Ancient Secrets of Mystara
or, Hierarchs' Politics
by André Martins
"Long before the beginning of time as you know it, the first species to achieve conscience came to be. Their real shape was long forgotten, except by the very rare among them who have survived to this day. Of the old civilizations who found out about them, all of them represented the First Ones as one of their own kind. So, you could find them represented as Carnifex, as Dragons, as Elves, as Humans or a number of other creatures, if any of those works of arts hadn't been destroyed. And all of those civilizations that knew are no longer. I am not sure there is anybody else still alive who remembers all the details and it is certainly not safe to talk about it in the outer world.
"Still, the time of uncertainties is coming, when even the Immortals can't break the veil that hides the future. They know it and the war they started recently was about many things. They were not as concerned about the draining of magic, as they wanted to make their followers believe. That was not unimportant, but the least of the issues. It would certainly not move some powerful and ancient ones to the actions they undertook. The reality is that now they fear for the future and their existence. And, as the unknown days ahead come by, it is time for the people of the land to hear a very old tale. Now, take another glass of that wonderful elven wine, sit comfortably and I'll tell you what I know."
I really couldn't understand why the king had agreed to talk to us so easily. And it would have been better if he hadn't, if we had never looked for a way inside his kingdom, and if we had never asked for an audience. But we were to learn it very soon...
"In those times, at the beginning, so I was told, the universe was very, very different of the one you know today. Maybe there were something up in the sky, maybe not, but this universe was all that there was. No other planes to travel on, of any kind. The First Ones were born there and after some generations, they had developed a primitive culture and a society. There were no gods back then, none they knew about, at least, and they had to struggle alone. Somehow, they flourished and soon they were building cities and shaping the landscape.
"They were a noble and proud people, maybe like none who came later. Inquisitive, soon they were developing their own ideas on how the world worked. At that time, the connection between the minds of the sentient beings and the nature of the Universe was far stronger. Maybe because there were less of them and the thoughts of one were more important. Nobody, including them, knows, what were the real laws that governed the world before they came to be. As they developed their theories and convinced each other of the truth in those laws, they became true. One of their first concepts was about the basic components of the universe. As they saw it, everything in the universe was shaped from few basic substances: air, earth, water and fire. And that was how the elemental planes were formed.
"That was also the beginning of magic. It didn't take long for them to notice that the Universe actually was reacting to their beliefs and that they could shape it by believing otherwise. They created worlds and landscapes of incredible beauty. They also started creating other beings to share their creations with them, being who would be able to enjoy and appreciate it all. Resources and space were not a problem, as they could always create more and there was no reason for making wars. That doesn't mean that there were no wars, however, as each individual or clique tried to prove themselves better than the others. But those wars were different, as death was not the same.
"Death was not unknown, but it was different. Each being could see the path that would take to somewhere else and decide when to walk the path. Killing was not an option, as one would only walk that path by choice. Nobody ever returned and most would postpone taking the path. The guardian of the path was an important member of the society, but she had no power to take anybody to the path. When defeated, some did choose to take the path, but, for anyone with intelligence, it was easy to avoid the way. And it was a different path, one that has been closed a long ago.
"Among the first ones, there was a king. His old name is not spoken anymore and it is better left that way. He was wise, intelligent and noble. He was eventually chosen king among the First Ones because of his qualities and all his companions respected and loved him greatly. He was the embodiment of many of the qualities that some Immortals represent today, like love, wise rule, and sun, even pranks, among several others. Under his rule, the wars became very rare and the people could live happily. All was good and the future seemed great. It was at that time that my people, the Fey, were created by him, and I will always think of him as father. Regardless of everything that happened later."
At that point, Oberon stopped. He grabbed the wine bottle and emptied it in one gulp. He took a deep breath before going on.
"Not long after, she was born. Her name was Tanya and she was the sweetest creature that I have ever seen walking on this or any other land. She grew up to be a stunning woman, but beauty was the least of her qualities. She was kind, intelligent, fun, nobody could share her presence for longer than a few minutes without been taken by a deep happiness. When the king fell in love with her and they got married, the kingdom seemed blessed beyond any possible concerns. They were a very happy couple, as my wife always says. Titania was her friend and served her at the time, as her name would tell in the ancient language.
"The couple traveled the land, helping people and blessing all. When they were sure the world was a safe place and that their nobles could take care of themselves and the affairs of the world, they started planning the long trip. They would take the long and unknown path and explore together what existed at the other side. If possible, they would look for a way to return, one day, they promised their friends. But they were ready to be waiting for them at the other side, perhaps transforming the other world into something better. And so he appointed his princes and princesses as caretakers of those things he defended -- and that was how some very ancient Immortals became who they are today.
"But the joy was not meant to last. Lost in his rapture and in the preparations for the journey ahead, the king had become careless of the problems in the outer realms of his kingdom. He was sure his friends were taking care of everything and all he cared about was meeting all his friends and seeing all his world for one last time, with Tanya at his side.
"Finally, the day of his departure came. A great ceremony was held at the capital and wonderful creatures came from every place to wish them a happy journey. When the music stopped, they held hands and Tanya stepped into the path first, followed by her husband. And then all hell broke loose.
"That was the time the Opponent was waiting for. The opponent was a distant king, who was born to one of the species that the First Ones created, but he had amassed incredible power. Their followers believed him to be one god, the greatest of all, and that made him very dangerous. He didn't wait even one second more and his troops stormed the place, trying to bind the princes. The King saw it from the path and he could see his friends fighting a fight they were bound to lose. Tanya was ahead of him and she was not strong enough to return. He could go with her, or return and meet her later at the other side. He knew his duties and that he could make a difference. And he did something nobody had ever done before him. He turned around after having set his feet on the path of Death and he returned. They didn't kiss good-bye; he was going to be just a little while behind.
"But the Opponent was better prepared than he had foreseen. Although he might never win a battle with the king in his palace, he could escape and keep the realms his men had already conquered at this time. It took the King all his mighty and a long campaign to free most of his lands. His heart was somewhere else and he fought with despair, but not with the same clear thought he had always been known for. He was desperate and he fought like that. His vision in the battlefield was a terrifying one and that was the first time a darker side showed up in his radiant face. If we only knew what was to come.
"The battle against the Opponent was terrible. Billions of wounded, in pain, bound and the tides of the war would change each day. As the pain grew up, many people started taking the path the king longed for, as this world was no longer a good place to live in. It was clear that sooner or later, the Opponent would win, because his troops was more used to pain and wounds and would rarely leave the world.
"The princes held a meeting, without inviting the King, who was out hunting the Opponent's men. There was only one way to save the world, they said, to save the work of the King, but it was one which he would never agree to. One he should not be aware of, as he had to be kept fighting. One thing they could never do alone, but as the First Ones, working together, they had a chance. They had to change the universe, create a dimension to imprison the Opponent forever. And, Ixion added, close the Path, so that the opponent could never use his tactics again. Nevermore he would win because the good side was fleeing to somewhere else.
"When he proposed not to inform the King, I couldn't stay silent and I stood up to him, together with all other Fey. We could not see our father forever separated from his love, and never by such a low treason. But we were outnumbered and outpowered and we were exiled to another plane. This very plane where we are today, where no ancient Immortals will ever set their feet on. At that time, it was a prison and only with time we learned to open portals to the other places. They have also taken our memories from us, but some of us managed to recover it eventually; that is becoming all the more common today.
"Anyway, the war went on, although we were not witness to it. From what I was able to gather later, the First Ones cast their spell and that was actually the beginning of the Universe, as you know it. They raised a powerful barrier that made it impossible to travel back in time to before their spell, and they blocked the path to outside so that none of them could ever reach it. They created something they call the Vortex and imprisoned their enemy there, when they managed to defeat him. And set a series of protections so that it would extremely hard to get out of it. They used their own universe as the Prime Plane, as that was the plane where beliefs made things possible. And they locked the King inside and Tanya outside for as long as this universe exists.
"The pain must have been too terrible. And that it is probably what drove him mad. His initial rage was terrifying and during it Odin had his eye perforated, the way he keeps it to this day. I don't know what was the worst pain, and never had the guts to ask: that of losing his true love, or the betrayal of his loved friends. Although insane, he kept all his powers and intellect and now he moves things so that he can bring an end to it all. And, maybe, I hope, when he meets Tanya again, he will not be Thanatos anymore, but the king and father I loved."
We didn't see Oberon for the next few days (or so it seemed to us, as time is so unpredictable in this place). We didn't talk much about his tale, probably a little shocked by the events he had disclosed to us. I was already starting to understand what he meant when he said we would rather not have listened to him later. The castle was quite festive, and it was usually hard to fight that atmosphere. Still, it took us some effort to join the dances and drinks that most Fey were constantly inviting us for. And there was more to come. No longer a story of lost love, but a story of people trying to grow and the struggles that followed.
"Well, my friends, now you have known the beginning, it is time to know what came later. Before going on, I must admit that it was not very long ago, actually, just about a century, that I started remembering all of this. Most Fey who lived in those times still have no idea of these events, although more and more are waking from the slumber we were put into. And that is one of the reasons why we must tell this to mortals. But allow me to go on with my tale and you will understand it.
"The work of banishing the enemy and reshaping the Universe must have been huge. But, still, they were not all powerful and there were works beyond their powers. I suppose they must have tried to reopen the path to the unknown and failed. And, to replace it, they created death. That is not really Death, your soul just migrates to some other plane and you can be reborn or resurrected. You can be stripped of previous knowledge, like I was so many times and returned an idiot, but even the Immortals can't really kill you. Turn you into a non-thinking slime, completely oblivious of what you once were, yes, but not to force you upon a road they can no longer see or take. I'd like to know more about this, as I am sure they use this rebirth process as a mean to control the so-called mortals.
"For controlling, they do. Their struggles didn't end when they banished the enemy. Maybe the enemy has found ways to contact followers from the Vortex, although I believe that most of their problems that followed would have followed anyway. Not that I am an expert on ancient story or was there to witness the first battles between gods and mortals. When they destroyed the first civilization out of fear, the Fey Realm was still a closed realm. We have re-established our connections to the outer world since then, in the last millennia. So it was that the Carnifex, who you probably never heard about, rose to power and fell. From what I have gathered, maybe it was true they were servants to the enemy, but that was not what enraged the Immortals the most. That could have made them send their followers against them, but would never start a real war between the two species.
"What is really happening has a lot to do with what makes one an Immortal. The real power behind them is the belief of their followers. And any being who is venerated and followed like they are can become an Immortal by himself, regardless of all their secrecy and paths and trials where they convince the great heroes that they, the Immortals, are been generous to accept the hero among them. They actually would have no other choice. But that is a knowledge shared only by the most ancient among them. And one secret they wouldn't share even with other powerful Immortals, but who were not there when it started. About those times, their excuses are that they 'don't remember.'
"It is possible that the Carnifex were the first ones to realize this fact. If there were others before them, the older Immortals made a good job out of erasing any evidence that they had ever existed. And I have been spending most of my time in this last century trying to figure what is the world they have made. Anyway, it seems that the Carnifex started adoring their own kings as gods and soon some of those kings were powerful enough to battle the Immortals. They wouldn't accept their rulings or be their followers and that was their greatest sin. Because the Immortals know that without followers they fade into an eternal shapeless slumber, never crossing the closed road, never reborn. And if they are killed (and some were killed in the war against the Carnifex and in the wars that followed), they would probably be reborn, but without power or knowledge."
At this point, Oberon stopped talking. We were walking though a forest and had just arrived at a glade, where a clear stream crossed our way, coming from inside an oak. He walked towards the oak, patted it and smiled: "I am right, am I not, old friend?" He smiled enigmatically to us and crossed the stream before he would go on.
"And so it was they started becoming more cautious. Enforcing strict laws of no direct interference in the mortal affairs, so that the mortals would not try to fight back. Because they know that fight they will and they will find a way to do that. They have also created zoos, huge places where they can hide their followers, with strong enchantments that make it sure they will be always worshipped there as gods. Ironically, the power they can get from followers in such zoos is far, far less than the power given freely and that's probably the reason why they have never enslaved all, I believe. For they need the true power if the enemy is ever to return.
"The humans have managed to fight the Immortals twice and both had the same end. You may have heard, or maybe not, about Blackmoor and Nithia. Both were nations powerful enough to rule the whole world and enforce their views upon on all the land. And they would have done that eventually. The Blackmoorians and their technology played with forces of the science, forces that most Immortals never understood. And they were feared for that, especially when they started using that technology to open gates to other planes and to spread themselves across the Universe. I could never uncover what was the event that made the Immortals turn against them and cause the Great Rain of Fire. But I am sure that was a work of the ancient Immortals. Perhaps the Blackmoorians' science uncovered the real secrets of Immortalhood. Perhaps they found a way to fight the Immortals and destroy them.
"But, at that time, they had a new foe to struggle. Thanatos had recovered himself, still mad, but he was back. The Immortals say he was behind the explosion that destroyed Blackmoor and it was he who later would corrupt the Nithians. I think he might be the one who actually inspired the Blackmoorians to try their scientific stuff. Maybe he figured that science might succeed where sheer will power, faith and magic had failed. Reshaping the universe and reopening the road. And his opponents would never allow that.
"Nithia was clearly built around the notion of its rulers, the pharaohs, having been the children of the gods. And when the people started following them as if they were gods, they found themselves powerful enough to challenge the Immortals. I watched that battle and, now that I think of it, I saw the hand of Thanatos leading some pharaohs to the true knowledge about Immortality, although I didn't understand it at that time. I am not sure what he was trying to accomplish there, after failing with the Blackmoorians, but he did manage to bother many people. The amount of direct interference that followed was astonishing. People having their memories erased, lands reshaped, old monuments obliterated along with the people who worshipped there. Their intent was to make the Nithians be forgotten forevermore, and they have done a job as good as possible. Still, a few places resisted their scrying and were never located. They still have part of the secret, as you may have witnessed yourselves."
Oberon waved his hand and chanted a long and apparently very difficult spell. When he ended I could feel a dark veil lifted from my mind. Our explorations in Ylaruam, the year lost from our memories, the ruins, the scrolls, all the knowledge was unlocked. He smiled at us, as we had to sit over the grass, baffled.
"So, now you see. I would never have revealed this to you, but it seems the times are changing. My memories, along with those of many of my fellows, are returning. They never did it when the older civilizations fought the Immortals. We can now control the entrance to the Fey Realm with a precision we were not meant to have. The powerful wards set against us are failing. Mortals are finding new ways to join the Immortals. And believe me, the last years wars were certainly about it. I don't know how exactly, but it had nothing to do with Doomsday Devices as they have told their priests. Unless that device allows one to reach immortality. But that would be too powerful for a single artifact, I think. Still, I don't think the war has really ended. They did get away with Alphatia, which was probably their main concern as it was too powerful for their safety. But Glantri is still standing and, although they allowed clerics inside their frontiers, they still forbid Immortal adoration inside their frontiers. And that won't be tolerated long. The older Immortals are probably just looking for good excuses that would allow them to destroy them without ever having to warn the younger ones of their ancient secrets. As that might break their hierarchy, I suppose. Still, I am not ready to walk to one of them and reveal the truth. As they would not believe me, anyway. Their patron's word against a silly fairy? I'd be surprised even if you will believe my tale.
"In any case, I'd suggest that you would consider very carefully what you will do with this knowledge. Others have challenged the Immortals before when they were less prepared and they lost. If you wish to remain inside the Fey realm, you will be safe and you can plan from here. Therefore, I'll ask you to sit and discuss all you have to here, before even setting one foot in Prime again. You do carry the ancient Carnifex amulet of non-detection, the same one I saw a pharaoh wearing, and you can walk the world with relatively peace. But once you start talking, there will be no way back. And, if you decide that the Immortals have no right to hide the gift of Immortality from everybody else, you may find yourselves in a very difficult situation."
And now we were sure. We would have been much better if we had never listened to him.
Oberon's tale is right in most accounts (he was wrong about the Doomsday Device not being able to grant Immortality), although incomplete. He has no knowledge about the Chamber of Stars the shadow elves are building and that will soon add a lot of trouble to the already convoluted scenario. Rafiel knows that faith can create an Immortal. The shadow elves have brought him back to life, and an Immortal life, by seeking his guidance, when they uncovered his notes about his thought-transference sciences. That was the primary reason that attracted him to work with Rad. Both have kept themselves well behaved enough to survive so far, but the ancient Immortals have identified them as a serious menace since their appearance. And Rad's speech in Pandius, at the start of the war, proved he is indeed dangerous and bent on breaking the old traditions, those that keep the Immortals safe.
For safety is exactly what they are looking for. The first war against mortals had nearly destroyed them all. Most of the old friends Ixion, Valerias, Hel, Odin, and a few others had from the beginning of time had been killed, reborn, and lost. They won in the end, only to find a devastated land they had to rebuild. And that was when they created the rule forbidding direct action against mortals. For the more the fought the mortals, the more powerful they seemed to become. Therefore, only fast, swift actions of the Hierarchs acting together are allowed, the type of actions mortals would have no chance to resist. Their intentions were to surviv,e and also to prevent the devastation they had witnessed from ever happening again. Some of them regret that decision, but stick to it. Other have grown tired of cheating the mortals, like Korotiku has shown during the trial of Rad in Pandius, during the beginning of the Wrath of the Immortals. What his change of mind will entail to is still to be seen. Ixion is the most vocal supporter of the current state of things, the first to champion any causes against what he calls "heresies," or against mortals gaining too much power without having to defer to higher authorities. He always makes it clear to his companions that history has shown that this type of power, without superiors or having to obey to wisest and elder beings, has almost invariably always led to corruption and destruction.
However, the Hierarchs know they can't actually stop great heroes from achieving some sort of Immortality when they get too famous. Therefore, every time a mortal becomes known enough to attract followers after his death, that mortal is met in the after life by his patron or someone who had interests in his adventures and he is granted exalted status, as a titan or a fiend or some other type of servitor. Most Immortals sincerely believe that this is just a tradition and a reward for the mortal's good services. What it is actually, is cheating those mortals from ever knowing they had gained a better place in Pandius. Left alone in the Limbo (the same place known as the Spirit World in the Khanates), they would eventually find themselves too powerful for the place and been able to command the faith of their followers.
Those who followed Immortals who know nothing about this and don't think their deceased servants are not good enough to become servitors are hunt by Exalted beasts created specifically for the task, known by a few as Immortal Hunters and by most as Soul Destroyers. These demons are powerful enough to kill an Initiate and absorb their souls, sending them back to Mystara for reincarnation as animals, and they are attracted by the aura a dead individual who has followers emit. Their main weakness is that they depend on the Limbo for survival; even a few minutes outside of there would mean destruction to an Immortal Hunter. The creation of a Manifestation Form shields an Immortal from their detection, so only Immortals who have not achieved one would be in great danger, although there are a few tales where an Immortal had to flee from a Hunter. Their existence is the true reason why the sponsor receives a successful candidate as soon as he dies and grants him a Manifestation Form.
Blackmoor was an attempt to stop these problems, one attempt that went terribly wrong. The idea was that a technological society, where heroes were no longer venerated like in less sophisticated cultures, would mean they would never have to deal with people reaching Immortality, except those they would choose to. However, the Immortals hadn't foreseen what the faith in the unstoppable power of science would have done. Faith been the major component behind power in the Prime Plane, the Blackmoorians soon had developed technology that could rival Immortal magic and, if they had been given extra time for more developments and to finish spreading over Mystara, the Immortals would have never been able to stop them. At its peak, Blackmoor was more powerful than Pandius. But the Blackmoorians were not as wise, and knew less about the true nature of their world, than the ancient Immortals. And so it was that they were taken down by another aspect of their own culture, their fear the technology they used would ever turn against them. That fear allowed the ancient Immortals to cast a spell that passed through the wards around their most powerful projects and made one of them explode, causing the Great Rain of Fire.
Meanwhile, Thanatos is plotting the destruction of the world as it is known, as well as the downfall of his old companions and betrayers. The older Immortals still see him as somehow above them and that grants him with some powers even a Hierarch wasn't supposed to have. Still, those are not enough for him, as he can no longer see the road to Tanya. He believes that, if he could reach the power of an Old One, he could reshape the world and the meet his old love. He doesn't think about it, not consciously, lest he would spend decades mourning and not acting, as he spent a number of centuries once. But all his plans involve the eventual destruction of all the work of the gang who betrayed him.
However, he has always known that giving up his Immortality and try to ascend once more to Immortal status would be a fast route to nowhere. As soon as he disappeared, should his enemies ever learn he is trying to be an Old One, they would make it sure that nobody would achieve Immortality for millennia. But their fears have allowed him a new route. He has managed to create avatars and make them embark in the traditional paths to Immortality, under new identities. The creation of those avatars has involved special dark rituals, where he has channeled the faith of those Immortals who believe that he is more powerful. It also involved the destruction of an Immortal for every new mortal avatar he created. A telepathic link between him and the avatars make their quests much easier as he could always feed them with information that would allow them success.
Thanatos' most successful avatar on such a task, so far, is known as the Immortal Vanya. He doesn't know what will happen if he ever reaches Hierarch status in the Sphere of Time as Vanya, but he feels that wouldn't be enough to make him an Old One. Still, once he has the powers of a Hierarch in each one of the Spheres, he knows he will be ready to undo the ancient magic. The more powerful he becomes, the weaker those spells are; that was what made it possible for some of the Fey, like Oberon, to recover their memories. And his plans are accelerating. Being two powerful Immortals allow him to help his other avatars more easily, even though he must do it subtly.
This acceleration is happening in his time scale, however. Thanatos keeps secondary plots to destroy whole civilizations and the world, so that the other Immortals won't be worried that he is too quiet. Meanwhile, he is actually interested in placing his avatars in better positions, while making it sure that a few artifacts survive from each civilization that fought the Immortals. In the end, he will need those in the battle. The Carnifex amulet mentioned by Oberon is just one of those. This artifact actually shields its carrier and the people around him or her from any sort of contact or probing. The wearer becomes immune to all kind of mind effects, like an undead would, even if the attack is of Immortal level. Clerics wearing it lose contact with their patrons, however, and fail to get new spells.
Thanatos is getting ready to reveal the secrets of Immortality once more. He has been indirectly helping Rad's studies about the Radiance, Rafiel's project, as well as a magic school in Belissaria where wizards are studying the secrets of clerical magic, since before the war. He has a number of other plots moving as Vanya, as well, such as the Hattian domination of the Thyatian Empire, backed by the Heldannic Knights. His idea is to make Vanya not just a very important Immortal in Thyatian pantheon, which she already is, but the real force behind the Empire, giving her access to even more power. And Hierarchdom, eventually.
The path to Immortality is actually just the path that every adventurer takes and that allows him to be much more powerful than normal men and women. Powerful adventurers can endure incredible amounts of punishment and keep fighting almost unhindered when lesser men would long be dead. What happens here is that their fame, the name they have made, the awe they inspire on commoners act in the Spirit World, making their spirits powerful enough to allow them to resist such damage or to use enchantments far beyond the reach of a common man. And when a mortal gains enough power, his spirit becomes actually Immortal, living forever in the tales of his people. If, at that point, people start praying for him, a transformation occurs and the mortal starts to become Immortal. In game terms, there is an amount of experience a mortal must gain before becoming an Immortal. However, the transformation is not automatic. The adventurer must know he can do it by himself and perform a few rituals where he will consecrate temples in his name, as well as ordain priests. Of course, if Ixion and his gang hear about it, completing the ritual will be next to impossible, as very powerful and very angry Hierarchs decide to interfere. Secrecy is paramount if there is to be any chance of success and it is probably far easier to reach Immortality by the standard paths then by oneself. Just consider how few Immortals have used the way described here. Rafiel and Rad have managed to survive this far because their paths were not exactly these and they have joined the Immortal community, instead of fighting it, as the Carnifex and the Nithians did. And still they are seen as the most dangerous creatures in Mystara. But the completion of the Chamber of the Stars and the creation of another path to Immortality will certainly not help their popularity.
Where the road Tanya and others took leads to is still a mystery. It is possible that some of those who were bold enough to take it have become Old Ones. It is also possible that the road has taken them to a completely different place, away from the Prime Plane and even away from the Old Ones.
And, in addition to all this, there is also the Opponent, trapped deep inside the Vortex Dimension with his lieutenants. Lately, there have been some indications that he might be getting more powerful or that the barrier that has been keeping him locked has been getting weaker. Evidences of a few sects whose worshippers seem to be getting their powers from beyond the Immortals have surfaced and are common knowledge in Pandius right now. They are know as "Outer Beings," and have become more and more active. Oberon might be right when he says that the enchantments that were created in the beginning are starting to weaken.
Copyright (c) 2001, André Martins. Used by permission. All rights reserved.