glass of port about viewing devices in his possession. If someone presses him for what he knows of stargazing visions, the astronomer purses his mouth, whirls, and walks quickly away.

Master Erzebor: MU11, AC6, hp 20, MV 90’(30’), AT one spell, Dmg by spell, Save MU11+2, ML6, AL C; St9, In17, Wi10, Dx13, Co 11, Ch12. Magical Items: pipe of arcane meditation, amulet of protection from crystal balls and ESP, ring of protection +2, and stargazer’s ocularia.

Pipe of Arcane Meditation: with the finest tobacco, this magical device confers a smoker a temporary +1 increase in Intelligence (up to 18 and for an hour), providing an Intelligence check to answer a puzzling question when none would otherwise be allowed. The question and its answer each must be thought through in no more than a dozen words. Once an Intelligence check succeeds, no more than one question can ever concern the same topic. The trouble with this item is that it enhances the smoker’s subconscious perception, conferring by the same token a –4 penalty to any saving throws against mind-affecting powers until after the next resting period. Duration of mind-controlling effects are also doubled whenever possible. Any character class may use this smoking pipe. It has a long swooping stem with a small carved bowl, and is made from ivory. Carvings detail miniature astronomers with their telescopes.

Stargazer’s Ocularia: when looking through a telescope, these magical glasses automatically project against the owner’s retina the names of stars and other celestial bodies, as long as they were first recorded in an Astronomer’s Codex. When using this device, the owner must speak the title of the volume which the ocularia can search to identify cosmic features. The device keeps searching the same book until told to switch to another. The written record must either lie within 180’ of the owner or within the confines of Starpoint’s Royal Astronomy Repository (however remote it may be at the time). If the phrase “identify source” is spoken, the ocularia indicate which book they are set to search (title and author) and whether it is a local source or one at the Royal Astronomy Repository. These ocularia are presently set to access information recorded in Master Erzebor’s “De Rebus Exterioribus” in which he described visions that occurred during his experiments and their sidereal coordinates. This volume is hidden within his telescope’s supporting frame. These ocularia do not function in the Hollow World, outside Mystara’s Skyshield, or in the outer planes.

To be continued. . .

Special thanks to Geoff Gander for his gracious permission to use his intriguing Ogam-Orzafeth history and background. No doubt more of it will be forthcoming. Thanks to Janet Deaver-Pack for character appearances and her editorial contributions.