Setting notes and a story seed

The Alans (pronounced AY-lans), an ancient steppe nomad people who crossed southern Eurasia in the first centuries after Christ’s death. In turn challenged and harried by other nomads, especially the Huns, some travelled further into Europe, settling in what would become Poland, others clung onto territories south of the Rus’, to the north of Georgia. Sometimes they feuded with the Khazars, sometimes they allied with them against Arabs, but they were incorporated into the Golden Horde when the Mongols came.

Their fame – such as it is – rests on two sources: the Dar-e-Alan and Batradz. The Dar-e-Alan, Persian for the Gate of the Alans, is the only substantive pass through the rough and dangerous Caucasus mountain, a rocky groove cut by the treacherous Terek river. Heavily fortified and watched over by keen-eyed Alan tally-men and archers, the Gate provides the Alan King Attaces his greatest source of revenue, through tolls on caravans and travellers.

Batradz and Neck-Cleaver

If the Dar-e-Alan represents the Alan’s greatest claim to material wealth, the legend of Batradz is the wellspring of their cultural strength. He was a warlord and champion from centuries ago, a mighty warrior whose uncanny blade, Neck-Cleaver, dispatched armies, monsters and traitors alike. One day, he was set upon by enemies (variously Huns, Persians or whoever else the teller of the story regards as the worst bad guys of the moment). They could not stand against him, but one of his shield-men was wounded and Batradz reached down to lift him up. At that moment, an enemy arrow struck into the neck of his armour, dealing him a mortal blow. Batradz, of course, slaughtered the rest of his foes, but nothing could save him. As he lay dying, he commanded his men to take his sword and throw it into the nearby lake, for it was at once too powerful and too treacherous for any others to bear. Twice they left to carry out his wish, quailed at the thought of throwing away such a mighty blade and were browbeaten by the dying hero as he saw through their lies. The third time they finally did as he commanded, the waters of the lake turned blood red and were whipped into a frenzy, even though no wind blew. As Neck-Cleaver fell beneath the waves, Batradz died. (It is rumoured that a presumptuous race in a chilly, drizzle-steeped rock far, far to the west have even adopted this tale for their own ‘King Artur.’)

Batradz’s blade is lost, but not passive. It leaps forth from its lost burial place to fight demons when they threaten his beloved Alan people, and the rumbles of these battles and the sparks thrown off as it bites through the fields’ blades look like thunderstorms to the uninitiated. Nonetheless, while Neck-Cleaver looks over the Alans, there are those who would see it play a more active part, as a symbol of both the legacy of Batradz and the destiny of the Alan people. One such is Prince Os, youngest (and most ambitious) son of Attaces.

Where on Earth?

One would think that a red-water lake would be quite conspicuous. The reason no one has found it yet is that it is present in the Otherworlds – when Neck-Cleaver sank to the bottom of the original lake it cut into its bottom and all its water drained away, leaving just a shallow, swampy depression. However, this is a ‘thin’ place in the veil (+20 to attempts to travel into the Otherworlds) and in the Ideal World is a lake of blood-red water, within which swim long, grey fish with steel teeth (Fast Fish 20M, Steel Bite 20M, Frenzied Swarm 20). The bottom of the lake is another thin place, and those travelling into the Representational World (the Alans are Christian, so the imagery is Russian Orthodox, but with a slightly cruder and more colourful idiom) will find themselves in front of Neck-Cleaver, buried into the lake-bed. It looks some two man-heights high, and stuck into the mire it looms like a cross.

Those seeking to take the sword must somehow wrench it from the silt (Stick Fast 2M4 – as well as strength, a hero could use Christian virtues, Avar Customs or the like). Drawing the blade, though, simply bonds the hero’s destiny with this blade, a rather mixed blessing. For Neck-Cleaver was forged with iron from the spear which penetrated Christ’s side when he hung on the Cross and is thus steeped at once in divine mercy, in pitiless violence and in doomed destiny.


Deadly Strike 1M3, Bleeding Wound 20M, Strike Down Evil Magic 10M2, Keep Wielder Fighting 5M2, Defend Alans 1M4, Defend the Helpless 20M, Bring Doom to Wielder 1M3, Till Death Us Do Part 15M3.

Whoever takes up this blade acquires a truly deadly weapon (if used as an augment, it provides +6 with its Deadly Strike alone – and defending Alans will also grant an extra +8!), but he will find himself bound to it and forced to heed its imperatives to defend the helpless and Alans and take on evil magic (heroes wanting to ignore this must pit a suitable ability against the sword’s). Most terrible, though, is the doom it will eventually visit upon the wielder: typically no more than once per gaming session, at a dramatically suitable moment, the Narrator can use its Doom either as a standalone effect or to augment some other peril. For example, Abradz the Alan swordsman is fighting off a gang of Georgian bandits seeking to force their way past him into the church. The very last one, their leader, makes a desperate lunge, but thanks to his own skill and Neck-Cleaver’s powers, Abradz cuts him in two with a single blow. The Narrator decides that the bandit’s sword, still clutched in his severed hand, still flies at him – he must now avoid or survive a 1M3 attack or be struck down in his moment of triumph…

The Plots of Os

Prince Os is a moderately skilled warrior, but his real skill and passion is for intrigue. He might well hire adventurers to find the sword. However, as an untrustworthy schemer he automatically expects to encounter duplicity from others, and so he is most likely to seek to have some hold over them. Kidnapping is a strong tradition in the Caucasus, so he may have some of his thugs lay hands on a beloved relative or friend, for example. He may have identified the location of Neck-Cleaver, though, but he has no idea of its qualities. He simply believes that it is a powerful symbol of Batradz, with which he could rally enough support either to force his father to make him heir – or, if necessary, to force the issue and make sure that he is the oldest surviving son. It may well be that Neck-Cleaver will regard him as a threat to the Alan people and thus demand its wielder take on a cunning and powerful prince and his personal guard and allies!