A letter to Aunt Berty

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Esteemed Lady Bertula (Aunt Berty),

I have now been in Astraea for nearly two months. I hope my previous letter I sent upon my arrival finds you well. Again, thank you for your kind commission to come to this most fascinating land. Indeed the entire civilized world seems increasingly fixated on this tiny country. While it would be impossible to learn all there is to know about this place, I believe I have now experienced and learned enough to provide some insight to you. Allow me to embark upon the history and particulars of tiny Astraea.

When the Paltoran Dyanasty came to power in the land of Valtenta, over 100 years ago, the tyrant Paltora marginalized and persecuted the devout worshipers of Astraea. Their devotion to justice and strength was seen as a threat to the new regime (and rightfully so). Their followers were being scattered, herded, interred, and branded. Things looked very grim for them.

Just when things looked their bleakest, there arose a prophetess among the followers of Astraea. Rhea had a bold plan, inspired of Astraean vision. All disciples of Astraea were to board boats of every kind, taking with them what little they had, and sail down the Martesh river! Can you imagine the madness? To this day no one has ever returned who has sailed down that river of death. It seemed to Paltora that his enemy had given up, he actually aided them by providing boats for their departure.

Well, such was the faith in Rhea that nearly all joined her in her solemn flight down the Martesh. They soon discovered why none return. After facing the challenges along the densely forested river, The river picked up speed and hurdled them through an ever increasingly deep chasm. Finally, they found that the Martesh ended in a waterfall over 3 furlongs in height!

Of course, they went over the edge and plunged down what is today known as the Vela du Atreaea (Astraea’s Veil) and land in the enormous lake Arzul. Miraculously nearly all survived. They lost many of their provisions but were able to swim to shore where they faced building a new life for themselves in a new world.

I’m writing to you now from a porch on Lake Arzul looking up at Astraea’s Veil. I cannot stress enough the miracle of their survival. They must have truly been blessed by Astraea to have lived at all. I’m faint just thinking about it.

The Martesh becomes an enormous delta after leaving the Lake Arzul. As you know the continent of Valtenta on it’s wide southwestern side is covered with cliffs that fall directly into the ocean. The mountainous region beyond is wild and populated by dwarves and vile creatures. It is a huge benefit to the Valtentan nations as their southwestern border is impassible.

In the middle of this enormous rock wall juts a delta formed by the Martesh. It would take about 3 weeks to cross by wagon as the crow flies. Three major rivers leave the Arzul, the northern has kept its parental name, Martesh, while the southwestern river is known as the Ria Perdida, or Lost River. It leads to an uninhabitable and unexplored swamp said to be inhabited by vile goblins and reptilian scoundrels.

The third river takes a southerly course, but abruptly ends as it flows underground, under the ruins of the fallen eastern cliff wall; but that is a story unto itself.

Returning to the story of Rhea and her followers. Their arrival coincided with late autumn, not enough of their provisions survived the falls to make it through the winter, things looked grim Rhea had her people pray for deliverance. Once again Astraea produced a miracle. Before long, orcs started to come out of the forests to the east of Camp Arzul. They were primitive heathen but kind in heart. They helped Rhea and her followers learn where they could find food, shelter, and in general helped them survive the winter. The orcs of Elan’Chu are allies to the people of Rhea to this day. Alas, the same cannot be said of the other orc clans of the southeast.

A brief word on the orcs of Elan Chu. By my reconning they are more half-orc than true orc. In fact most orcs in this area seem to be as much human as orc. I hear however that there are pure orc tribes in the hills and forests further to the southeast.

As it turns out the Elan Chu were on the run from a much more powerful army of orcs, originating from a great city built into the eastern cliff wall. When the Elan’Chu met with Rhea, they were fleeing for their lives. An accord was struck, the Elan’Chu would help Rhea and her people survive the winter, the Astraeans would help the Elan Chu prepare for the inevitable conflict coming the in the spring. The Astraeans helped the orcs learn of fixed defenses, long bows, and crude wooden armor (they could not yet forge complex items such as armor and fine swords en-mass).

They erected a fort southeast of Camp Arzul which they used to defend against the coming attack. It is bordered on the south by a long cliff that drops hundreds of feet below (Called Vallum Inferus locally). The only way up to this section of the continent is up a winding stair up the hard face of Vallumm Inferus or to brave the very dangerous swamp lands to the west to reach a gradual incline. The fort was erected and weapons and armor fashioned from the dense teak trees in the area. But most importantly, the Elan’ Chu converted to the worship of Astraea, though in a more primitive way. This combined faith in Astraea, produced yet a third miracle.

After the invaders were repelled, and returned to their cities in the cliffs, a giant earth quake tore down huge sections of the cliff face, completely burying the orc cities in a mountain of rock and rubble. The southern river of the Narzul was covered but continues to flow under the rock field. Rumor has it that some of the cliff-dwelling orcs survive, and are rebuilding their nation – under ground.

The fort erected for that conflict has grown into the center of Astraean Clergy, Beatus Arx (The Blessed Stronghold). Now found in the heart of the city built around it (called Promontory) Beatus Arx is almost completely devoted to worship and training. The Astraeans have produced the most formidable force of clerics I have ever seen. Astraea bestows her healing powers to women, and the more destructive powers to men. There are many places of learning for men around the country, and for women as well, but to truly become a paladin or true cleric of Astraea, you must attend training at one of the many convents of Beatux Arx.

These battle nuns are truly imposing. They are extremely strong women wielding large maces and fearsome weapons of all kinds. They wield clerical magic like none I’ve ever seen before and carry with them a presence of command and poise. These nuns come from various convents and have vestments and titles such as Lu Lex Rhea (Rhea’s Law), or Macha du Astraea (Hammer of Astraea).

The nuns are hired, or gifted, out to various interested parties in Astraea; usually military. I hear rumor that the men never try to take advantage or act inappropriately as they Nuns are trained to withhold their healing and blessing services from any guilty of such foolishness, as would be fitting of a disciple of Justice. Personally, I think the fear of getting a mace lodged in their skull keeps them in line as much as anything. But, whatever, the reason, the Battle Nuns command much respect in Astraea.

Back to the history of Astraea, not long after their miraculous victory over the orcs, Dwarves came out of the northern cliffs to hunt and forage for their people. They were a bit surprised to find the Astraeans in their back yard, planting and setting up homes and industry with friendly orcs. However, an opportunity was quickly identified and seized upon. The dwarves agreed to trade tools, weapons, and other metal-works in exchange for food, wine, lumber, and other items only obtainable outside. Since the Dwarves hate being outside and engaging in such activities as farming, and the Astraeans needed tools and metal work, it was an extremely beneficial deal to all involved.

This fortune in the area of trade is only the beginning of a long string of fortune besetting the Astraeans, leading to what they are today. But I’ll talk about that later.

Over the years, the Astraeans and Elan’ Chu made safe the regions around Lake Arzul and Beatrix Arx. They were unsuccessfull in exploring the Ria Perdida very far, they have since adopted a policy of guarding its borders. However, they were able to explore the Martesh river, over time, all the way to the Ocean of Suns. There they discovered three interesting things.

First, an island at the mouth of the river which has a cave, or tunnel running through it to a bay on its far side. The island they have named the The Whore (apparently the explorers to the west lost much of their piety as they drifted further from Beatrix Arx). The bay on the far side they call Bahia Dorada (the Golden Bay). They quickly, and ingeniously invented a way to put this phenomenon to use. Extending two gates out into the water on the river side of the island they are able to capture goods floating down river to them from Lake Arzul and its various towns. The goods funnel through the gates, through the tunnel and pop out into the Bahia Dorada, where they are easily gathered for distribution.

The second thing they found when they reached the sea were elves. Not the regal, high-elves of the north, but the brown, sea-faring elves. I believe the high elves call them Li’ Darn, which is an insult of some kind, probably meaning lowest of the low elves or something equally arrogant. I digress, anyway around here they’re just known as elves as other kinds of elves are rarely seen here, although that is slowly changing.

The elves were looking for supplies and meats, and fruit especially, from this land. But most importantly, they use the teak of the island to build their excellent ships. When it was found that the Astraeans would trade not only food, and pre-prepared wood, but worked metal and tools in exchange for their merchandise brought in from around the world, another fortuitous arrangement was struck.

Their third discovery was that their entire sea shore was covered with sand bars and atolls extending out many miles. In short they were protected, not only on the North and East by the cliffs, but on the South and West by shallow water. No large ships could come into their land to stage an offensive of any size except the elve’s flat-bottomed junks.

Meratrix (now commonly called New Haven) slowly became more and more known and soon became a hub of global trade. Meratrix became skilled at flatboating its goods out to usable ports far into the ocean, defending its southern side (where the Ria Perdida empties) from pirates and thieves. They have built a great road that runs from Meratrix through Camp Arzul and its surrounding cities to Beatus Arx that carries goods back up the river and from Beatus Arx to Camp Arzul. The road is called the Via Argentum (the golden highway).

The people of Astraea have become prosperous. Some very prosperous, and others not as much. There is still much poverty, but there is hope here. The government here is a mixture of elected legislatures (mostly dominated by wealthy interests), and the powerful hand of the Astraean Church. Each city is a republic unto itself, but each are bound by the powerful influence of the Astraean church.

The military is commissioned by the legislature, but the church has both the battle nuns and the inquisition to protect its interests and enforce justice. But, more importantly, the church controls massive power through the threat of excommunication. Only church members can hold property, vote, run for office, mary, use approved magic, and more. So, while each city is essentially its own country, the church binds them in a very meaningful way.

The most interesting thing I’ve found while here is the fanatical hatred and distrust of magic. My equipment, especially my books, were searched thoroughly for magical items. As you know, I have no magical abilities, so I was fine but another fellow tried to smuggle in some spell books and a wand. The inquisition literally nailed him to the floor of a flatboat, piled his magical items around him, set the boat on fire and shoved him screaming out to sea. It was the most horrendous thing I’ve ever witnessed. If there is a black-market of magical items on this place, the items would be astronomically expensive to compensate for the dangers.

However, their prejudice against magic seems to stop at the arcane. Natural or clerical magic is widely accepted (as in the case of the battle nuns and much of the clergy).

The next most interesting thing I’ve found about Astraea is its cosmopolitan nature. Humans prevail here certainly, mostly descendants of the original Rheans, but dwarves, orcs (half-orcs to my eye), and elves all co-exist in these cities all free to pursue their interests. I’ve even seen a gnome while here, can you imagine? A gnome on the Valtentan continent!

Halflings, I have seen as well, though I am not as happy to write about them. Some Astraeans outside the proper city-republics have set up an indentured servitude system here, basically bringing immigrants here to work for years to pay the debt. It is a practice not too old, in fact, to my knowledge none have worked off their 7 year debts yet. However, it seems incongruous to the open atmosphere here. I asked a friend the other day how the Astraean inquisition allows for such a practice. He explained that the immigrants entered into a valid contract knowingly, justice has no hold on the contractors.

For some reason Halflings seem to have taken to this practice of indenturing themselves. I have not been able to question any, but it seems sad to me that such a hearty folk would be subject to something akin to slavery.

Well, the rest of the history of Astraea is common knowledge. About 10 years ago Augustus Pater made a wondrous alchemical discovery: Blue powder. It has begun to revolutionize the world and little old Astraea practically owns the entire market. They hold the secret to its making very tightly, though some of its ingredients are known but not its proportions. While Astraean artisans produce finer and finer qualities each year no one else in the world seems to be able to produce it.

Not only does Astraea produce it, but it’s relationship with the dwarves make for the finest blunderbusses and pistols in the world. Combined yet again with the beautiful and extremely hard teakwood, the weapons become works of art unto themselves. The elves happily distribute the valuable cargo around the world, thus turning some of the most obscure and common people in the world into the most powerful, or at least influential. Again, fortune smiles on the Astraeans.

So important in the Astraean country right now that no foreign nation dares to make a move to conquer it as the other nations would align to stop them.

Some form of salt is a known ingredient (mining operations for it have sprung up all around). Coal is also known but no one knows how to make it burn with such power. As many have said, it is only a matter of time before the secret is out, but when it does get out, dear Bertula, be afraid. The world is a violent enough place already; the destructive power of this creation is absolutely amazing. I believe the days of powerful wizards and sorcerers controlling the battlefield are numbered.

The weapons are generally inaccurate and not very good as a personal weapon, but carried in large numbers, by a platoon in an army for instance, it produces a veritable wall of “bullets”that will penetrate armor like paper.

The guns and bullets are so expensive now that it can only be bought by the very wealthy and powerful, so few are seen, even here. But they flow out of here every day, a drop going out compared to the population of the world, but an ocean of wealth pouring in.

I’ve spoken mostly about the nation as a whole. Allow me so say some final words about the people here. They are like people everywhere, some wealthy, some poor; some mean, some kind; some generous; some thieves. There are two unique constants, however. First is the church. Even if you are not a believer you are beholden to the goddess of Justice here. The inquisition is unchecked, as are the nuns, but they seem more aloof. Perhaps as I travel closer to Beatus Arx I will learn more of them.

The second constant is a sense of freedom. The elective nature of the republics, though far from perfect, instill a sense of pride and industry in the people that is only seen during the times of the very best of kings. The system seems so fragile one wonders how it stays together. I believe it has something to do with a common belief system.

Again, thank you dear Aunt for your commission. I hope to report many more items of interest as my time here goes on. Now that you have an overview of the country, I’ll begin sending flora and fauna samples along with merchandise as I can acquire. Say hello to the lovely Trea at court for me, I pray she will be true while I am away.

Farewell,

Sir Champus Cornecticus of Flavian.

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A letter to Aunt Berty

Astraea Igon