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High Tharsis and the Sandfolkby KtA
Miles above the highest mesa-tops of Noctaurus, the most ancient people of Vaniae live much as their ancestors did 50,000 years ago, when they were the only intelligent life on Vaniae except for a few elemental beings passing through occasional wormholes linked to the Elemental Plane of Earth.
Unlike the Sandfolk of Hellas, they have effectively avoided the hegemony of the Alphatians, but only by having practically no contact with the rest of the planet: they have no external trade. Combined with the relative lack of resources in their homeland, their technology is severely limited. The sandfolk of Tharsis live at an effectively Paleolithic level of material culture, with stone tools and no domestic animals or crops. They are not politically unified, living in about 40 separate clans which join into larger tribes for some purposes.
Their isolation is ensured by the conditions of upper Tharsis. No other people found in the surrounding areas -- not minotaurs, aranea, humans, grens, or giff -- could survive long on the high plateau itself. It is practically waterless, with few plants and no animals that would be edible to these beings; worse, the air is too thin for human survival without magical (or perhaps technological) aid. The highest regions of the plateau have air pressure as low as any mountaintop of Mystara [or our Earth: about 0.33 atmospheres, same as the top of Mount Everest].
Though their central heartland is not visited by any other beings (except occasional mages or adventuring parties using magical means), clans on the border with Noctaurus often skirmish with the garrison of the Western Province. No clans approach the Mygallan border.
Real-world Mars Equivalent: Tharsis
Origin: native to Vaniae
Composition: 99+% sandfolk, <1% kryst
The sandfolk of Tharsis are divided into hundreds of small nomadic bands, each usually consisting of 50-80 individuals. Dozens of these bands are allied to form larger tribes, each of which inhabits a certain portion of the plateau. Tharsis sandfolk tribes are named after geological features in the area they claim; bands are simply known by the name of their current chief.
Government Structure: Each band is led by a chief, chosen by acclamation of all adult members. A chief rules for life, unless great failures in leadership drive the band to turn against the chief (in which case the former chief is killed and a new chief chosen).
The bonds between bands in a tribe are a combination of kinship connections due to marriages and religious connections.
Religion: Sand folk are worshipers of elemental earth. The Elemaster of Earth is their patron, and they believe that elemental beings - such as earth elementals, kryst, and desert ghosts - are higher beings who link the mortal and divine worlds.
Each tribe has a sacred site that all its bands visit annually. The tribe's priests live there permanently rather than migrating with most of the bands of their tribe. The leader of the priests is always a druid capable of casting Summon Elemental, which is used as part of the annual ceremonies.
In addition, a small community of kryst is also found on Tharsis. This area is considered extremely sacred by the sandfolk, and by ancient custom the only sandfolk who are permitted to visit it are priests. This is done only in times of greatest need, to seek advice from the kryst.
Military Forces: Every adult sand folk is a warrior, and the chief of a band commands it in battle. When multiple bands of a tribe cooperate, one chief is chosen to lead the overall effort (usually the leader of the most numerous band).
The 500 or so bands of the sandfolk are divided into about 40 clans, groups linked by recent intermarriages.
As sandfolk change gender annually, the determination of which individual leaves their band of origin to join the other's is not based on gender, and is made by means entirely opaque to normal humanoids (but it is apparently a simple and obvious choice to the sandfolk involved).
These clans themselves are linked by religious bonds and millennia-old understandings of military alliance to form six major tribes, with roughly the following populations:
Long Canyon: 7,500
Steep Cliffs: 7,000 (3,000 in Tharsis + 4,000 in Noctaurus' Western Province)
Lava Plain: 6,500
Weathered Crater: 5,000
Ash Field: 4,000
High Mesa: 4,000
(Total: 30,000 + 4,000 in Noctaurus' Western Province)
Tharsis has no political unity. The different tribes war on each other, though this is limited by ancient custom to certain times, and at most involves only a few dozen warriors (those of a single clan) on each side in any particular conflict - often each side selects one or a few champions instead.
The 400-year conflict between the sandfolk and minotaurs in Noctaurus' Western Province involves only the Steep Cliffs tribe - none of the others have ever intervened.
The sandfolk are hunter-gatherers of a sort. As primarily silicon-based beings, they feed primarily on mineral deposits which are abundant on the Tharsis Plateau. However, they are not entirely mineral in nature as earth elemental beings are. They do have some carbon-based components which must be periodically replenished, by eating a small amount of organic matter about once a month. They obtain this from the flesh of the great beasts of this region or, occasionally, the few plants that survive on Tharsis.
The Secret of the Sandfolk
Ages before Vaniae had any truly native intelligent life - only a few outposts of Earth elemental beings that arrived through wormholes - alien beings descended from the skies and landed on the Tharsis Plateau. They began massive magi-technological "terraforming" projects that radically altered the face of Vaniae, creating seas, thickening the atmosphere, warming the planet, and transporting life forms from their distant and unknown homeworld.
Yet something went wrong - not even the oldest Immortals remember what - and they vanished, leaving only a few gleaming metal ruins and their terrible robotic servants, the mek. Occasionally, these constructs venture out from the ruins and slay all they meet - perhaps attempting to eliminate everything that does not fit their ancient makers' lost vision. The sandfolk watch these ruins, and when the metal monsters emerge, they meet them in battle and destroy them - but with severe losses.
This is, in fact, one of the primary reasons for the wars between sandfolk tribes - mek incursions are centuries apart at least, and the sandfolk believe that they would lose their edge if lifetimes passed without conflict.
The sandfolk priests keep the lore of this ancient war, a history that goes back many thousands of years. Fighting the mek incursions is a sacred duty, one of the core aspects of sandfolk religion, though this is not known to outsiders. Indeed, it largely defines their tribes - the military and religious alliances that form a sandfolk tribe are primarily focused against the mek. (There is one mek ruin in each tribe's territory.)
Nine such incursions have occurred since the arrival of the Alphatians on Vaniae 1600 years ago. The years of their occurrence (by the Mystaran calendar) and the tribe affected are:
500 BC - Lava Plain
350 BC - Long Canyon
200 BC - Steep Cliffs
50 AC - Weathered Crater
200 AC - Ash Field
400 AC - Weathered Crater
550 AC - Lava Plain
750 AC - Long Canyon
900 AC - High Mesa
If a mek incursion occurs in Steep Cliffs' territory while their efforts are divided by the war against the minotaurs of Noctaurus, the consequences might spread beyond Tharsis. Arguably, one is overdue...