The Khazarate of Vaarta

Vaarta is the western neighbour to the Empire of Splendour, an isolationist feudal monarchy with a rigid heirarchy and a powerful monotheistic church. Although the Empire attempted to conquer Vaarta it was driven back by a combination of the fierce zealotry of the Vaartan soldiers, hostile geography and internal problems. Most of the world sees Vaarta as a land of frozen tundra, toiling peasants, aloof rulers and a harsh religion doled out by strict black-robed priests. But present-day Vaarta is a land in turmoil, where those who wish to join the new era of the Merchants League struggle against the conservative elements of society who want Vaarta to remain apart from the rest of Conclave, and where the ruthless Ulvoski Inquisitors of the church fight a never-ending battle against heretics and free-thinkers.

Vaarta covers a huge expanse of land, occupying almost the entire south-west quarter of the continent of Perfection. Much of the land is harsh tundra or virgin forest, little suited to cultivation, and so the population is sparse and relatively small. Vaarta lacks the protection from the Great Glacier afforded to the Empire by the Throne of Heaven Mountains, and so it experiences harsh winters and freezing winds that blow from the interior. Coastal Vaarta is more temperate, but still experiences bitter winters. The coastal region is rocky, with deep fjords opening out to thousands of small islands, some inhabited, others little more than rocks. Between the rocky coast and the forest taiga lies a narrow arable region where most of Vaarta's population dwell.

The east of Vaarta borders the Imperial province of Dronistor, although it largely seperated by a vast inland sea, the Sea of Usk, that freezes over in particularly cold winters. The north-western edge of Vaarta is a wasteland that is snow-covered for most of the year. This is a quasi-autonomous region known as the Land of Frozen Tears, and it borders onto the Great White Sea that cuts through Perfection all the way to the Great Glacier.

The Serfs - Those Who Work
There are three strata to Vaartan society. The peasants work in the fields, build the churches, fish in the coastal seas and serve as infantry conscripts in time of need. The nobility rule, gather taxes and provide a mounted military class. The Church educates and oversees spiritual welfare.

The peasants are predominantly serfs, bound to the land that they work. They cannot be bought or sold individually but are otherwise treated as property by the nobility and the Church. They are considered as much a part of a manor as the buildings and animals, but the law also states that a lord must maintain their well-being as he maintains the buildings and animals. The serfs are mostly illiterate, although some well-meaning churchmen attempt to teach the local serfs to read and write. They are often viewed suspiciously by the Church, due to a rich oral tradition of folklore and folk music, both of which are considered irreligious. Serf housing is usually wooden with turfed roofs. Clothing is commonly tall boots for both genders (although the very poor are forced to go barefoot). Men wear baggy trousers, high-collared shirts and embroidered waistcoat. Women wear knee- or ankle-length heavy skirts, blouses, waistcoats and headscarves. Sheepskin jackets are worn by both genders for warmth. Agriculture is the most common serf occupation, with farms being large manorial affairs akin to villages. In the coastal regions, fishing is conducted in a more individual fashion. Carters are given special dispensation by their lords to travel, something other land-bound serfs do not have the opportunity to do.

The Nobility - Those Who Rule
Absolute rulership of Vaarta falls to the Khazar and his wife, the Khazarina, currently Khazar Zandrei Tasherev, the fifth of the Tasherev dynasty. Vaarta is further divided into the Kizendoms, large regions ruled by a Kizen, and the Boyaries, local regions ruled by a Boyar. Fealty is conducted in a traditional feudal fashion. Beneath the Boyars are the Hetmen, a hereditary warrior class who fight from horseback. Boyars and Kizen are allowed to field armies of Hetmen, with numbers determined by how wealthy the particular ruler is. The Khazar has a personal company of 2000 Hetmen known as the Blessed Ranks.

Vaarta is a patriarchal society, with all property legally belonging to the men. Noble women can 'manage' property but it is legally expected to belong to her nearest male relative. It is not unknown, however, for wealthy widows to inherit (with subsequent harrassment by suitors) or for a few determined Kizinas and Boyarinas to act as regents for their children.

The Church - Those Who Pray
The Vaartan Church is a monotheistic faith, believing in one Creator but also the existance of His two sons, Markam and Kebel. Born into Paradise when mankind was young, the two sons of the Creator disagreed over how best to treat the humans. Markam believed that humanity should be educated to unlock their potential of great and benevolent thinkers. Kebel thought that humans were a dangerous rabble who should be controlled with a firm hand. In the struggle, Markam was wounded - his left hand severed, a cut to the head, the belly and the left thigh. While Kebel slept, thinking his brother to be vanquished, Markam gathered the people together and led them out of Paradise into the world, where they could live free from Kebel's tyranny. When Markam died, his blood was caught in a chalice and drunk by his successor, Iantash. Iantash became the first Patriarch of the Church, and the tradition remains that each patriarch must take the blood of his predecessor so that the blood of Markam runs true.

The priesthood is only open to men, with the Patriarch referred to as Holy Father and all other priests as 'Yod', meaning 'Brother'. Monasteries are the only centres of learning in Vaarta with all young sons of nobility spending some time in them as lay clergy. The two universities of Vaarta are, in effect, extended monastic orders. Full scholars are also members of clergy. The clergy wear heavy black robes and tall hats. Officially the clergy should have no say in politics and their vow of celibacy is as much to prevent the formation of dynasties as it is a symbol of asceticism. This is at odds with the view that the noble families are all descended from the many offspring of Markam sired upon his many wives.

The Church reveres the Book of Iantash as their holy word, but there are also the collected deeds of holy men and women, the Saints. Sorcery and magic use are outlawed as the work of Kebel. In recent years, cracks have appeared in the doctrine of the Church. Heterodoxies have threatened to become heresy, disagreements have threatened to become schisms. More power has been given over to the Ulvoski ('Painted Men'), feared inquisitors of the Church who have been granted special dispensation by the Accords of Murmask to use magic to root out heretics, demon-worshippers and traitors. Clad in black, with their faces painted black or wearing masks, the Ulvoski under their leader Borstin have cut a swathe of terror through the land.

Non-humans in Vaarta
The Vaartan Church is very vocal against non-human races, claiming that they are little better than demons. Because of this, non-humans are rare in Vaarta. Tlaxu are especially hated. Salsham'ai traders are sometimes found, but on the whole the tree-folk find it preferable to avoid the Khazarate. There are only two native non-human races. Nai-nek-chai shapechangers, here known as Novodnalaki, are common but most have been driven to the margins of civilised Vaarta. The main exception is an elite regiment made up of wolf nai-nek-chai, the Volkolaki, who are all enthusiastic converts to the church and act as the Khazar's personal bodyguard. Edraldi can be found in the taiga, in areas hidden from the reach of the Church.

Places of Interest
The capital of Vaarta is Novomsk, where the onion-domed Khazar's Palace is situated. Found on the Olta River, Novomsk is also the only contact most outsiders have with Vaarta. A 'Foreigner's Enclave' has been set up in the city for traders to visit, overseen by the Merchants League. Foreign Visitors are subjected to low-levels of harassment by Church missionaries.

Not far from Novomsk is Medinavic, a wooden-walled compound the size of a medium town, home to the Church Patriarch. The halls of Medinavic also house Vaarta's largest university/seminary, and in terms of wealth Medinavic approaches Novomsk proper.

The Sea of Usk is a vast freshwater lake that lies between Vaarta and Dronistor. It is frozen during the winter months and during summer it is fished by the Hinar people, a seperate ethnic group that have long been considered part of the Khazarate. Although converted to Markamism, the Hinar still maintain folk traditions of the White Bear and other spirits. The Hinar use kayaks to travel the lake, which is home to seals and the Usk Whale. There are many sacred islands within the lake, and rumours tell of magical beasts living there too.

Orminska is a small city built upon the shores of the lake, home to the Summer Palace of the Khazar as well as an impressive Cathedral of Markam with votaries to the local saints including St. Morvik who first brought Markamism to the Hinar, and St. Zandrei who defeated the Imperial Army (see sidebar).

Using Vaarta
Vaarta is an enemy nation to the Empire, a frightening bugbear on the western borders full of ideas inimical to Imperial life. Few outsiders encounter much of Vaarta except for the borderlands, Yavennik refugees and the Foreigner's Enclave of Novomsk. However, Vaarta is not as monolithic and impenetrable as its reputation suggests. It is a rich setting for adventures both with Vaartan and outsider player characters.

Wheels Within Wheels
The Vaartan Church is suffering its worst crisis in its history. During the war with the Empire, many of the Church heirarchy were exposed as venal cowards or political schemers. Heroism came from the common man, the local yods and the nobility (with the Khazar himself leading many successful battles). There is a growing dissatisfaction amongst the peasantry against the Church heirarchy, one that many nobles are happy to exploit. A monastic order called the Chancellites, long charged with copying religious works, have established a working printing press and have begun publishing Imperial works, as well as religious works in the vernacular instead of the obscure High Church Vaartan language. Although not branded as heretics yet, the Chancellites have played a major role in the shift of opinion against the established Church. Another monastic order, the Brotherhood of Great Works, have established a faith based upon manual labour. They are some of Vaarta's finest architects, but their tenets touch the serfs as well.

Meanwhile, the war with the Empire has produced a great movement in population, with Boyaries sold to support the war, serfs given freedom or ownership of the land, colonisation of the borderlands and a shift towards urban centres away from the frozen hinterland. This unprecedented upsurge of mobility in Vaartan society is another event that perturbs those currently in power.

The Ulvoski
The Ulvoski were originally given powers to root out spellcasters but their power has grown so that they now hunt heretics of any kind. As the power of the Church is threatened, the Ulvoski are becoming more and more aggressive in their methods. The leader of the Ulvoski Order, Borstin, is at odds with the current Patriarch in a bitter yet secretive power struggle. Borstin would like nothing more than to see the Ulvoski running the entire Church. He flaunts his extreme asceticism and piety in the face of the luxury of the Medinavic clergy, yet secretly he has searched through forbidden books and undertaken dark rituals. In his pride he hopes to conquer Kebel with his power - an aim that can only end in disaster one way or another.

Vaartan Kidnap
Khazarevitch Andry, a 10 year old boy studying at Medinavic, has been kidnapped by political rivals posing as Yavenniks. They hope to weaken the Khazar's position and cause a split between him and the Patriarch. The Khazar has managed to torture a bit of information out of an accomplice to give them a few leads.

Desperate to keep this news from becoming public the Khazar has assigned one of his most trusted Hetmen to hire some mercenaries from the Foreigner's Enclave in Novomsk, with orders that they are not to be told who exactly they are searching for. Having a company of his knights ranging the steppe would be too conspicuous.

This 'search and rescue' scenario can be used to introduce player characters to Vaarta, and can be enlivened by cultural intolerance, interference by the Church, and a final double crossing when the player characters eventually rescue the boy, because all witnesses must be silenced (easy with 'disposable' foreigners).

Characters in Vaarta
Magicians of all kinds are rare in Vaarta, thanks to the Ulvoski (who are keeping a monopoly on magical power). Churchmen are usually experts or aristocrats rather than clerics (such a class is usually only found amongst Borvoyans or Hinar and Tenguru shamans). Even classes such as rangers and paladins who normally use spells are rare, except within the ranks of the Ulvoski.

Typical Hetman
Human Ftr2: CR 2; Medium Humanoid (human); AL N
Abilities Str 13 (+1), Dex 15 (+2), Con 12 (+1), Int 10 (+0), Wis 8 (-1), Cha 14 (+2)

Initiative +2; Speed 20 ft.
Armour Class 16 (+1 Dex, +5 armour) touch 11, flat-footed 15
Saves Fortitude +4, Reflex +2, Will -1
Hit Dice 2d10+2; hit points 14

Base Attack/Grapple +2/+3; Ride-By Attack, Trample
Melee Scimitar +3 (1d8+1, crit. 18-20)
Melee Lance +3 (1d8+1)
Special Attacks None
Special Qualities None

Skills: Diplomacy +2, Handle Animal +5, Knowledge (nobility and royalty) +1, Ride +10
Feats: Mounted Combat, Ride-By Attack*, Skill Focus (ride), Trample*
Languages: Vaartan
Possessions: breastplate, scimitar, lance, plumed helmet, horse

Combat: The Vaartan Hetmen embody the philosophy of medium cavalry. Although they prefer to charge with lances and scimitars, they lack the punch of a true heavy cavalryman. They like to remain mobile, cutting through enemy lines and then wheeling for a further assault, but lack the skirmish capabilities of light cavalry. Hetmen all come from minor noble families and are usually flamboyant and reckless. Some may possess masterwork equipment.

Typical Volkolaki
Nai-Nek-Chai (wolf) Ftr4: CR 4; Medium Humanoid (shapechanger); AL LN
Abilities Str 16 (+3), Dex 12 (+1), Con 14 (+2), Int 10 (+0), Wis 12 (+1), Cha 8 (-1)

Initiative +5; Speed 30 ft.
Armour Class 16 (+1 Dex, +1 shield, +4 armour) touch 11, flat-footed 15
Saves Fortitude +6, Reflex +2, Will +2
Hit Dice 4d10+8; hit points 30

Base Attack/Grapple +4/+7
Melee Scimitar +8 (1d8+3, crit. 18-20)
Ranged Composite longbow +6 (1d8, crit. x3, 110 ft.)
Special Attacks None
Special Qualities Animal blood, low-light vision, shapechange 3/day

Skills (armour -1): Climb +4, Intimidate +1, Jump +4, Knowledge (nobility and royalty) +1, Ride +3, Survival +3
Feats: Improved Initiative, Medium Animal Form, Run, Weapon Focus (longbow, scimitar)
Languages: Vaartan
Possessions: masterwork chain shirt, masterwork small steel shield, scimitar, composite longbow, 20 arrows

Typical Volkolaki (wolf-form)
Nai-Nek-Chai (wolf) Ftr4: CR 4; Medium Humanoid (shapechanger); AL LN
Abilities Str 18 (+4), Dex 16 (+3), Con 18 (+4), Int 10 (+0), Wis 12 (+1), Cha 8 (-1)

Initiative +7; Speed 50 ft.
Armour Class 15 (+3 Dex, +2 natural) touch 13, flat-footed 12
Saves Fortitude +8, Reflex +4, Will +2
Hit Dice 4d10+16; hit points 38

Base Attack/Grapple +4/+8
Melee Bite +8 (1d6+4)
Special Attacks None
Special Qualities Animal blood, low-light vision, shapechange 3/day

Skills: Climb +5, Intimidate +1, Jump +5, Knowledge (nobility and royalty) +1, Survival +3
Feats: Improved Initiative, Medium Animal Form, Run, Weapon Focus (longbow, scimitar)

Combat: The Volkolaki are all equipped with specially made armour that can fall off when they change to wolf form. They are ferocious fighters, fanatically loyal to the Khazar and to Vaarta, and never surrender or flee. They are equally capable with scimitar and their distinctive longbows. They often change to wolf form to chase opponents for long distances across the tundras of Vaarta.

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Ethnicities of Vaarta
The typical Vaartan is of tall, fair-skinned stock with blond or red hair being common. The Vaartans are most common around the coastal regions and the arable zone. They can be found in all branches of Vaartan society.
The Hinar people are similar to the Nekuu of the Empire of Splendour. Their skin is tanned and tawny, with typically round faces, dark hair and epicanthic folds. The hinar are traditionally nomads who follow their herds of reindeer and xhem deer across the frozen tundras of the inner reaches. They have been repressed by the Vaartan folk, with many attempts to settle them and replace their native shamanic religion with the Vaartan Church. However, the size of Vaarta is so vast that they occupy the lands where the feudal Vaartans do not.
The Tenguru are similar to the Hinar in appearance, but are found in the Land of Frozen Tears region. They have a culture based around totem animals that form the basis of interwoven tribes. They are more settled than the Hinar.

Ranks of the Nobility
The titles of the nobility, in descending order, are:
Khazar and Khazarina - absolute monarchs of Vaarta
Khazarevitch - the crown prince. Other offspring of the Khazar and Khazarina are titled Kizen/Kizena.
Kizen and Kizina - ruler of a large division of land encompassing several Boyaries.
Boyar and Boyarina - local ruler, usually in charge of one or more manors.

Famous Saints
There are many hundreds of saints in the Vaartan Church, but most are local figures with little importance outside of their own villages. The Church walks a fine line between discouraging idolatry and encouraging the adoration (but not worship) of the saints. Some of the more widespread saints are:

Saint Iantash is the First Patriarch, a loyal follower of Markam who drank his master's blood in order to continue the holy bloodline, who composed the Book of Iantash and formed the basis for the Vaartan hurch. He is held up as the archetype for all Patriarchs.

Saint Beledevere
Beledevere was a young peasant girl living in a remote part of Vaarta. The Patriarch at the time was travelling through that part of the world when his sledge was overturned. He was gravely wounded and all his entourage were killed. Beledevere found him and tended him, but saw that he was dying. She drank his blood, then travelled to Medinavic where she gave her life so that the blood of the Patriarch could be passed on. She is revered as the model of a pious woman, as well as the protector of travellers and messengers.

Saint Zandrei
An early attempt by the Empire to invade Vaarta involved crossing the Sea of Usk when it was frozen in midwinter. Zandrei, a local mason's son, took his father's hammer and strode to the middle of the Sea to meet the Imperial Army. There he broke the ice with his hammer and both he and the Imperial Army were plunged into the icy waters. The Imperials perished, but Zandrei was saved by his piety, although his hair was turned forever icy white. His icon depicts a white-haired boy with a hammer, walking on water.

The Vaartan Church proscribes all other religious practices, except within the foreigner's enclave of Novomsk. Despite the best efforts of the Ulvoski inquisitors, variant worship still continues, some benign and some dangerous. The common treatment for heretics is to give them the Four Wounds of Markam to 'purify' them, then to execute them.

The Borvoy religion predates the Church by centuries. It is an animist tradition, worshipping the spirits of nature (the borvash), still found in remote rural areas and amongst the Hinar. Borvoyism is traditionally quite bloodthirsty, with sacrificial victims being hung from sacred trees and flayed alive as fertility offerings. Modern variants tie red ribbons to the sacred trees to represent the bloodied strips of flesh.

There are many different secret cults that consider Kebel to be the chosen son of the Creator, not Markam. It is common amongst theological scholars who feel that by leading humanity out of Paradise and into a harsh world, Markam betrayed them and led them to a cruel fate. They feel that by propitiating Kebel, who remains in Paradise, they may be allowed to return. Some scholars also point out that the behaviour of the Church is closer to the supposed ideals of Kebel (absolute rulership) than those of Markam that it claims to promote. Kebelites are mostly theorists and philosophers, but a few take to destroying the works of the Markamist church.

The Yavennik Heresy started in the town of Molkograzny by a Yod of the church named Yaven. Yaven claimed to have had a vision from the Creator, and formed a version of the Vaartan religion whereby anyone could reach the Creator through deprivation and wild rituals known as the devorka. The established church, when it eventually learned of this, was shocked both by the threat to its monopoly as a bridge between humanity and God, and by the similarty between the devorka and Borvoyist rituals. The local Boyar was a convert to Yavennism and so a battle for Molkograzny ensued. In the process, the men of the town were killed but the women and children escaped through the snow. Yavennism is all but destroyed in Vaarta but has spread to all parts of the world where Vaartan exiles can be found, notably Beltavia Keep on the banks of the Far Anhoi. It denies the transferal of divinity through blood-drinking and allows the ordination of women.

The Domoyavna, meaning 'Midnight Hunters', are a secretive cult found mostly amongst the nobility. Commonly thought to be a Kebelite sect, the Domoyavna actually have little religious motivation. They are believed to know secret rituals that allow the theft of other people's thoughts, memories and abilities through drinking their blood. The Church considers this to be a mockery of the Markamist sacrament.