Monday, 30 January 2017

The Three Thieves of the Triple Crown

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No-one remembers now who the Triple Crown was first made for. Some tyrant of the ancient world, perhaps: some forgotten king whose ruined cities have long since crumbled into mere grassy mounds beneath the steppe. Perhaps he hoped that the glory of the crown would ensure that his reign would never pass from the memory of men; but now, when people tell its story, the king who wore it is always the least significant part of the tale. There was a king. He died. He's not important any more. 

But his crown... ah, his crown was a wonder! Three crowns in one, a triumph of the goldsmith's and the lapidary's art, mingled with astral magic of a kind now vanished from the earth: circlets of solar gold, lunar silver, and glittering star-like gemstones, combined into a single diadem whose glory and radiance outshone all earthly things. When the king wore the Triple Crown, sunlight and moonlight blazed around his head, and his eyes were filled with stars, and even the mightiest of men and the fiercest of beasts did not dare to approach him. In the height of his pride, the king boasted that even death would be awed by its radiance; but in this he proved quite mistaken. He aged and died like other men, and after his death his children fell to squabbling over which of them would inherit it: and while they bickered and schemed against each other, three cunning thieves stole the Triple Crown from their treasury and vanished quite away. 

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The glory of the Triple Crown could not be hidden. It shone through every covering; and the thieves knew that they could not keep it long. They broke it into its three separate rings, and they each fled in different directions, making a solemn pact that if they escaped detection they would meet together at a secret place after a year and a day. But while the magic of each of the three rings, when combined, had served to counter the most baleful effects of the others, when broken apart their celestial influences burned without restraint. As the thieves fled, the crowns burned through their souls as the parchment is swallowed by the flame.
As the sun burns brightest of all the heavenly bodies, so the Sun Thief was the first to be consumed. Her soul combusted within her; her fingers became ten candles, her hair a bonfire, her tongue a lash of flame. Sunlight poured from her eyes, and those who met her gaze were stricken blind. She fled into the southern deserts, a roaring terror, a living fire which could not die or sleep; and the land around her hiding-place was blasted beyond the endurance of all living things. The second to be consumed was the Moon Thief: his soul collapsed into eclipse, his body warping with the changes of the moon. His flesh flowed like wax or water; he became a living shadow, a thing of silver glints in darkness, roaming the desolate northern coastlines with the ebb and flow of the tides. The last to be consumed was the Star Thief: his soul fragmented million-fold into hard blue starlight, and a thousand shining eyes opened across his body, eyes which saw now the present, and now the past, and now the things to come. Driven quite insane by his visions, he hid himself beneath the earth, muttering cryptic oracles into the dark. 

The stars are nothing if not regular in their progress, and when a year and a day had elapsed the Star Thief travelled by secret ways to the pre-arranged meeting place. But the Sun Thief and the Moon Thief did not come; not that year, nor the next year, nor any of the years that have followed. And so the crowns remain separated; and so the Three Thieves remain lost.

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* * *

The Triple Crown is an ATWC version of the 'set item you need to find all the bits of before you can use it properly', a la the Rod of Seven Parts. More to the point, they're an example of the kind of stuff I like to scatter around sandboxes and hexcrawls: encounters which, in isolation, just look like bits of random colour, but which have the potential to be more than the sum of their parts. Individually, the Three Thieves just provide fodder for weird encounters out in the wilderness; but if PCs go to the trouble of researching what they are, and tracking them all down, and finding ways to circumvent their various abilities, then they can potentially get their hands on a powerful relic of the ancient world, which might come in extremely handy when trying to overthrow the tyranny of the Wicked King. Concealing the fact you own the Triple Crown is pretty much impossible, however, as the Three Thieves found to their cost: so once you've got it, you'd better be ready to defend your claim on it against all comers!

(Alternatively, 'fetch me the Triple Crown' is the kind of apparently impossible task that someone might set as a test of devotion, or just to make people go away, like the Tsar's daughter who asks her suitors to bring her a flying ship in the Russian fairytale. If the person in question is sufficiently rich and powerful, they might ultimately subcontract the task out to the PCs...)

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The Sun Thief is easy to find, if one desires to do so: she roams the southern deserts, a pillar of living flame, blasting the sand around her to glass in the white-hot heat of her combusted soul. Her approach can be felt from miles away as a wave of heat in the air, and the desert tribes have long since learned to flee from her whenever she comes near. The lands in which she most often wanders have been burned to bare black rock and obsidian, so hot that no living thing can survive within them. To look upon her is instant blindness. To touch her is death by fire. 

Unless one can somehow attain complete immunity to heat, fire, and blindness, fighting the Sun Thief is clearly out of the question. But even in her current state, there might be ways to communicate with her: the Children of the Sun could act as messengers, as could the spirits of the desert; and if one knew which way she was likely to come then one could spell out messages for her on the land itself, in arrangements of imperishable stone. But her mind is on fire. What message could be powerful enough to reach her after all those centuries of flame?

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Unlike the Sun Thief, the Moon Thief is not dangerous to approach: the difficulty in his case lies in finding him in the first place. He can take any shape he chooses, or no shape at all: and how does one track down a single shadow on a thousand-mile shoreline, or a single glint of moonlight on the surface of a vast and moonlit sea?

The most obvious way to find the Moon Thief is to consult an oracle, such as the Golden Lady or the spirits of the Island of Cairns; but there is another way. Some echo of the man he once was draws the Moon Thief to scenes of larceny and deceit. The tightly-knit, clannish communities of the northern taiga do not lend themselves to criminality, but thieves and tricksters who do attempt to ply their trade in his remote northern region often speak of finding themselves suddenly attended by an uncanny figure when they had thought themselves alone, a man or a beast of strange silver aspect that melts away into shadows the moment it is approached or addressed. Through the orchestration of such scenes it might be possible to lure the Moon Thief to a specific location, but his weird, metamorphic body is nearly impossible to imprison or to harm. You could talk to him. But what message could reach his lunacy-addled mind?

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The one being who still remembers the Sun Thief and the Moon Thief as something other than the near-mindless monsters which they have become is the Star Thief. Moving as regularly as the stars in the heavens, he traces a vast, circular path across the world, moving sometimes across the surface and sometimes through the hidden underworlds beneath it, but always arriving punctually at their prearranged rendezvous site at intervals of exactly one year and one day. He doesn't walk very quickly, but he never stops: not for food, or sleep, or rest, or darkness, or any kind of weather or rough terrain. On the surface, in open country, a party on horseback could keep pace with him if they knew his route in advance, using each morning to cover the distance he travelled during the night; but in the underworld, even matching his pace for a single day would tax the most accomplished of cavers. He is utterly unremarkable to look at, a bent figure pacing wearily across the landscape, wrapped in layers of rags. A leper, perhaps, or a broken-down old beggar. Sometimes people give him alms, and receive weird, whispered oracles in return.

Beneath his rags (which cover every inch of his skin, including his entire face, although his hood is so deep that this will not be immediately apparent), the body of the Star Thief is composed almost entirely of eyes. If he is harmed or detained, he will wrench the rags from his face and expose a dozen or so of these eyes, all of them full of hard blue starlight; those they gaze upon will be filled with the terrible, inhuman knowledge of the stars, which usually results in several days of catatonia followed by several years of astrophobia. If he is injured, this terrible starlight will pour out of his wounds, engulfing everyone nearby during the minutes that it takes for his flesh to knit back together. Possibly a sufficient quantity of force could kill him outright, but no-one who's ever been exposed to the starlight within him has ever wanted to find out what would happen if all of it were to burst forth at once.

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If approached non-violently, the Star Thief will not behave aggressively unless his journeys are actively impeded. Talking to him is difficult, because his shattered mind is a jumble of star-knowledge, filled with the events of the past, present and future which all learned men agree to be secretly written in the stars; but with a great deal of patience, and the right kind of crossword-puzzle mindset, all kinds of information could potentially be coaxed from him. If you followed him for long enough, through the deserts and the mountains and the monster-haunted underworlds, you might even learn his real name.

You might even learn the real names of the Sun Thief and the Moon Thief.

You might even learn which spot on the Star Thief's 366-day itinerary is the spot at which they were originally supposed to be reunited.

You might even be able to arrange events so that, the next time the Star Thief reached that point, he finally found the Sun Thief and the Moon Thief waiting for him, holding their circlets in their hands, ready to combine the three crowns into one and shed their burdens at last, crumbling into ancient ash and letting the winds of the steppe carry their mingled dust up into the sun, and the moon, and the stars.

And then, as the glorious mingled light of the Triple Crown burns once more across the steppe for the first time in a thousand years, your real problems would begin...

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  1. Dude, this is kinda epic
    Might have to use

    1. Hey, go for it. This stuff is written to be used, after all!

  2. Hot dog, I am really impressed. Love the ATWC stuff, love the lore, and I think you write some damn good stuff.

  3. At first glance, I thought this was going to be about Treasure of the Four Crowns (the film). Nice to see it is a much more interesting artifact.

    Now just to figure out how to combine this with the newest post at Goblin Punch (the creature that was split to make lions and serpents).