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Sunday, 25 April 2010

When we crossed the sea of stars

You Dragon Warriors enthusiasts have sat quietly while we worked our way through all that Abraxas stuff, so you must be wondering when we’d get back to the Ophis campaign material. Extensive as the concept art and background for Abraxas is, it’s a drop in the ocean compared to Ophis, which was fully-fleshed out and even playtested (using RuneQuest rules) by me and Oliver and would easily make a whopping great 300-page hardback. And maybe, one day…

In the meantime, here’s another amuse-bouche. A couple of years back, while preparing his eye-poppingly brilliant book Shadowline, original Ophis artist Iain McCaig got in touch about showcasing some of the work there. These are the notes I sent him:

First the name. The world is defined by the Ophis River, miles wide at its mouth, that snakes right back into the interior through marsh, jungle, mountains and finally the high desert where the Ancients live. The first and largest of the Invader city-states, Deliverance, is on the south side of the delta at the river mouth, facing the ruins of an Ancient city which has become the necropolis of the Invaders. The Ophis is the thread that both divides and connects the Invaders and Ancients. Hence that is the name of our project: Ophis. The title Invaders & Ancients refers to the first campaign book.

We already said a little bit about the habdigar slave-race on whose backs the civilization of the Ancient Race was built. Habdigar natural society is organized around alpha males. The Ancients partially castrate habdigars in infancy to prevent the emergence of alpha males, who would be hard to control. The disposition of habdigar beta males is to attach themselves to some authority. In the absence of the natural leaders of their own species, they associate that authority with the venerable houses of the Ancients. If we lived among habdigar, we might admire this trait and have expressions such as "loyal as a habdigar". But the Ancients are too decadent to venerate a quality like loyalty.

The habdigar are given names that describe their function. Third Cupbearer of the House of Vodallion. Lord Yeshtar's Cloak-Train Holder. etc. Think of the servants in Gosford Park, then turn that up to eleven.

Habdigar are not allowed writing, but they are allowed to sing. In song, they record their history. As they are long-lived, an old habdigar of Sardonyx might remember a song sung to him by his own grandfather of the coming of the Invaders - even though that was over four hundred years ago. A huge ship - an "ark" or “incunabula”, the songs call it - was swept up on the shore near the mouth of the Ophis. It was many stories high, and said to be crewed by children, though it is not clear whether that is literally true, or simply the way that a habdigar, long-lived and brought up to be part of the traditions of the Ancients, would view these brash newcomers.

What our elderly habdigar probably wouldn't know is that the Invaders have stories of their own that describe how they came to this land. On the journey there were adults. Some stories say the journey ("the Crossing") took many generations, and by the time it ended all the adults were dead. The oldest children, like Merendaum in this story, were the ones destined to become the new colony's leaders. Incidentally, in Sovereign myth ("Sovereign" being the Invaders' own name for themselves) the Crossing was over a sea of stars. Make of that what you will for now, as the secret is not to be unveiled in the first book. However, this excerpt from our novel The Land Below the Sunset may inspire some theories of your own:

"Each of the Founders had his sacred treasure. In all other cases these were artifacts they had possessed in the Aforetime, but not so Astralis... Ah, but you must have heard the priests at the Chapel speak of this many times."

"No, they told plenty of stories about the founding of Deliverance, Merendaum's battles against the Ancients. Nothing that took place before the Crossing."

"Before the Crossing?" Chendu chuckled. "It would be a rash man or the greatest of sages who would speculate on those times. No, this occurred during the Crossing. Astralis was only the apprentice to Merendaum's original navigator - did you not know that? His master died on the voyage and, with an infinity of sea and stars surrounding the fleet, it was left to Astralis to scry out the route to dry land."

Hearing the tale, Kethar felt once more like a child, huddled by the warm grate letting the fire paint imaginary pictures against the darkness. He could almost see Astralis, standing proud and tall on the deck of Merendaum's flagship. Previously when listening to the old myths he had always envisaged him with a face like Propriano's father. Now it was with Propriano's own youthfully earnest features.

"And then they made him one of the Nine Founders?"

"No. He was still an apprentice. Many argued that the responsibility of chief navigator was too much for one so young. They said that the fleet had lost its way, that another among them should be given the task. They said that Astralis did not enjoy the favor of the gods.

"For a long time it seemed they must be right. Supplies aboard the ships dwindled. Day by day it grew colder, and the stars wheeled overhead in unfamiliar patterns, and still they had no sight of land."

"Ah, but then the Celestial Beacon - "

"Patience, that was much later. There was no sign of any kind to guide them. They wandered on the grey swell, lost, frightened, abandoned by the gods. A storm sent rails of rain to pelt the decks. Others had advice to offer Merendaum, but only Astralis knew what must be done. You may have heard that, to this day, when storms carry a ship out of sight of land, the sailors will sacrifice an animal to propitiate the spirits of the sea. It's a practice that has its origins in older, wilder times. Then, more often than not, the sacrifice was human. From birth Astralis had been steeped in sea-lore; he understood his duty. And so he stood without sleep or shelter for three days and nights until his waking moments had become blurred with dream, then he cast himself into the sea and was borne away on the waves.

"The fleet fared on for three days more, and then they came to a great pinnacle of ice jutting from the sea. It was like an island of glass, so vast that in its bays there was safe harbor for all the fleet. While they waited there for the storm to blow itself out, Merendaum sent his men to explore the island. Skidding from ledge to ledge, they found a cliff inside which the sunlight marked a human figure. They hacked away the ice; the man dropped in their midst. He was clad in marvelous war-gear but his skin was lavender and chill. They bore him back to the flagship and warmed him by the stove, and the sheath of ice cracked and fell away from the features of their young comrade Astralis."

"I've never heard this tale," breathed Kethar in awe.

"It is part of the Church's clandestine lore, not usually revealed to outsiders. But I am widely read."

"The caparison of war he was wearing when they found him - ?"

"The priests declared them artifacts of the gods. Astralis resumed his post as navigator and none now questioned him. When he had steered the fleet to anchorage at the mouth of the Ophis, Merendaum acknowledged him as the ninth of his champions."
Our habdigar holds a bundle that he says he has stolen from his former masters in their grand house in Sardonyx. He may have seen a habdigar who stole food from the kitchens and was flayed alive for it. And he remembers an Invader who came to Sardonyx, pretending to trade, and stole a jeweled sword. For that outrage, the Ancients had his limbs removed, the wounds cauterized. They drove him mad with drugs and had him tied to a pole in the midst of the poppy fields, so that he could live out his days as a living scarecrow, screaming into the wind.

Our habdigar says, "They will not do that to me. They will not look for me when I am gone, nor send out agents to punish me. This treasure is one they do not value - the most precious thing in their household, and yet they care less for it than one grain of gold, or the tiniest ruby. For they are monsters, truly, these creatures called Man."

And then he shows us the bundle of "treasure": the glimpse of a baby's face in the folds of the blanket he's holding.

And that's where we cut.

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