There have always been men who looked not with fear at the darkness beyond the campfire, but with curiosity. It is this spirit of exploration that found fertile soil within a small group of explorers, adventurers-upon-return, and merchant freebooters. Unlike ancient societies with hallowed and storied origins, the Society of the White Azalea was founded within the clapboard walls of the White Azalea Inn near the Skyraker Mountains. Most of the locals called the Inn the White Flower but the man who would charter the society had an interest in botany and herbalism and knew the flower for what it was. Later when searching for a name for his new organization he would borrow the flower.
The White Azalea Inn
Modest as most Inns go, the Azalea was built to accommodate merchants heading south into Falhath and points east across the mountains. Business during the summer often left visitors and travelers sleeping in animal stalls and even in people’s homes for the right amount of coin. Traffic was heavy, but only during the summer. Come winter the passes through the mountains would snow over and be considered closed. During those cold dark months, the Inn would stand empty for weeks on end as few traveled the merchant roads.
Winterstellar is the man who founded the Society almost a century ago, almost by accident. He was a retired Adventurer-upon-return and had taken up the respectable craft of tooling and harness making and traveled along with various merchant bands as a retainer and as a fellow merchant. By various circumstances he was stranded at the White Azalea Inn with a number of other wanderers and explorers of some means of income. Rather than bemoan their isolation in a small alpine inn, the men spoke of their adventures and found a common thread, the mountains.
Like massive fences, the mountains separated nations, divided empires, and seemed so great as to rip at even the clouds. A few had made some climbs during their younger salad days, and the thought of challenging the mountain itself appealed to many of the men there. Number just shy of a dozen, these men hoisted mugs of liquor to their jaunt into the mountains. Winterstellar is said to have coined the Society motto before departing, ‘None left upon the Mountain, my brothers in arms.’
The Stone Dead
There is a local belief that men who die on the mountain are trapped and cannot go on to their final reward or punishment as determined by their faith. These cursed souls are left to wander as restless ghosts that shimmer like bands of wraithflame. Those who were evil in life rise a second time to become ragged and snow covered zombies who stalk the mountain peaks. A proper cairn on the mountain, or better yet, bringing the body of the deceased prevents these wretched creatures from forming.
The Old Days
The ‘Society’ made it’s first ascent of Buhl Mountain in three days, and were the first to reach it’s lofty summit. While not a mighty crag of a mountain, it was a respectable effort that left the men feeling exhilarated and several swore to return to challenge another peak in the coming year. At the next meet, the number of climbers had grown by almost double. Most were friends and colleges of the original climbers and were easily inducted into the Society which adopted all the pomp and circumstance of much older traditional societies. There was a difference of course, and that was Winterstellar was an irreverent man prone to imitation and satire and the ceremonial proceedings were as proceedings to mock the antiquidated attitude and demeanors of the other guilds and societies.
This would last almost two decades with Winterstellar being named the Grand Master of the Society of the White Azalea and the society seeing its membership rise to almost 200 experienced mountaineers, climbers, and mountain men. Events would later conspire to weaken to society (insert various local wars, problems facing the economy and merchant guilds, etc) and fewer of the members were able to actively participate. The Society survived through it’s core members, and even gained some royal attention. It came to the notice of a local noble of some influence that bands of men were regularly climbing mountains and crossing passes that were deemed impassable and had been ignored by royal cartographers for generations.
The Influence of Lord Anderegg
Lord Anderegg was no stranger to the wilds and dangers of nature, he was considered to be a competent hunter and frequently rode in campaigns with his liege. Not to be outdone by pretentious commoners, Anderegg ordered his entourage to prepare to travel and took up the notion to hold a session of his court from the rounded top of Buhl Mountain men and women, sixteen wagons, and several tons of equipment started the arduous task of climbing Buhl, coinciding with the Society mounting a climb themselves to initiate some new members.
A storm blew up, as they often do on the slopes of the Buhl, and the men of the Azalea took shelter as they had done dozens of times before. Lord Anderegg was not so lucky. Caught unawares by the storm, the lord and his caravan suffered greatly. When the sun appeared again, nearly a dozen retainers had lost their footing during the torrential snow and had been lost to the mountain. Most of the wagons were in some way damaged, and one had caught fire and burned when someone tried to kindle a fire inside to warm up. Drawn by the pillar of smoke, the Society climbers found the survivors of the entourage in poor condition, half frozen and hungry. They had brought plenty of food, but none had brought any firewood to cook or even thaw the now frozen food with.
Remembering the Motto, the men of the society applied their skills of mountaineering to the monumental task of saving the caravan. Of the seventy retainers, half died on the mountain, most from falls and injuries, the rest from exposure to the cold. None of the wagons were brought back down and the horses that pulled them were cut loose and guided back down the mountain. Lord Anderegg suffered from exposure and frostbite, loosing three fingers on his left hand, and a large piece of his ear.
Entering his 80th year of life, Winterstellar saw his quaint little mountain club explode into a serious Society. Following Anderegg’s rescue, it became vogue for courtiers and courtesans to become members of the Society. In the next few years membership skyrocketed, topping the thousand mark in the first year, and 5,000 by the sixth. This sudden popularity would soon be the downfall of the Society.
Not content to allow a commoner to hold the rank of Grand Marshall, Lord Kohmstock challenged Winterstellar for the position of Grand Master. As tradition dictated that the Grand Master was elected by the society every five years, this challenge was legal in Society and kingdom law. Having hundreds of supporters in and out of the society, Kohmstock won his election handily. Most historians consider this to be the beginning of the Society’s decline.
Following Winterstellar’s Ouster, the Society became increasingly a cesspool of interaulic intrigue, backstabbing and backroom politics. Local chapters of the Society, mostly near climbable mountains retained some semblance of the original society, but soon nobles had converted the lodges of disbanded guilds and societies into proper motherhouses for the Society.
Disaster and the End
The Society of the White Azalea still on occasion mounted ventures like Anderegg’s ambitious climb of Buhl Mountain picking the easiest mountains, or big hills as real mountaineers called them, had their courts on top of the world. Things took a bad turn during one of these royal expeditions when avalanches, lowland yeti, and storms caused the entire royal train to become stranded high in the Mountains. Of the 300 men and women who mounted the expedition, fewer than 20 returned alive. Each was covered in scars and bore significant emotional and spiritual trauma. Half were deemed insane by the clergy and were ritually purified for the sin of cannibalism.
The Society fell under intense scrutiny as blame for the failure had to be placed. The Grand Master was currently among the dead lost in the expedition so it would fall on the shoulders of the next Grand Master to answer for the failures of the society. Even the King was bereaved as his third son was among the missing, and there would be retributions. The elections for Grand Master turned into a scapegoat hunt that ended with one Emily Kanchenjunga. A resourceful young climber, rug merchant, and mother of four Kanchenjunga was despondent over her condition.
According to various conspiracy theories, Kanchenjunga met with Winterstellar, then almost 120 years old, to determine her course of action. Before a royal declaration could be made against the position of the Grand Master, Kanchenjunga made a stunning speech in which she officially and forever disbanded and dissolved the Society of the White Azalea. She spoke at length of the corruption of the Society’s purpose by Noble politics, and made such actions grounds for the disbanding of the Society.
Legacy of the Society
Though the society is no more, two things remain of it, the Ordinance of the White Azalea, and the legend of Winterstellar’s Cache. The King retains the right to give the Ordinance of the White Azalea as a medal of honor to a man or woman who demonstrates greatness in the sport of mountaineering, be it surmounting a new peak for the first time, courage above and beyond the call of duty whilst in the mountains or the like. The Ordinance is a five petaled azalea blossom crafted of moonstone and silver wire hung from a green ribbon made of silk.
Winterstellar’s Cache is a mystery of the ages, a challenge passed down by Winterstellar himself before vanishing some years ago. According to the legend, the wiry old Grand Master climbed an unnamed peak and left a great treasure to be found. What this treasure was remains unknown as despite decades of searching, none have discovered the location of the Cache or hints as to its contents. Two popular ideas have risen; that the cache is a treasure that was central to the old Society and was rescued from the motherhouse in the capital even as Kanchenjunga gave the Dissolution Speech. Obviously the treasure is magical, valuable, and potentially even dangerous to the powers that be. The other school of thought is that the legend of the Cache is a koan or riddle. It would not be out of character for the second to be true as Winterstellar would have considered seeing the sun rise from the summit of a claimed peak as a great and valuable gift.