Aurvandil (pronounced orr-VAN-deel) is a duchy of Grandévere that loosely governs the Barrier Peaks, a range of snow-capped mountains that bisects the kingdom. The duchy was founded by Skadi the Giantess in Y498 after the fall of the Du’un Empire. The region is named for the tallest peak of the mountain range, the massive stratovolcano Mt. Aurvandil. The word aurvandil means bright shining one in high Elvish, and is considered by Grandéveran linguists to be an archaic epithet for the god Io. Many indigenous dwarves, giants, and halflings were slaughtered by the Empire in Y147 as the imperial legions stormed through the Barrier Peaks into what is now Western Grandévere. Though the dwarves retreated into their sealed halls and the halflings perished by the thousands, many of the giants were forced into imperial labor camps or press-ganged into military service. Even centuries after the fall of the empire, the giants and mountain dwarves live sequestered away from the rest of world and are highly suspicious of outsiders. Hidden monasteries and lost fortresses pepper the landscape. Secrets are everywhere.
Though the tallest mountains of the Barrier Peaks are capped with snow year-round, the region is generally green, lush, and temperate, if chilly. Towering old-growth pine forests extend from the lower foothills to the subalpine zone, a sea of trees that crashes against the rocky mountain shore. The glaciers atop the tallest peaks have gouged out deep canyons and scree-covered gorges that divide these forests. Life-sustaining rivers flow from the Peaks into both Eastern and Western Grandévere and swell with icy water during the spring thaws. Countless Grandéveran troubadours have been inspired by the beauty of the sunset reflecting off the snow-capped peak of Mt. Aurvandil.
Thousands of years ago, underground springs created huge networks of labyrinthine caves that now exist beneath the mountains. Locals refuse to delve into these caves for fear of encountering brigands or monsters—or worse. Despite this, adventurers are often drawn to the caves by legends of ancient dwarven halls and the vaults of gold hidden within.
Humans are the most common kind both in Grandévere and in the duchy of Aurvandil. Human society takes on many aspects of the cultures that surround it. Humans are the most populous kind in the cities of Aurvandil, outnumbering other kinds nearly four to one, but are much less common in the alpine wilderness. Nearly all humans in the Barrier Peaks today are descended from the Rohn people who existed in pre-imperial times, from Du’un invaders, imperial refugees, or have immigrated from elsewhere in Grandévere. The long-lived high elves and mountain dwarves are cautious around humans, for their grudges are slow to fade.
The people of Grandévere rarely make contact with the stone giant tribes of the Barrier Peaks, so much of their mythology and history is shrouded in mystery. One anthropological expedition to the northern end of the range revealed cave drawings that suggest the stone giants were the first sapient life to settle in the Peaks. Early reports by Skadi the frost giant indicated that her frost tribe and the stone tribes that dwell in the Barrier Peaks were once close allies. It is speculated that all contact with the frost tribes was lost after the eruption of Mt. Muspelheim devastated Norn’s northern shores. The stone giants stay far away from Grandéveran civilization, and rarely welcome travelers. Their attitudes toward humans and elves ranges from annoyance to outright hostility. Those traveling with dwarves are warned to avoid encounters with stone giants at all costs, for giants are known to furiously attack and kill dwarves and dwarf-friends on sight.
These giants’ sworn enemies, the mountain dwarves, are a stout and hardy, but solitary people. Before the Du’un Empire, these dwarves ruled much the Barrier Peaks. They trained the finest smiths the world had ever seen and produced many powerful and studious mages, and they were among the first to raise arms in the peoples’ defense when imperial forces mustered in the east. But even the mountain dwarves, with their superior steel and potent magic, were no match for the might of the Empire. They suffered defeat after crushing defeat as the imperial legions marched relentlessly onward through the mountain passes. The dwarven kings knew that should they continue the fight, their ancestral halls would be destroyed and their people crushed under the heel of the Empire, and so they reluctantly ordered a full retreat. The dwarves disappeared underground, taking their eons of knowledge and vaults of shining treasure with them. Very recently, beginning around Y811, some mountain dwarves have left their hidden vaults to trade and explore the outside world. Few have traveled beyond the Barrier Peaks, but some now desire to reestablish contact with their cousins in Nibeline, the hill dwarves.
Though the high elves are often considered to be the least populous kinds in Grandévere, they are surprisingly common in the duchy of Aurvandil. High elves of noble lineage claim that their ancestors lived in grand crystal palaces on the mountaintops. If that is true, than the mighty truly have fallen; high elves in Aurvandil can be seen performing magic tricks on street corners or even sweat in the fields as farmhands. Despite this perceived fall from grace, the sight of a high elf still inspires awe in many. There are human historians who would sell their soul to speak to a true high elf sage. They theorize that, given their long lifespan, some elves alive today were also alive under imperial rule and perhaps some still live who knew the idyllic days before the Empire. High elves constitute about five percent of any major Aurvandilian city’s population.
The plight of the halfling is opposite that of the high elf. Though they are almost as common as human beings in Grandévere and many families were once natives of the Peaks, very few halflings remain in the Barrier Peaks. The way of the halfling has always been the way of peace and hospitality, and because of this, they were the first to be targeted by imperial soldiers when they invaded the Peaks. The halfling kind known as the lightfoots are natives of the Peaks known for their ability to go unnoticed by larger, clumsier folk, but for all their stealth, they could not escape the sinister agents of the Empire. It is said that Sheol I, wielding the dreaded Black Book, personally led the lightfoot hunts. Few halfling families have returned to their mountainous homeland, even though centuries have passed since the fall of the Empire. Those halflings that are descended from survivors of the imperial conquest or those who traveled from other parts of Grandévere typically work as farmers, merchants, and moneylenders; safe professions. Though halflings are not inclined towards adventuring, there are certain restless lightfoots who take up the explorer’s lifestyle and join adventuring parties as burglars or picklocks.
The Chambara Monks
After losing a blade and nearly losing her life to mad sorcerers in the Remnant War, Skadi the Giantess retired to the Barrier Peaks to live a life of isolation. Her daughter, Edda, ruled Skadi’s domain in her stead from that point on. The former crusader traveled to Mt. Aurvandil’s dormant crater to meditate and become one with the universe. Many months passed, and when her faithful companions returned to visit Skadi in her solitude, they found that the giantess had vanished. In her place was a simple carved stone, no more than twelve inches tall and six inches wide.
As the years passed, certain people across the Peaks reported dreaming that a powerful voice called them to Aurvandil. Legend tells that a group of four warriors traveled across the Peaks, braving innumerable dangers to scale the mountain and reach the volcano’s crater, to find only the Skadi Stone resting in its center. They sat around the stone and meditated just as the giantess had, and they say these four warriors discovered the true nature of the world in those days and nights of tranquility. They write that they became aware of an all-permeating power they dubbed ki. They elaborate that ki is a spiritual energy that sustains and unites all living things, and that it can be a powerful ally in times of danger. Yet they warn that ki is not a weapon to be wielded, it is a power that must both guide ones’ actions and obey their commands.
Though these four never again left Aurvandil, young men and women of all kinds continued to hear the mountain’s call. The Four Masters transcribed on stone tablets edicts they received in dreams from the ascended crusader Skadi, and all those who heard the Call knew they were to follow them. The faithful that gathered around the Four Masters became known as the Chambara, an order of warrior-monks dedicated to embodying the mystic energy ki and preserving peace and justice in the Barrier Peaks.
Today, the Chambara live in monasteries and hidden fortresses nestled into secret crags across the Peaks. The largest of these monasteries was built around the Skadi Stone in Aurvandil’s crater. There are no known paths up the mountain, as the monks agreed that reaching the mountain’s peak must be a test of strength, faith, and resolve. All who hear the call of Aurvandil must pass this test before they are judged by the Council of Four. Monks born within a monastery never hear the call of Aurvandil. The monks say this is because their spirit heard the call before birth. Most children born into the monk’s lifestyle choose never to leave their birthplace, but some hear a different call, one that calls them from Aurvandil to the outside world to protect it from danger. These apostates reject the ascetic life and are freely and respectfully released from the Chambara order. Though the Council agrees that the actions of these wanderers are noble, they do not align with Skadi’s edicts, which state the Chambara are only defenders of the Peaks. The Council of Four has been said to, on very rare and secretive occasions, order a monk to travel beyond the Peaks in order to right a great wrong in the world.