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The Highweb

by Rodger Burns

Floating Ar is arguably one of the most stratified, class-conscious kingdoms in Alphatia - the sky-islands are open only to those with the talent or connections to fly to them, all others are confined to the ground below. This harsh pragmatism hasn't always been the rule, though - at various times throughout Alphatia's history idealists have tried various plans for providing the common-folk with greater access to the sky-islands of Floating Ar. One of the most spectacular failures in this regard is the magical network known as the Highweb.

The attempt to create the Highweb first started a little over a thousand years ago, as a proposal by a group of idealistic mages to create a series of teleportation nodes between different locations - sky-island and groundside alike - throughout the kingdom of Floating Ar. Each node would connect to between three and six other nodes in the Highweb, allowing widespread travel by stepping from one node to another in a chain. The structure of the Highweb was also designed to be easily expandable - a new node could be easily linked into the network by simply linking it to three or four other underused nodes, instantly putting it only one more hop away from every other location already in the Highweb. Recluses and reactionaries within Floating Ar opposed the project, of course, but the proposal was clever and offered a interesting test of magical talent, so the consensus on balance was to let the work go ahead.

Unfortunately, the designers of the Highweb hadn't quite been honest when unveiling their proposal. Their project name had been perhaps a bit too aptly chosen - at the core of the rituals used to create the travel network weren't simple human teleport spells, but apportation techniques 'borrowed' from the alien beings known as planar spiders. These techniques weren't perfectly understood nor controllable, but the leaders of the Highweb project felt that any flaws would be minor and easily corrected for. In a perfect world, they might have been right... but in the real world, the Thyatian rebellion broke out just as the Highweb project was going into full swing, and the reactionaries managed a political coup by getting several of the Highweb's best mages sent westward to aid in suppressing the uppity barbarians. When said best mages never came back, their comrades chose to push on in hopes of unveiling a triumphant monument of living magic... which turned out to be a very bad decision.

The creators of the Highweb intended for it to first spawn with only about a dozen nodes - carefully chosen, anchored near major cities and prominent landmarks, allowing easy travel topside and downside and encouraging fence-sitters to join their own nodes into the new teleportation network. What they got was something completely out of their control - a network that spawned close to fifty nodes, most in places neither predicted nor desired, and several in such dangerous spots as the center of wizards' laboratories or within hunting-park islands seeded with unintelligent monsters for a Prince's sport. What was worse, the nodes quickly proved to be non-dispellable - the Highweb's magics had somehow tied into the levitation magics keeping the floating islands aloft, and couldn't be broken without sending the island plummeting earthwards. Needless to say, the leaders of the Highweb project either fled Floating Ar one step ahead of the royal guard or else found themselves up on charges; landowners with a Highweb node in their basements did their best to seal off the hazard - with stone walls, magical wards, undead or golem guardians, or anything else that could serve to keep intruders from neighboring nodes out.

In the centuries since its creation, the Highweb has mostly faded from 'danger' to 'persistent nuisance'. The most dangerous locations are known, the exits within settled locations have been thoroughly sealed down, and in a few cases estates or villages have been moved wholesale to avoid proximity to the Highweb. Still, the possibility to encounter it still exists. As an unpredictable 'living' piece of spellcraft, the Highweb will every so often spawn a completely new node in an unexpected location, and the nearest party of intrepid adventurers could either stumble into it unawares or be asked by townsfolk to explore its neighboring nodes before the seals go up. Alternately, a noble scion with (much) more daring than sense could decide to go exploring through a known Highweb node, creating a need for a rescue mission across who-knows-how-many sky-islands. An adventuring group with a need to infiltrate a wizard-lord's tower might even dare to try sneaking through the Highweb, hoping to quietly break into their target from below...