Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Ma'at, the Raven Queen

Ma'at is good and her worth is lasting.
She has not transgressed since the day of her creation,
whereas he who transgresses her ordinances is punished.
She lies a path in front even of those who know nothing.
Wrongdoing has never yet brought its venture to port.
It is true that evil may gain wealth but the strength of truth is that it lasts;
a man can say: "It was the property of my father."
-- The Book of Fayon, Canto III

Ma'at is the consort of Hades, and the first judge of the dead. When the soul of the deceased arrives at her court, she weighs it against a feather. If its misdeeds weigh it down so that it is heavier than a feather, the soul is sent to Hades. If the soul's deeds are loftier, so that it is lighter than the feather, the soul goes to the moon. It is the light of these souls that makes the moon luminous at night. Her throne is flanked by two kobolds, Andjet Green of Flame who refined the soul before it is weighed, and Xois Owner of Faces, who brings the souls to the left and to the right.

She is known as the Raven Queen due to her cloak of raven feathers. (Contrary to popular belief, the feather with which she weighs the soul of the dead is an ostrich feather). It is often said that when a person dies, if you listen closely, you can hear the flutter of ravens carrying away the soul. Naturally, ravens are also seen as a bad omen. As the judge of the dead, she is the guardian of the right order, and someone who is wise and virtuous is sometimes said to be raven-headed.

The greatest foes of Ma'at are the undead, and others who have cheated death. She is not opposed to resurrection magic for a good cause, but she delights in hunting down those who use it frivolously, particularly rulers. For this reason, most rulers shy from using resurrection magic after their death. She also despises creatures from the realm of nightmares, such as aboleths and beholders, because they do not belong to the natural order of Ardenest.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Old Faith

In the beginning was chaos and void, and the spirit of chaos moved among the waters. God came to the chaos, and raised his hand, and lo! there was order. The waters split into the waters above, and the waters below. And the spirits of chaos too were divided, according to their type; the spirits of air to the waters above and the spirits of water to the waters below.
-- The Book of Fayon, Canto I

When God created Ardenest, it was already inhabited by many chaotic spirits. Most of these agreed to serve God in the new creation. Those who didn't were cast down into the abyss. The spirits varied greatly as to how powerful they were. The most powerful spirit to join God was Bahamut, the Platinum Dragon, the Divine Wind. Barely less powerful was Hades, Guardian of the Underworld. But besides these two were many other spirits, spirits of glen, river, and hill. The least of the spirits God clad in flesh; wood spirits became elves, fire spirits became men, and earth spirits became dwarves. God gave Bahamut possession of the air above, and Hades possession of the earth below, but to the mortals he gave possession of the world.

Before the apotheosis of Fayon, the religious worshiped these spirits. For the most part, the local spirit was the most revered. While these were not generally sufficiently powerful to answer their believers' requests, there were plenty of spirits who granted spells to their followers.

Pan was a wood spirit who came to have dominion over all of the forests of Ardenest. He was particularly known for his love of wine and his flutes, and was particularly revered by druids and rangers. He is rarely followed now. In civilized areas, he is most remembered in toasts and drinking songs. However, some druids and wood elves still worship him.

Bahamut, the Astral Star, fought constantly against the demon dragon Tiamat and her schemes. Paladins and noble knights of all kinds served him, and he is still revered by holy knights to this day. The Silverflame knights of Lyonia, in particular, are dedicated to the Pearl of Wonders. 

Hades was never worshiped much, but there have always been a sufficient number of people who walk near death that his cult has never died out either. The Aurelian cult popular in Western Solaria has its roots in Hades worship, though most claim any devotion is merely symbolic. Certain heretical texts suggest Fayon owes his power to Hades, but these are dismissed by the Church as later fabrications.

The Fates: Eos, Dawnmother; Nut, Nightmother; and Shar, Duskmother were a trio of goddesses often worshiped together by healers, though Nut and Shar had less savory worshippers as well. They are worshiped much less frequently now in the open, but it is said that Shar counts assassins among her contemporaneous devotees. St. Carino was a devotee of Shar until he repented of his misdeeds and joined the church. Nut often receives the prayers of prostitutes, and they and other young women pray for her protection in the night.

Kord's origin is unknown. Some scholars suppose he was a spirit of the tundra, and it was the devotion of the orcs that gave him his present form, while others believe him to have been a Nordman who went native and achieved godhood through a ritual like that of the Valharim. He is not typically worshiped in civilized lands, but is venerated by the orcish tribes of the steppes, and his faith is not unknown among the Nords.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

The New Church

Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas
There are a number of beings that are worshipped by the denizens of Ardenest; Bahamut, the Platinum Dragon; Zeus, Lord of the Azure Sky; or Pan, First of the Woods. In fact, their worship was common in the days before the Thyranian Empire. Fayon himself was a cleric of Bahamut in his aspect as Paladine. But once he had his apotheosis, his daughter Christine made the worship of the Valharim the official religion of the Empire, and founded the New Church. It quickly schismed, and now, each nation has its own sect of the New Church. The different sects generally interact peacefully, but religious warfare is not unknown. In addition, their relation to the old faiths varies from open hostility to disdain and condescension. In the present day, nearly everyone you meet is a member of the New Church, and adherents of the old faiths tend not to advertise that fact, even in lands where they are allowed to practice their religion openly.

Most of the Church is organized geographically, with the head cleric of each nation being titled "Primate". When the national churches are getting along with each other, the primates sometimes will convene a council to discuss theological and administrative matters. After the Second Council of Selenium went astray due to a fight over precedence between the primates of Western and Eastern Solaria, the Church decided that a chair would be chosen by vote of the Council. Those clerics who have chaired a Council are titled "High Priest". Clerics serve at a temple, tending to the needs of the congregation. The most important temples are generally called cathedrals, and are headed by a bishop.

Every cleric serves the Valharim as a whole, but each is dedicated to a specific member of the Eight. With the exception of the Sage, Covellia, and Ryanna, two months out of the year are dedicated to each god, and the clerics dedicated to that god lead the weekend services. Fayon's clerics lead the services for the festivals of Sol Invictus and Heaven's Day, while the Sage's clerics lead the services on Spring Awakening and Autumn Falling. Ryanna's clerics are not attached to a church at all; they are found traveling between communities too small to have a church with dedicated clergy, or in the wild.

In addition to the churches, there are several monastic communities, especially in the south of Ardenest. These are dedicated to a specific Valharim, and are generally dedicated to serving a purpose associated with that god. For example, monasteries of Vassa are often near rocky seashores so they can rescue sailors whose ships have foundered. The abbot of prominent monasteries are often nearly as powerful as the primates, if not more so.

Friday, March 23, 2018

The Land of the Dead

South of the westerlands, across the Bay of Sunset, lies the land of the dead. It is visible from sea, and from some of the taller mountains in the land of the Gwynn such as Ober Winfrey, but all most people know about it is that if you set foot on it you will die. Sailors are occasionally shipwrecked here, but none are known to have survived. Rumors exist of brave explorers who have come seeking riches, or knowledge, or just adventure, but for the most part, these are third or fourth hand stories.

The truth is, the beach is almost perfectly safe. It is a pleasant white sandy beach looking out over the crystal clear waters of the bay, about 100 meters wide. Behind the beach is a jungle. The single odd feature of the beach is that here (and in the entirety of the land), no restful sleep is too be found. Any intelligent creature that attempts to sleep has their dreams filled with nightmares. And as they push their way into the jungle, the danger only increases.

It quickly becomes clear that the jungle is not an ordinary jungle. The colors are too vibrant, the air too alive, for that to be the case. It is filled with all kinds of vicious creatures -- venomous snakes and frogs, insane chipanzees, and rabid velociraptors. Paths lead into the jungle, but they quickly lead nowhere, or narrow until brushing up against the plant life is inevitable and deadly. Vines turn out to be strangler vines, venus fly traps increase in size until they can eat a Goliath, and trees are increasingly covered with razor sharp thorns dripping with a clear lethal poison. Sinkholes open up randomly, swallowing men whole.

It is not well known, but there is a river leading into the Land of the Dead. The few books that refer to it call it the River Styx. It flows away from the ocean, and as it leads deeper into the jungle, its waters began to turn black. They become deadly poison, and wickedly corrosive to only but the most well-spelled boat, and they are increasingly swift the closer to the Mountains of Madness that they run.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Speaking of Big Fish -- The Plane of Elemental Water

The Plane of Elemental Water is one of the four elemental planes undergirding the physical reality of Arden Est, along with the planes of fire, earth, and air. The great ocean, Terminus, contains many portals here, as do some of the larger lakes such as Lake Leriel in Lyonia. All of the known gates open into the upper layers, though there are rumors of a gate that leads to the great city of the Marids.

The uppermost layers of the plane are well-lit and pleasant. These are mainly inhabited by merpeople, nereids, and other water spirits. It is perfectly hospitable here as long as you can breathe water, and bubbles containing the retreats of various archmages are not unknown. Poseidon still has influence here, though it is not directly a part of his domain, and Vassa can sometimes be found sailing on the surface, or leading forays against Sahaugin undersea.

As you go deeper, however, it eventually begins to grow darker, casting the surrouding area into a sort of twilight. As the pressure begins to become uncomfortable, the Marid hold sway, ruling from the City of Glass, Dumat Al-Jandal. They do not suffer many outsiders to travel through their waters, but they are said to be a proud people and susceptible to flattery.

Beneath the realm of the Marid, the light ceases to illuminate, and the pressure becomes crushing. Strange creatures inhabit these depths. Schools of undead dolphins swimming upside down patrol these waters, and demon hunting parties searching for shipwreck elementals are a common sight. Shipwreck elementals are formed from the souls of drowned sailors, and appear to be a common water elemental but for the pieces of wrecked ship swimming in their body, swirling around drops of blood.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Session 51: The Big Fish

I swear on my ancestors, these bastards are going to get me fucking killed. Crawling around these damned fungus-infested caves, it’s been -days- since I’ve seen the sun and smelled fresh air. And for what? Taking a stick from a big smelly fish monster.

After slaughtering the “baby” fish, we decided to descend into the deeps to go after Big Daddy. The mage waggled his fingers and spoke his gibberish for ten minutes and then, in his creepy monotone way, announced we could now breathe water. I couldn’t tell that anything was different so I was naturally skeptical. Who wouldn’t be? I’ve known the bard for months and I trust him as far as I can throw him (more on that later) but I’ve only known the mage and his warrior friend for about a fortnight. So I let the others jump in first and waited to see if they drowned. No such luck. So reluctantly, I jumped in after them. Now, by my ancestors, if you’ve never had the pleasure of being under the effects of a water breathing spell, I have to tell you that taking that first breath of murky, disgusting water is godsdamned  hard. You have to convince yourself that drowning sounds like kind of a good idea. I almost passed out before I managed to will myself to take a breath. But eventually I got the hang of it.

Swimming down into the depths, the bard’s driftglobe providing an eerie, cloudy pall over everything. I readied my bow, little good it would do. Have you ever tried firing a bow under water? About as impotent as a eunuch in a brothel. We descended into what looked to be some sort of dilapidated temple. The symbolism seemed to show Tiamat in several aspects. There was the normal Bitch Queen of evil dragons but there was also symbolism of a more primordial aspect that seemed to involve dark, watery chaos at the center of the cosmos eating away at reality, balance, and order. Given our current surroundings, I found the second aspect considerably more disturbing.

I was swimming along when the bard reached a hand out to grab my shoulder. Distracted by temple murals and frescoes, I was so startled, I almost shot the bugger. The bard gestured toward the far end of the temple nave where there was a tunnel leading further in. In front of the tunnel opening were what appeared to be some sort of giant crustaceans. There was one giant, mean looking one and two only slightly less giant, possibly meaner looking ones. I wasn’t looking forward to engaging these monsters but I didn’t see much choice so I drew back my bow and took aim. But the warrior, in a soldierly halting gesture, implored me to wait. He then withdrew a deck of cards from some pocket in his armor. I thought to myself, He wants to parley lobsters over a game of euchre? He’s fucking mad! But then he drew a card and tossed it towards the lobsters. When the card flew through the water, despite the resistance, it dawned on me that the cards must be magical. Sure enough, the card detonated into an illusion of an archmage and his apprentice. The crustaceans, falling for the illusion, immediately began to tread toward the two phantom mages. I nocked my arrow again, ready to press the advantage of an ambush but the warrior halted me once again. He gestured and the illusory images began to swim back to the far end of the temple, with the lobsters following close behind. I tried to protest, knowing the creatures would likely ambush us from behind once the illusion was dispelled but the fools were too daft to understand me underwater and swam forward toward the tunnel. What could I do but follow?

We swam into a natural cave festooned with algae and seaweed. And a big fucking aboleth. The abomination spoke to us directly in our minds, demanding to know why we were here. It didn’t bother to wait for an answer before trying to bind us to its hellish will. Luckily, we were able to resist. Then the bard got that stupid smirk on his face. I don’t know what thoughts that fool projected to the aboleth but, I shit you not, that fish monstrosity actually started laughing in my mind. The bard laughed too, or gurgled I guess, obviously pleased with himself. The warrior waded forward, drawing his net and halberd, and attacked the creature. At the same time, I felt a tingle rush up my spine as a lightning bolt surged through the water and struck the aboleth. The laughing stopped and I knew we were in trouble. That fish slapped the warrior with its tail so hard I thought his eyes were going to pop out but he shook it off. He’s a stalwart one, I’ll give him that.

I nocked an arrow as the bard gurgled a spell and pointed at me. The arrowhead began to glow and bubble in the water. I took aim and loosed but the damn water resistance ruined my shot and the arrow tumbled down to the sea bed. I quickly took aim with another and struck true that time. The aboleth swam near the bard and me, and then I noticed the bard’s expression become blank and his pupils dilated. And that’s when things started to get interesting. The warrior closed on the fish, earning another tail slap in the process, and attacked again. The aboleth retaliated with its tentacles. The bard uttered another spell and gestured toward the warrior. To my horror, I watched as the warrior’s breastplate began to glow with the same reddish light as my arrowhead a moment ago. BY MY ANCESTORS, I KNEW I COULDN’T TRUST THAT GODSDAMNED BARD! Seeing he was bewitched, the wizard attempted to dispel the effect but his spell must have fizzled because next thing I know, the wizard’s body lurched and convulsed, changing form until he was godsdamned chicken. Meanwhile, the warrior, cooking in his own armor, was left at the mercy of the fish beast’s tentacles and tail. He put up a valiant fight against the creature but soon succumbed to his injuries, falling unconscious in the water. The warrior and the mage both dispatched, the bard and the aboleth both turned their sights on me. I loosed a couple quick arrows, one striking home, before the fish was upon me, berating me with its damned tentacles. The creature’s mucus surrounded me, choking my lungs and making me gag. Oddly enough, I briefly found this indescribably hilarious and then quickly realized the bard was working his magic on me. Steeling my nerves as I drew my sword, I was able to block out the spell. Battered and burned from the spells and attacks, I knew the aboleth couldn’t take much more. Dodging another tentacle, I managed to drive my sword up under its jaw and stab at the creature’s brain. The tentacles twitched and then grew still as the abomination died on my blade and I breathed a sigh of relief.

Extracting my sword, I looked defensively toward the bard. He blinked a few times and then looked about, confused. I could already tell, that oaf didn’t remember a fucking bit of what he had done. The wizard was restored to his true form and the warrior rescued from death’s door.

Searching the grotto, we found a treasure trove but, strangely, the rod wasn’t among the pieces. The warrior then spotted its gleaming white tip glinting against the aboleth’s dark, scaly underbelly. The creature had hidden it in a pouch in it is hide. Collecting our prize, we prepared to exit the caverns, not looking forward at all to fighting our way back through all the fish people, other fish people, driders, lobsters, and every other bastard you could think of. To our amazement, we found the caverns deserted. With the aboleth dead, its psionic hold over the slave community in the caverns was broken and, tasting freedom perhaps for the first time, they all fled at first opportunity. We quickly traversed the caverns, picking up the liberated slaves we housed in the warrior’s magical fortress along the way, and made our way back to Darkshelf. And I’ve been retching that foul mucus the entire time. I don’t think I’ll ever get the taste of rancid fucking fish out of my mouth for as long as I live.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Session 50: The Little Fish

What does it mean to be a good person? This is the question that has plagued our group recently. Taking the lives of Skum may seem unimportant to some but religious adherents need to question the taking of lives without at least trying another route. The answer was presented to us by the action of the Skum. Sulking around the Underdark, we stumbled on a group of Skum and their slave captives, a group of humans and bugbears. We dispatched the female Skum and freed the slaves. To our surprise the bugbears ate the fish-men without any hesitation. We had to continue on our quest but were reluctant to leave the humans with the bugbears. After much consideration we sent the bugbears on their way and housed the humans in the portable castle.

As we pushed on we were on our guard for an ambush. Walking through a tunnel we were led to a room full of water by our one part of the Rod of Seven Parts.  We assumed that what we were seeking was under the water but before we could decide on a course of action we were set upon by multiple assailants and attacked with magical lightning. Goblin cast a spell of water walking so we could defend ourselves from the attackers. Gallagher approached one of the assailants and discovered that they were an illusion. This furthered our suspicions  that we were up against an aboleth. Goblin had never seen an abolish before and even with Volodomir's description he was unprepared for the beast that came out of the water. Goblin prayed for the destruction of the beast and unleashed an attack of mighty fury, only to find that we were once again deceived by an illusion! Nith was able to discern the outline of the actual aboleth and used his magic to force the beast out of the water. Trapped and near death the creature begged for its life. The aboleth told of us that his father had the piece of the Rod that we were in search of. He only asked that we allow him to live in peace in return.

Once again we were confronted with the subject of good versus evil. Do we let the younger aboleth live only to possibly fight him again or do we destroy the vile creature and continue after the greater threat, his father? Our path and resolve were clear: we gave our word to allow the young aboleth to go free. Let us hope that this was the correct decision and that we will be victorious in what we hope will be the final battle to recover another section of the Rod.