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Archive for September, 2009

The 22nd Century

History

In the 2060′s unrest in the Middle East had not quieted significantly. The United States maintained a large military presence in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, as well as small forces in other key Arab countries (such as Saudi Arabia). It was in this state of affairs, with military forces stretched far too thin, that prompted the Second Civil War.

Texarkana (formerly the states of Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Louisiana, and Arkansas) had been planning a secessionist move, quietly building up their national guard units. Oil tycoons had recently been extremely prosperous in that region, with several new locations of untapped crude discovered. Businessmen and politicians in the region had realized that, without the consumption of the other 46 states (Puerto Rico voted for statehood in 2052), Texarkana would be an oil exporter. With the military strained, Texarkana was able to dissolve ties with the US without much of a fight in 2065.

Under these circumstances, public confidence in Middle Eastern peace-keeping efforts fell dramatically, and by 2073, all US forces had been withdrawn from the region. Without US military solidarity, what fragile peace existed in the Middle East died completely when a Syrian nationalist group systematically destroyed Saudi oil fields, blaming their westernization on their great wealth. Sides in the war were taken, but just as quickly swapped as the fighting became more intense. For nearly a century now, The land from the Sinai to Afghanistan has been in a constant state of chaos and war under the acrid smoke of burning oil fields.

Texarkana’s first move after separating from the US was to join OPEC. Within a decade, however, the chaos in the Middle East left Texarkana, Venezuela, and Indonesia as the only members. The near total loss of oil available in the world left people looking for alternatives.

The US capitalized on this search by finally supporting ethanol manufacturers. With switchgrass-based ethanol, Des Moines, IA, and Omaha, NE became home to some of the wealthiest men in America. Since Ethanol was no so much cheaper, most of the world started using it instead of petroleum, which in turn nearly bankrupted Texarkana.

In the 2090s, The US felt up to playing world police again. Tensions were on the rise in Pakistan and India, and the US, with relations warming with India while cooling with Pakistan for the last half-century, agreed to send a large force to help India suppress a Pakistani insurgency.

It wasn’t until the 2130s till anyone learned that China had perpetrated the incident, but in 2097, a “dirty bomb” was set off on a US military installation just inside the Pakistan border. The Pakistan government blamed India and claimed it was an attack, and immediately launched nuclear warheads. They had secretly been producing more of the weapons for decades, and the destruction was terrible. India responded in kind and now the region is destroyed. Cruises are available to see the destruction, but the inhabitants of the region are still stunted and sickly, and very few have the courage to explore more than the very fringes of the area. New nuclear explosions are detected every few months, proving that most organizations had vastly underestimated the number of warheads in the region.


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China had made the bomb and given it to local terrorists to blow up, as well as planted people in the Pakistan government to encourage officials to act rashly. They had done this to rid themselves of potential opposition and to hurt the US’s military capability. They were successful, and the US again withdrew their forces back home. The US has not sent a significant military force to foreign lands since.

China used the opportunity, and their alliance with North Korea, which they dominated, to take total control of the Far East. By 2143 they controlled everything from Indonesia to Mongolia, including the Phillipines and Japan, and even parts of eastern Russia. While successful, their military campaign had been very costly, and they still desired to take more of Russia to increase their ethanol production capability. In a deal supported by most US businesses, the US agreed to buy Japan from China.

In the early 21st century, Hong Kong had split with China, and, joining with Taiwan, had formed the New Chinese Republic. The NCR has little in the way of natural resources or production facilities, but they are the biggest and richest banking center on the planet. There are very few business in the world that do not have some sort of representation in the NCR. Due to it’s economic importance, China decided that conquering the NCR would not help their situation, and the rest of the world were sure to defend it, thus the NCR remains independent and financially important to this day.

Egypt, being more western than most Arab states, but not having the wealth that Saudi Arabia commanded, managed to extricate itself largely from the problems in the Middle East. Instead it turned to it’s own imperialistic designs. Absorbing Ethiopia and other surrounding nations, they formed the Grand Kingdom grew slowly, but Egypt was clear about establishing it’s authority, and took to building obelisks and pyramids in the regions it conquered. The Grand Kingdom controls most of Mediterranean and northeastern Africa.

A second empire, established along the Ivory Coast, holds less permanent and exclusive control over its territory. The African Empire claims to control nearly all of the Atlantic coast, but there are many cells of resistance and locations where the Emperor has no control at all. The African Empire is brutal in its attempts to control its people, however, and genocide is not infrequent. Many of those who resist imperial control are small tribes, and they are wiped out entirely rather than pacified. The remainder of Africa remains controlled by small groups: villages or tribes or even family groups. The major exception is South Africa, which remains autonomous and relatively strong.

In 2031 a minor gold rush sparked some interest in Peru, but the fervor quieted quickly. A few prospecting groups remained, however, and in 2059 a group sponsored by Gomez-Martin-Smith, a Venezuelan investment firm, discovered rich uranium deposits. Several others were also discovered by agents of the Peruvian government, and Peru began to use it’s wealth to gain dominance in South America. A major university was developed as well as a state-controlled arms and computer research organization. Because wages and resources were so abundant, some of the greatest minds in the world were soon employed by Peru. By 2088, Peru felt they could attempt anything. They quickly took Much of eastern and northern South America, however, Brazil prevented further movement to the south, and aggressive Peruvian expansion seemed to be complete by 2119. Today Peru is the major power in South America, and is perceived as a bully by the other nations on the continent. They have solid production power and a well-trained military, and are not afraid to use either to enforce their interests

Australia, though ideologically close to many of the major players on the world stage, chose to sit out the various wars and struggles by avoiding entanglements on all sides; the nuclear devastation of Southeast Asia has acted as a buffer zone giving them an extra layer of separation from world affairs. In light of this, Australia has become a haven for people from all over the world seeking to escape the turmoil or oppression of their native region; its primary defense is a lack of offense. While Australia has a healthy economy, it doesn’t have anything so desirable that the five major powers of the world want to expend resources to control the distant region. It doesn’t seek to tell other geopolitical entities what to do, and thus it is largely left alone. Australia has discovered a number of oil producing sites in Antarctica, which they remain quiet about hoping no one will take it from them. Thus they have very little dependence, if any, on the US for fuel and energy.

In the 2080s, Europe was decimated by several plagues. Livestock diseases led to contaminated food. Even when it was detected before sale it led to a decline in the availability of food, leading to malnutrition. But contaminated food was reaching consumers with greater frequency. Then some strains of livestock virii mutated and began infecting humans directly. The borders of Europe were almost entirely closed, with the exception of food imports.

The EU was faced with severely declining birth rates, and rising death rates due to disease and terrorism (most of it originating from European groups). Many business were failing simply because there was insufficient labor or professionals to keep things running. To save itself from burning out altogether, the EU governing body declared martial law and took complete control of all industry in order to improve the situation. Only the United Kingdom, by refusing to allow EU policies to take their independence, remained separate, though they continue to suffer from many of the same problems. Perceiving Ireland as a backdoor threat, the UK (with semi-secret US support) conquered it and now occupies the island with overwhelming military force. European citizens are stereotyped by the rest of the world as unmotivated drunkards, but the government is desperately trying to reverse the massive depopulation problem and rebuild their infrastructure.

The 2110s saw an economic depression in most of the world. The two countries to endure it well were the NCR and the US. The US used large grants of aid and loans to coerce most Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean into policies favorable to US interests. Over the next several decades, US control became more strict, and eventually most of these countries voted to become states in the US in order to have more say in their governance. Newfoundland, Greenland and Haiti (comprising Haiti and the Dominican Republic) are the only non-US controlled territories in North America or the Caribbean, the remainder have become US states.

A New Development

In 2150, the world was witness to the longest total eclipse of the sun ever documented. It was predicted to be 7 minutes in length, long in and of itself, but for reasons astronomers try to explain with terms like “interstellar cloud” or “dark matter manifestation,” the sun was hidden for more than ten minutes, and this “eclipse” was visible over the entire sunward facing hemisphere. It is to this event that the origin of metahumans is typically traced.

Each geopolitical entity has its own position regarding the existence of metahumans. The NCR has firmly established them in their legal and judicial systems, affording them identical protections as ordinary humans. The US, EU, and China, however, officially deny their existence, though the normal man on the street generally acknowledges their existence. The “average person” attitude toward metahumans is one of fear and suspicion. Violent demonstrations and beatings of metahumans are not uncommon, and in governments that don’t acknowledge their existence, these are not treated as hate crimes.

The Order of Lichtburn, named after the first metahuman “martyr,” is a covert, private organization, operating primarily in the US, that seeks to discover and protect metahumans. Little is known about their further agenda or motivations, but their operatives, primarily metahumans themselves, are extremely dedicated and effective.

Metahumans are not uber-powerful supermen. They have less glamorous abilities and less raw power than you read in most comics. Someone who could control fire is incredibly powerful, whether or not he could create it. Most powers eat up a lot of stored calories when used, leaving the person using the power exhausted and hungry afterward. Metahumans are also still uncommon. It is estimated one person in 100,000 may have metahuman talents, though actual documented cases are much more rare. Thus there are a possible 100,000 metahumans alive among the 10 billion people on earth, though the more conservative estimates place this at 10-50,000.

US Business in the 22nd Century

By the end of the 21st century the US was more or less crippled militarily, at least in an international sense. However, far from turning the US into a third-rate power, the US found itself an economic powerhouse. Being in control of the “Fuel Basket” in the mid-west, the US controlled fuel prices like OPEC once had. They also retained control of much of the industrial infrastructure in the world, since the EU had collapsed. Thus the most powerful NGOs on the international stage are American. And the most important of these is ASI.

ASI Corp, or Auditing, Security, and Investigation, is a private organization with branches in nearly every nation on earth, including Australia and Korea. The US government often uses ASI for contracts and oversight matters, even though they grumble about ASI’s use of metahumans. ASI is also looked at as a neutral, impartial party in inter-corporation disputes, and is used for mediation more often than the US courts, especially in international cases. It is also well known secret that ASI can be depended on for espionage and counter-espionage, though how far into “black ops” they will go is not commonly known. There has never been substantial evidence to litigate ASI, and they are extremely careful not to abuse their position or to use the information they gain (or are given) except as it relates specifically to the contract. ASI is seen as a scrupulous group by some, and just this side of evil by many. However, it is universally recognized as a necessary and largely impartial entity, and is used even by groups who don’t like them. There exists no better intelligence or security organization on the planet.

ASI is the largest business in Century City, where their world headquarters is located, and a good half of the population works for ASI on some level. Most other local businesses depend on contracts with ASI for their continued well-being, including the prestigious Century City University. There are several buildings and academic programs at CCU named after ASI CEOs and board members, including the physics, chemical, and biology programs, the science building, the political science and law schools, and, oddly, the Classical Studies programs.

Every ASI employee spends at least 6 months in Northern California for training and grounding in the corporate culture. Due to its connection with ASI, Century City is one of the few locations in the US that can openly acknowledge metahumans and not suffer significant consequences on the national level. The stigma associated with metahumans is much less prevalent here, which is why most think that the Order of Lichtburn, known to have an antagonistic relationship with ASI, is also headquartered there.

ASI resources are vast, and include several R&D divisions, technology development, and their security force. Most corporations have a small army (usually referred to as a “security force”), but ASI’s paramilitary security force is larger than most states, if not all of them.

Every business has at least one security employee or contractor (often contracted from ASI) who is trained to kill intruders (no rent-a-cop 60 year olds anymore; security is an important, directly physical business). This has contributed to the blasé attitude toward violence in the US. When you grow up seeing heavily armed soldiers standing around McDonalds, you aren’t bothered seeing men beating each other bloody on TV.

The sports industry has also changed. The culture of violence led to the legalization of manslaughter in most places for “arena sports,” which include things like the new football league and demolition derbies. Gladiatorial exhibitions are common, but this is often viewed as outright murder because it is more intentional, so these fights are usually taken to the point of incapacitation instead of death. Since it is cheaper to repair a robot than pay a human to die, a culture of robotic sports has grown up, but fans still appreciate “real humans” in the games and get more excited about these “Genuine Games.” Many large businesses sponsor a team in at least one sport; the less prosperous ones sponsoring robotic teams, and the rich participating in Genuine Games.

Space programs have been on hold for many decades everywhere. There is enough unrest on the earth to make interest in other planets close to nil. Still, there is the occasional religious group that enters an interstellar craft bound for distant stars at half the speed of light. Obviously, no one has ever heard of these expeditions again. There are rumors that ASI is making plans to set up moon colonies, but since most people have a grandfather who knew someone who died when the last lunar settlement failed, this is typically written off as insane speculation.

Notes on US Politics

While civil rights are still a major internal issue for the US, there is much less concern for what goes on in other nations—cops beating the Hispanic guy next door will cause violent demonstrations, but genocide in the Grand Kingdom will get very little attention.

The federal military is almost non-existent, and most experts agree that a moderately sized company could defeat them. Security forces with other companies prevent this, however. A large majority of the 92 states have a beefed up National Guard force, and all of them have laws compelling corporations to supply military aid in the event of need. Thus government spending on military is much lower, allowing for much lower taxes and great social services.

Parth: Tarth and Parthann — Two Desert Empires of Faith and Learning

A vast, desert where religion and intellectualism flow like the shifting sands, the Parth Desert intimidates outsiders, but the natives love it as a mother. This region is as lush in history as its delta region is with life.

Geography

Parthann and Tarth are both in the Parth desert, which gives both countries, and the empire that spawned them, their names. The desert stretches for hundreds of miles, with only a very rare oasis to break it up. While it is all desert, there is a remarkable variation in the actual terrain. Sandy desert makes up the largest portion of the desert, especially on the eastern half, but there are also rocky deserts that sport wild cacti and scrub growth, as well as the mountainous land along the coast on the western edge of the empire.

The foothills of the Kharnis mountains sport a huge variety in color and formations in the rocks. There are rumors of ancient civilizations and the remains, perhaps from before the Great Catastrophe, of their cities in the foothills and their mountains. These rumors are generally discounted by all but the most superstitious, but there is even a small minority that like to tell tales of these civilizations still being around.

The Kharnis mountains are themselves also arid, but because of the abundance of shade there is more life there. There are even large animals that live out existence in this region.

The only other physical feature that breaks up the desert terrain is also the most obvious – the great Ilne River. The Ilne is a wide, deep river that runs from the south into the great ocean. The Ilne is the embodiment of Az-Mozeth to the Parthites, and it is the great giver of life. It is along the Ilne that all the major cities in Parthann and Tarth are found.

The Ilne floods annually, sometimes spreading as far as three hundred miles away from the river at it’s low point. The waters rise an average of 25 feet in most spots, but in areas where there are steeper banks it may rise as much as 35 feet. It is this inundation that allows farming in the region. However, it is also a possible hazard for those who live there. Rather than move repeatedly, over a potential hundreds of miles, Parthite buildings are built very tall. A normal residence is usually around 40 feet tall. The first usable level is typically 30 feet off the ground, and all that is underneath it is an empty room with a stair case.

There are several cities that exist along the Ilne river. The largest of these is Kash, located where the Ilne delta begins. Kash is the capital of Parthann, which controls all the delta, and it is the port where most ships dock to unload their goods. Some ships continue on to Neala, but to get to this Tarth port, they must pay the high toll at Kash, and so most would rather not bother.

Kash is home to five of the universities that have made Parthann so important to the world, as well as the world’s largest library and the world’s only public museum. The three universities, the port, and the government define most of the life and work of the people of Kash, and even for Parth, the people here are very educated. Naturally, because of the brisk importing business, there is a very large market. Merchants must purchase something for their return trip, and even scholars and civil servants must eat, and so much of the crops grown throughout Parthann are brought downriver to Kash to be sold.

Along the Parthann side of the river there are relatively few major towns. Most of it is a constant series of farms, though there are a few large towns that hold a university or a library along the banks. Necropoli also dot the riverside, particularly on high points over looking the river.

Neala, located where the Ilne turns south on its journey to the sea is controlled by Tarth (though there is a Parthann version on the north bank across from it, considerably smaller but growing) and is a religious center. In fact, it is the religious center for Tarth. It is where the Predicant lives and there are a large number of temples here as well. By agreement, Tarth can send it’s vessels up the river and through Kash with no fees or taxes, thus the gather spot for crops is here. Neala boasts a very active market as well.

Neala is the location of the largest silk producing industry anywhere. A great number of businesses and yards have been built to corral the silkworms and control production. Parthann has a rival ranch area to the west (where the river turns north again), but it has not been as successful. Neala also produces a number of scents that are starting to gain popularity abroad.

Oasin, along the coast of Tarth, at the mouth of the Parthite Bay, is the capital of Tarth. The capital was moved here after the split, and it has never grown very large. While civil servants and the empress live here, the only other industry is the library. The city is subject to the storms that plague the sea, and thus the library, the university, and the palace are not well kept. Oasin is subject to the whims of the Predicant in Neala, and there is little political power found here either. However, Oasin does boast a large vault which claims to hold several important relics, including Paeal, the sword wielded by the hero Caeral. The vault is a massive, standalone structure, bigger than any other building in the city.

The final important city in Tarth is Sindis, a town located where the desert begins to turn into grasslands, and in the foothills of the Kharnis mountains. It is in Sindis that Tarth’s only university is located. They focus studies on geology and mining here, but there is a growing anthropology department as well. Sindis has the most diverse population in all of Parth, interacting so much with the Free Cities. Sindis is becoming more and more like the Free Cities. Tarth is worried about losing this outpost, and has recently posted a large garrison.

Parthann has a noteworthy port at a peninsula in the north called Ginlu. This is where most of Parthann’s shipbuilding is done, and it is the launching point and supply post for their trips across the ocean. A small university exists here as well, primarily interested in weather, exploration, and anthropology. It is a relatively small, but bustling city. Artifacts from the northern continent are brought here before they are taken to other cities, even if the journeys were funded by other universities, and the University of Ginlu usually manages to get first crack at examining such objects.

Parthann colonies are primarily archeological sites run by the universities. However, Parthann has a strong interest in preserving these colonies and their studies, and so garrisons exist here too, which has led to a few other trades. In a few decades, there will probably be a full fledged city or two among the Parthann colonies. Parthann scholars claim to have found a broad array of anciently civilized sites. Other governments put little stock in this, as none of them have found so much.

Tarth colonies are fortresses. Tarth is very secretive about it’s reasons for colonizing, but it is worrisome to Tyleria, Bask, and Parthann that they would send so much military strength to a region of the world that is barely settled.

History

It is impossible to understand the empires of Tarth and Parthann without learning their shared history and the cause of their split.

In the ancient past, almost lost to legend, was the Great Catastrophe. A century of storms, earthquakes, and upheaval permanently defaced the geography of Azmoth. Humanity was returned to a stone age, with no record of anything. They no longer had knowledge of medicine or writing.

The first kingdoms after this time were formed along the Ilne river in the Parth desert. Over 4000 years ago, nomadic tribes settled in the most fertile locations to cultivate the natural abundance. They began to defend their territory, assimilating or eliminating any other groups that come near. It was in one of these infant kingdoms, Kash, that writing was reinvented.

Over the next millennium the Ilne kingdoms grew, fighting each other for territory. On the west bank, kingdoms began exploring the rest of the desert and claiming it for their own — usually without resistance.

It was not till the first Darkling horde poured across the desert from the south that any sort of unity began to be apparent in this region. Several groups of refugees united at a settlement called Tel-Aken. Their backs to a bend in the river, they fought together under the banner of High-Priestess Neala. Her leadership proved successful, and after a decades long struggle, the Darklings were driven back. The southern lands named Neala Queen. Due to her religious position and their utter devotion to her charismatic leadership, the society became deeply religious and zealous after only a short period — a reputation that has not been lost in 3500 years.

The second most important figure of Parthite history was Caeral, known as the Angel-Blooded. He grew up a humble tradesman, a glassblower until his twentieth year. It was then that another Darkling Horde rose, two centuries after the first, besieging the Kingdom of Neala and threatening it extinction. Caeral joined a small band of men who tried to convince the Kash kingdom to send aid. They were expelled for their views and exiled to the desert.

In a long trek to the plains to the east, most of the group died of hunger and thirst. Caeral alone managed to find refuge with a nomadic tribe. He managed to unite them with several other tribes, which came to Neala’s aid, encouraging several of the other kingdoms to help. The struggle was still difficult, and at the Battle of Shining Sands the human alliance was decimated by the Darlking Horde, led by a half-demon called Bathakarl. After the battle, no one was able to find Caeral.

For several more years fighting continued, with the humans losing more often than not. Two years after the Battle of Shining Sands, Caeral returned, wielding a magic glass blade called Paeal. It shimmered with the light of heaven. Marrying the queen of Neala, he began re-uniting the tribes and kingdoms of the Ilne and preaching the Neala religion. He moved quickly, and soon the Darkling horde was driven into the desert to the west. In a great final battle, hundreds of thousands of Darklings are slain, and Caeral removed Bathakarl’s head with one stroke using Paeal. The sand was permanently turned red with blood – demon, darkling, and human, and is forever after known as the Bloodsand Desert.

The alliance led by Caeral and his wife chose to remain a political entity, and thus the Empire of Parth was born. Kash and the other kingdoms in the north unitde in response. While there was no love lost between the nations, there was also very little violence.

On the 300th anniversary of the formation of Parth, the Queen married the Sultan of Kash, thus absorbing it. The entire Parth desert, from the plains to the east, nearly to the grasslands east of the desert was now one great empire. Over the next two centuries trade roads, including the legendary Shining Path were built and patrolled by Parth, stretching from the capital of Kash and other key cities along the Ilne, all the way to the highlands and the grasslands to the east. The crowning achievement of this period was the founding of Sindis in the foothills where the desert and the grassland meet. This opened the path to more advantageous trade with the locals as well as the founding of several more colonies in the region.

Iron was discovered in the Parth highlands, and this brought the Empire of Parth a great deal of wealth. The Empress used this on infrastructure — maintaining and patrolling the Shining Path, public works, but most notably the creation of the first three universities on Azmoth, in Kash, Tel-Aken, and the remote Sindis. Of these, Kash was, and still is, the most prestigious.

However it was the University of Sindis that first created Iron Glass, a revolutionary material that routed the fourth darkling horde invasion quickly. Iron Glass is now nearly omnipresent throughout Tarth and Parthann.

For nearly three thousand years the empire of Parth continued peacefully. Then, three and a half centuries ago, Mariella, the Virgin Empress died with no heir. The resulting civil war was surprisingly bloody and terrible. The western portion of the empire claimed that the Empress’ seat was a religious position, and as such the ranking priest should fill the position. However, the east held up a noblewoman as a more competent and benevolent ruler. Zeal on both sides tore families apart and destroyed cities. Hostilities finally ended four decades later. The west claimed independence from the heretics to the east and named themselves Tarth.

The eastern empire established a hereditary empress, who was now dependant on two counselors, who could veto if united against the empress, but who were primarily to prevent future problems of inheritance. Together they were called the trinity, and they renamed the empire Parthann at this time.

The Parth cities and colonies in the grasslands found themselves with little or no contact with the rest of the empire. There had been no fighting in this region. The cities found that they were able to operate just fine without larger governing bodies. Combined with the cultural influence from Tyleria and the natives, the cities collectively declared themselves independent culturally, politically, economically, and socially, and each city became a self-governing city-state.

A century after the civil war, the relationship between Tarth and Parthann and became more friendly. A growing movement, particularly among the commoners, begins calling for reunification. The leaders began talks in earnest, but diplomacy broke down less than a year. Unable to come to an agreement on unity, but wanting to please the citizens of both nations, they call themselves siblings. Tarth is Parthann’s brother nation, and Parthann is called Tarth’s sister. They signed treaties of mutual support and defense.

It was only 15 years later when the treaties are tested for the first time. Another darkling horde fights its way up the river Ilne. The love between the nations proved to be true, however, and the two empires, working in close tandem, drove the hordes back in a short two years.

The last darkling invasion was 150 years ago now. Peace has brought prosperity, but also competition between the empires. They are friendly rivals, however, which was reinforced with the discovery of the northern continent fifty years ago. Both empires lent aid to each other to establish colonies northward, fending off Tylerian advances and claims.

Religion

Parthann and Tarth have an essentially similar religion. Many scholars, particularly in Tyleria, where everything besides their own doctrines is heresy, the two religions are thought of as one and the same. However, there are important sectarian differences.

The fundamental belief, in both religions, is the idea that Az-Mozeth created Azmoth, and he is embodied by the Ilne river, the source of all life. For this reason the creative principle is thought of as male by Parthites. This has led to some rather curious institutions.

 

The concept of Az-Mozeth’s incarnation is a difficult one to understand. Like the Tylerians (and most religions of Azmoth), Parthites believe that Az-Mozeth’s touch would destroy the world. However, they do believe in the Ilne being a literal embodiment of the god. They have been accused of cannibalism by others who hear this, and this charge is usually met with indifference by Parthites. Their scholars admit that there is credence to the accusation, but they do not consider it sinful. Az-Mozeth provides water from his blood for their sustenance, and it would instead be sinful to spurn such a gift.

Scriptures of Parth

Parthite religion has a great number of sacred writings, scrolls, and texts. There are literally hundreds of these text that are considered canonical scripture by the majority of Parthites on both sides of the Ilne. Though the exact lists of canon scripture varies somewhat (primarily by region, though larger cities, particularly university cities, will have groups who have slightly different lists), the greater part of them are universally regarded.

A few of the more important and widely accepted texts are described below

  • The Book of the River: This small book is a collection of meditation mantras, prayers, and simple exhortations. It is thought to have originated with Neala, and is used as a primer for children as well as a handbook for all worshippers.
  • The Jihad: The doctrines of this book are thought to have been passed orally for centuries, starting with Caeral, but not recorded until the end of the fifth darkling horde invasion. It gives theological and philosophical considerations to the art of war, especially war with the diabolic enemy. Most Tarthites consider the text valid, but question its origin
  • Incarnal: This fragment is some 10,000 words long, and is the incomplete record of a debate between Parthite scholars about the embodiment of Az-Mozeth.
  • In Service: This is the biography of Caeral as written by an anonymous, but apparently very intimate companion. Debates continue about the identity and even gender of this companion, but it is accepted as authentic. Frustratingly, the author does not discuss where or how he obtained Paeal.
  • Nealandra: This tome collects several of the most authentic biographies of Neala. It is the book most commonly used in Parthann, while in Tarth it is regarded of minor value because of the simplicity of most of the biographies.

Sacramental baptisms and communions are held in the river, and meetings are held in the water as well. Parthite meetings are rigorous discussions and debates about the nature of Az-Mozeth’s incarnation, the role of angels and the Anhouim, propery piety, and other doctrines. The debates are very structured and speaking out of place is grounds for expulsion from the meeting. Few outsiders can understand the debate process without years of study. Anyone, Parthite or not, over the age of 12 years is permitted to participate if they follow the strict structures of the debates. Those who argue clearly non-Parthite understandings, however are often laughed at openly.

While there are a long list of blasphemies that are punishable by death (most having to do with disrespect of the Ilne or the male body), nothing said in a Parthite meeting is ever considered blasphemous — even if it would normally be heresy. All points of view are admitted, but once the meeting is over, repeating traditionally blasphemous ideas will have consequences.

Because Az-Mozeth, the creator and father, is embodied in the river and is the source of all life, Parthites put a high premium on the sacredness of the male body. Male nudity is taboo in their society. Female nudity, however, is common. Further, the male body is not permitted to be altered or scarred — tattoos and jewelry, especially piercings, are sinful.

Previous to the Great Division a Predicant, elected by a council of the most learned and esteemed priests, was elected as the head of the religion. The Predicant would direct the council and resolve disputes. The council would issue papers giving the council’s position. While technically having no institutional authority, much stock was given to the council’s position papers, and so the religion was shaped by the council.

However, since Tarth separated from Parthann, expediency has altered the structure. Both sides have always used scripture for the foundation of their religious debates, but since these are stored in libraries, primarily at the universities, Tarth has come to rely more and more upon the results of their debates. In Tarth, the Predicant has become an absolute authority. Anything she writes is scripture, and her voice has more authority than the result of any debate or any other scripture. Ironically, although Tarth has access to fewer scriptures, they are much more strict with the scriptures they do have: the writings of the Predicant.

In Parthann, however, they have completely done away with authority in the form of any individual. Thus the doctrines shift as the opinions of the educated public do. Thus, over the last few centuries, ideas have diverged a great deal, especially regarding complex ideas such as the incarnation of Az-Mozeth and the sacredness of the male body. Tarth has started to come to believe that this sacredness also extends to the female body, while Parthann remains conservative and "orthodox" on the issue, and female nudity is still very common to the west of the Ilne.

The primary difference is that Parthann has become less rigorously scholastic and intellectual. With fewer intellectuals and reduced access to scripture, pronouncements by priestly figures have become more accepted as doctrine. However, because the meetings have become less rigorous in debates, more ritual has started to creep in. Most congregations have ceremonial recitations to begin and end their meetings. Indeed, it is because of this that Parthann citizens can still debate with those from Tarth if the situation arises — they are very familiar with the few scriptures they do have.

There are also various blessings given in Parthann that have never been done in Tarth. The most important of these ritual blessings is performed at the new year, and a muddy paste made from sand and water from the Ilne is smeared on all citizens at the blessing. Such a paste is also often smeared on the male members of a congregation once a month or even once a week in some places.

The Parthites Themselves

Parthite life is, as a necessity, austere by most standards. Scarcity is the law of the desert, and scarcity of food and water translates to scarcity of other things. Parthites, even the well off and high-born, dress simply, in loose pants and tunics, tied at the waist, wrists, and ankles with leather straps or ribbon. Colors vary widely, as do patterns, though most clothes are made from the silkworms that thrive in the southern Ilne plains.

The first and most noticeable aspect is the nudity and partial nudity of the women. Despite the importance of the river, there are very few river people in the Parthite empires, and the desert people don’t suffer ill effects from exposure to the heat and sun. Thus, because it is not taboo, clothing is worn only for decoration, and in keeping with the plain dress, usually there is not very much of it.

The exception to the simplicity in fashion is jewelry. It is sinful to pierce the male body, but women wear a great deal of jewelry, primarily made from shells and stones from the river. Minerals are not common, so only the most wealthy women wear jewelry of gold or silver or even copper.

The second most abrupt custom of these empires is the greeting. Because of the sacredness of the river, and the scarcity of water, spitting on someone’s face in greeting is considered a sign of respect. It is customary to leave the spittle on your face when you are so honored. Parthites are open and welcoming, and generally, newcomers will be the recipient of spit until they prove themselves unworthy of the honor.

Birthdays

Parthites count age much differently than others. A Parthite is considered one year of age at birth. Age progresses at the new year. Natal days are not celebrated, instead, this celebration is wrapped up in the inauguration of a new year. Thus, conceivably, a child who is only a few days old could be considered two in Parthann or Tarth.

There are certain ages that are given special recognition in these countries. The age of 12, for example, is considered an entry into early adulthood — though true majority is not reached for three more years for girls, and five more for men. Thirty is also considered a special age, and it is then that a Parthite may apply to teach in the universities or to work as a civil servant.

Finally, 67, the age at which both Neala and Caeral died according to tradition, is considered the end of life. While it is not mandatory, a majority of Parthites spend this year creating a copy of the Book of the River and securing a glass case for it. At the next new year, they throw themselves into the Ilne with the large, heavy case and book chained to them. This is considered returning to Az-Mozeth and allowing your life energy to sustain future life, and is not sinful, like any other suicide.

Parthite society is not, strictly speaking, matriarchal. Men can and have held extremely important positions, frequently rivaling the empress and the Predicant in authority and reputation. However, women hold most of the positions, while men are predominantly scholars.

Marriage has a different pattern than most cultures. Because the procreative power of men is so sacred, and therefore valuable, women in the Parthite empires have come to "horde" them to build up their wealth. Women marry several men, as many as they wish, though only one is considered a full husband and it is this chief husband who actually sleeps with the wife.

The other men are almost considered property. While they may become the chief husband of another woman, this woman must pay a fee each month to keep him. While the first wife has the right to both change a husband’s status (to make him the chief husband or demote him) and to revoke the marriage of one of her lesser husbands, a husband who has been married to another woman is very rarely taken away, even if the woman becomes unable to pay.

Female children of marriages are considered the children of the father’s primary wife. Male children are the children of their literal mothers. Since there are (generally much larger than marriage fees) dowries paid for unmarried men to their mothers, this makes women with many sons quite rich. In fact, marriage is the single largest industry, by leaps and bounds, within the borders of Tarth and Parthann.

Women hold most government, civil service, and merchant positions among Parthites. Scholarship, artists, and artisans are considered men’s jobs.

There are few sports outside of martial arts (fencing, usually with sabers or scimitars or wrestling) that are widespread in Parth. While healthy and fit, Parthites are an intellectual and contemplative people. Most children know how to read and write by age four. Baskers consider Parthite theater and art "boring."

The one Parthite art that other nations try to replicate is architecture. Parthites have a talent for new and interesting designs that are both decorative and functional. They solve building problems quickly and efficiently. Extremely rich Silkurees and Breggies pay for Parthite designers. However, Parthites, as a rule, do not care for the climate outside of the desert, so the few Parthite architects who will do work there have a long waiting list of potential clients. Bask, being a richer nation, on the whole, has a number of extremely prominent building designed by Parthites.

Parthites Abroad

Parthites are insular, and as a rule they are hesitant to leave their homeland. However, this does not mean they don’t leave. Especially if they are part of an exploration or have an opportunity to do study away from home they will spend a few years in a foreign land.

Parthites are mystified by the differences in religion across the world. As their first approach to religion is debate and argumentation, it often creeps into their discussion when they are foreign lands, even when they know this is not the local custom. This has earned them a reputation for belligerence, particularly in Tyleria, who are fanatics in their own religious customs.

However, Parthites can be found everywhere, though in small numbers, often traveling alone. A scholar of music or folklore may wander with a skald in Bregtoran, or stay at a single inn, studying several skalds. Scholars can be found studying in the fighting schools of Silkur and in the shipyards of Bask. Silkur is often where a Parthite will find the most trouble, not understanding that a Silkuree argument is usually backed up with a knife and is rarely academic.

It is in Bask that Parthites find the most acceptance when not in their own land. Though this is probably true of any nationality visiting Bask. To a Basker, Parthite deliberation is just another opportunity to make money — and their silks don’t hurt the Bask economically.

Silkur: Knives, Pride, and Lots of Wine

Geography

Silkur is a mild land, for the most part. Gentle rolling plains and pasturelands, broken by the occasional copse of trees, dominate the landscape. To the north the hill country rises into the mountains of the peninsula guarding Silkurt Bay, but even these mountains aren’t very fierce. They are nice to look at though. This is all well and good with the Silkurees. They would much rather have an attractive mountain range than an imposing and threatening one.

In the south summers are warm and winters are cool, but far from frigid. Silkurees make their living here farming or raising cattle. Where there aren’t farms the cattlemen drive their herds to and fro. There is no love lost between the farmers and the cattlemen, as the settled farmers despise the wanderers and their lumbering beasts, and the cattlemen cannot stand the sight of the fences the farmers frequently erect to protect their crops from the herds. While there’s certainly tension it rarely erupts into violence. In Silkur, killing for money or business, or for just about any reason, is for the most part very bad form.

The south is also home to two of the primary cities of Silkur: Venda and Luf. Just north of the region where Silkur gently rolls into Bregtoran they mark the definite entry into Silkur lands and culture. Venda, in the west, lies a good distance from the River Nabal and the forested north of the nomad lands. It is home to towering granaries and the great Seed Market where the crops of Silkur farms are bought and sold by merchants and rural lords. The granaries are located mostly on the outskirts of the city, on all sides. While Venda has no wall, the surrounding round towers of the granaries, taller than anything else in the city, give it a walled in feeling. The Seed Market, the largest building meant for humans, is a tall, vaulted hall near the center of the city filled with the merchants’ booths and the clamor of business negotiations.

Venda is also home to a sizable Bregtorian community, being so near to the border. Located in the south of the city, Little Breg, as it is known, is home to many Bregtorian craftsmen and, of course, the alehouses and their tall, thick mugs and skalds. While the Bregtorians tend to stay within their community, relations between the Silkurees and these men from the south are good.

Luf lies on the eastern side of Silkur, about as far from the gentle mountains separating Silkur from the Tyleri Jungle as Venda is from the Nabal. If Venda is the farmers’ city, Luf belongs to the cattlemen. Luf is a walled city surrounded by seemingly endless stockyards and their bovine occupants. Accordingly, the air around Luf has a distinct aroma. It’s a bad idea to mention this to the Lufans, though. Like all Silkurees, Lufans take pride in their home, and an unpleasant comment concerning the smell of their city is a slight to their honor.

The streets in Luf are wider than in many cities so as to accommodate the large amount of horse traffic. Cattlemen are never too far from their mounts. This also explains the interesting position of the Streetsmens’ Guild. With its home in the Guild Hall nigh unto the east wall of the city, the guild and its streetsmen are the lowest class of citizens in Luf, and yet nearly the most powerful. Were it not for their numerous host the city would soon be clogged with manure from the copious horses and the occasional cattle herds that pass through the city. The Guild has a heavy hand in the governance of the city, and one of the main tasks of the city council is to keep the guild happy and working. Each stretch of street has its streetsman, with black shirt, wheelbarrow, and spade, charged with keeping that area clean. Contrary to its name, the Guild accepts both men and women, and anyone who cares to join can take up the spade. It’s held throughout Silkur that if a person’s down on their luck they can always find work as a streetsman in Luf, and this is largely true.

Once a year Luf is home to the Cattlemen’s Fair, a weeklong celebration that centers around games where cattlemen compete with each other in races and feats of prowess on horseback and dangerous contests with the fiercest of bulls. The most important contests are held in the Parade Ring, a large stone arena capable of holding thousands of spectators. The week of the Cattlemen’s Fair is a rowdy, raucous, and exciting time, and it draws crowds from near and far to participate in the revelry as well as the competitions.

Like Venda to the east, Luf also has a population of Bregtorians, but not nearly as large. The Bregtorians in Luf tend to mix throughout the city, and have not congregated as they have in Venda.

To the northwest of the open south the land rises into hill country. The hill country and the neighboring peninsula is the least populated area of Silkur, with towns being much less frequent. Often a town of these hills will consist of nothing more than a small fort of the hill lord surrounded by the huts of those peasants bound to his service. There are no large cities in the hills. While it isn’t overly dangerous to travel, the hill country of Silkur is a wild place. Many who live there make their living tending small flocks of sheep in pastures surrounded by stone walls to keep the wolves or other beasts out.

The hills lead up to the mountainous peninsula where almost no one lives. The peninsula has always been wild, wilder than the hills, and the peaks which quickly rise from the waters of the bay or the ocean are home to much wild game, drawing the hill lords out to the hunt on occasion. It is known that a few hermits make the low, steep mountains their home, shepherding small flocks of longhaired mountain goats.

On the south end of Silkurt Bay where the mountains give way to the hills, and then to the lowlands near the mouth of the Nabal, are the trading towns of the bay. Here the goods of the Silkuree heartland are brought to be packed and loaded onto small ships that carry them out to the merchants and the great trading fleet of Bask. None of them large enough to be called cities, these several towns are situated in the many good but small natural harbors that the bay affords. The docks are busy places as the small ships are almost always coming or going. Only rarely will a large ocean-going vessel come to anchor in one of the bay towns, as most of the business for those ships ends in Bask.

In order to better regulate the movement of goods out to the island, and collectively command better prices for their services, these towns have come under a single authority, the Bay Towns Council, which acts as a common city council whose principal responsibility is the harbors and the ferry fleet.

To the east of the peninsula is the north coast of Silkur, also known as the Flower Coast. This is due to a number of flower farms that can be found outside many of the towns and vineyards scattered along the coastal road. These farms are able to grow many varieties year-round due to the steady climate with warm to hot temperatures that vary only slightly with the changing of the seasons. While not nearly as numerous as the farms or ranches of the south, it isn’t uncommon to see a splash of color in the distance when travelling along the coastal road. These farms are mostly expensive hobbies for wealthy landowners. The growing of flowers is highly respected, though, as the Silkurees are quick to appreciate beauty. Some of the flowers are harvested for use in dyes or in the making of rare spices. Occasionally a shipment of bulbs or seeds will make its way to the port of Silkur-Na-Fal and the world beyond.

To the far northeast of Silkur lands is Silkur-Na-Fal, which from an old speech is translated "Silkur by the Sea." This city is the largest in Silkur, and the ancient seat of its culture that has given its name to all the lands of the Silkurees. Silkur-Na-Fal, or more commonly known simply as Silkur to Silkurees, is set on a peninsula between a small bay and the great ocean, which ocean Silkurees commonly refer to as "the Fal." (Silkurees can tell whether the city or the land as a whole is being referred to mostly by context. Foreigners are often confused, though, which helps to foster the Silkurees’ natural ethnocentrism.) On the far side of the bay is the Tylerian Empire.

"The Fal"

The word fal comes from an ancient version of the Silkuree tongue, and it generally means "sea." Most Silkurees, when referring to the ocean, will simply call it the Fal, and of all words in the Silkuree tongue fal has been the longest in use. It is also commonly used when referring to the city name, Silkur-Na-Fal ("Silkur by the Sea,") and when speaking of the Gate of the Fal or the Sons of the Fal (a door and a guard corps, respectively) within that city, or in the Silkuree anthem. It might be inferred through this use of the word that Silkurees are great seamen, which is not really the case. The Silkurees do hold the sea in reverence, in recognition of its power and importance, but mostly because of the beauty they see in it. The sea is the most common subject for Silkuree artists, followed distantly by the short, steep-sided mountains of the peninsula that guards Silkurt Bay. Many weary landowners will repair for a season to the Flower Coast to spend time in sight and smell of the sea to rejuvenate themselves. Ancient legends among the Silkurees hold that their first fathers came from across the sea. While largely ignored, or held to be fiction, the legends add to the respect that Silkurees have for the great waters to the north.

Although Silkur is not a unified kingdom by any means, most (if not all) Silkurees will refer to Silkur-Na-Fal as their capital, and even the most rural and remote of Silkurees holds a place in their heart for the grand city. Loyalty comes first to hearth (one’s family,) then to home (one’s city, town, or region,) and then to heritage (race and culture.) Silkur-Na-Fal stands as a symbol of that heritage.

The tall, white walls of the city can be seen at a great distance from the sea, and the Serrafon, a lighthouse tower making up part of the north wall on the ocean, is the tallest structure in all of Silkur and a good part of the Tylerian Empire to the east. A smaller, partnering lighthouse, towering nonetheless, sits at the point of the small peninsula. Both help to guide mariners into Silkur Port, as they call it, at the western end of the small bay.

Silkur-Na-Fal is the most cosmopolitan of Silkuree cities. While it’s never openly stated (it would be an affront to the honor of other Silkurees) residents of the capital hold themselves a little higher than others, and are granted a measure of respect when travelling throughout Silkur lands. Foreigners are a common sight on the streets of the city, and several languages are commonly spoken. While busy, it’s a very pleasant city. Many of the flower farmers bring their freshly cut wares to be sold here, and it’s tradition in the capital to give gifts of the flowers on important occasions or to bless the beginnings of marriages, friendships, business relationships, or anything. Flowers are grown in the city itself on balconies and hanging pots. The Serrafon, its tower made of the same white stone as the walls, shines brightly when the sun is out (which is almost always) and can be seen from all corners of the city. The wind travelling up Little Bay (as it’s called in Silkur) wafts the aroma of the sea into the heart of the city, up to the steps of the Palace itself.

The Palace is the home of the city council of Silkur-Na-Fal, and after the Serrafon it is the tallest of buildings in the city, taller even than the walls. Hundreds of years ago, as the city was taking its place as one of the important cities of the coast and the principal city of Silkur, the council sent to Parthann for architects to design them a house of governance. The result is the Palace, a glorious blend of Parthann virtuosity and Silkuree style. The main hall is reached by climbing the Two Hundred Steps and passing through the Gate of the Fal, huge doors made of an unknown black metal that many claim was brought out of the north in the times before Silkurees kept track of history. To forgo the toil of trudging up the steps every day council members and the servants of the council devised curious ox-driven elevators to lift them to the top, but all petitioners must make the climb as a symbolic gesture to prove the worth of their petition.

Well defended by strong walls and the passion of the Silkurees themselves, Silkur-Na-Fal has not known war for many years. The council and the guards they employ are ever watchful, though, for while relations have not been poor with their powerful neighbors, they do not trust the Tylerians to the east.

 

The Silkurees Themselves

As varied as Silkur is geographically, so is it demographically. While it is predominantly Silkuree in ethnicity, humans of each elemental type are represented.

Most common are the plains, river, and forest types, as the majority of Silkuree lands is given to these elements: wide plains, rolling pastures, small groves, and lakes, ponds, and streams. Humans of these three dominant types have found a welcome home here. The rest of the country accommodates the other types as one would expect: there are more ocean types along the coasts of the ocean and the bay, hill types in the highlands to the northwest, and more mountain humans in the peninsula and to the east than elsewhere.

The least represented of the types are the desert and jungle humans. Their element is not found within Silkuree lands in any appreciable degree, and so obviously their numbers are fewer. There are some jungle types that live along the flower coast, as the more tropical climate in the north turns the groves and copses of the south into pockets of more dense and lush vegetation. Desert types are mostly found in the cities, where small communities are often centered around the Tarthite or Parthite priests of the seminaries.

Two major reasons exist that make Silkur a land where elemental type is more of a personal issue rather than a social one. First of all, the variety of types that inhabit the land have given the Silkurees a familiarity with diversity, and little cause to fear a person of one element or the other. Secondly, with this variety it’s likely that there’s a little bit of many elements in every Silkuree’s lineage. To judge a man or woman adversely because of their type would in most cases impinge the honor of one’s own family, and it would also be a surefire way to get one’s self into a duel. Consequently, humans of all elements generally feel comfortable anywhere within Silkuree lands, and the population reflects this. It is not uncommon to see mountain humans in Venda, forest humans in the capital, etc.

 

Government and Military

As mentioned above, Silkur is not a united land. It knows no king, and never has. Land has been handed down, traded, bought and sold for hundreds of years, and no one questions ownership or commands respect or loyalty solely for who they are. There is no formal system of aristocracy and no titles except for the ones the wealthy or the landowners take for themselves.

Those with money and land tend to make the policy. They are prevented from becoming oppressive, self-seeking, and ruthless tyrants by the strong sense of honor by which Silkuree culture is characterized. Every man has honor, and every man has power enough to shape his fate to a certain degree. The wealthy and powerful just have more opportunities.

Those who are wealthy and powerful have for the most part arrived at their power and wealth through business. The merchant families with the oldest established holdings and business relationships are the most powerful. Virtually all money in Silkur is old money. As wealth is not requisite for honor, few (if any) Silkurees look to money as a means to improve their life or gain happiness.

In the countryside of the south and the northeast the large landowners rule. They own the farms, the ranches (and sometimes both,) which feed the people and produce the main exports from Silkuree lands. They maintain small mercenary forces to maintain order on their estate and the surrounding area. They live in large country estates, usually removed from the small towns or villages that provide workers for the farms and ranches. The management of the agricultural enterprises is left almost entirely to the care of the experienced hands and bosses, and often these positions are handed down from father to son, so that many families of workers and landowners have relationships that run back for a hundred years or more.

To the north, in the hill country, the landowners are fewer, as there is little agricultural profit to be made from the wilder country they inhabit. The hill lords often make their profits from small shepherding enterprises, or merely from the protection they offer from the wild beasts and sometimes bandits with whom they share the country.

Cities, and the largest of towns, are governed by councils. The councils are composed of representatives of the wealthy families that inhabit those cities, and there are no elected offices. The wealthy families of the cities have made their money largely through commerce and trading, although most urban families have holdings outside the cities. The merchant families employ various purchasing agents, mule teams, and salesmen to keep the profits coming in.

Being composed of members from each of the important families, the city councils take on more responsibility than the rural landowners do over the lives of those who live within their charge. They are more organized, and they maintain formal police and defense forces, pass laws in agreement with all council members to maintain order and keep working relationships good for all, and often establish relationships with other cities, nations, or lords, working collectively to achieve their aims.

Not unlike the councils of larger cities, the Bay Towns Council (mentioned above) coordinates the business and governance of the several towns lining Silkurt Bay that move the export goods to the island of Bask.

The main military presence in Silkur are the corps of guards employed by the councils. Each of the cities or towns that have so organized has its own corps of guards, with a distinct livery. The largest and most well known of these corps belong to the largest cities. The City Guards of Venda wear red with white breast-stripes running across the shirt. The Watch of Luf wears sky blue shirts and tan trousers. The Harbor Guard of the Bay Towns Council wear their mail shirts over undershirts of green, and are known for their long halberds and poleaxes, which are often used to fish out longshoremen or others who have accidentally fallen into the bay.

The most well known of all guard corps in Silkur are the Sons of the Fal of Silkur-Na-Fal, seen by all Silkurees as a quasi-national army. They are the largest of all such corps, and the most elite, and any Silkuree who aspires to a military career eventually hopes to work his or her way up to joining the Sons. The Sons of the Fal wear the mail shirt on the outside of undershirts of silvery gray, after the fashion of the Harbor Guards. The mail is stained black through a process as it forged together into individual shirts.

In the face of invasion Silkur relies on conscription to man a citizens’ militia. The largest of councils and landowners have an informal network that is activated according to need, and Silkurees are usually quick to come to the defense of their brothers or sisters. These armies are surprisingly effective, for not only are the Silkurees staunch defenders of their lands in both word and deed, but for cultural reasons they are also skilled fighters.

Both the Harbor Guards and the Sons of the Fal employ small craft in the protection of their harbors. Aside from this Silkur maintains no military presence on the high seas.

Culture

Bregtorians fight because they have a passion for battle. Silkurees fight because, well… the Silkurees are just plain temperamental.
-ak Karmin al Jareed, historian, Imperial University of Parthann

Three words can summarize Silkuree culture: beauty, honor, and violence.

Silkurees are quick to appreciate beauty, in many of its forms. They are fond of painting and dancing, of growing things, of color, and above all, of living beautifully, as they would term it. A beautiful lifestyle is one where work is appreciated but not worshipped, where honor is maintained, where family is abundant, and where leisure is perfected to an art form. The Silkurees are master celebrators, and they celebrate often. Whether one is celebrating a wedding or simply an idle afternoon on the front porch of a country estate, the Silkurees take these celebrations seriously. Food, environment, company, and activity must all be taken into consideration. Wine, or other forms of alcohol, are essential ingredients for nearly every occasion, and there is an appropriate wine for almost every occasion. The Silkurees are very fond of their wine, which is mostly produced by the northern vineyards along the Flower Coast. Silkuree wine has established something of a reputation internationally. While wine and alcohol are important, the Silkurees are very careful not to get inebriated. Drunkenness does not belong in a beautiful lifestyle. In fact, for a man to get drunk would be impinging his own honor. As a result, Silkurees as a whole have a very high physiological tolerance to alcohol, and are very conscious of its effects on their bodies.

Honor also plays a large part in Silkuree culture. The paths to honor are many, and accessible to all; every man, woman and child has it, is born with it, and in their lifetime may increase or diminish it. Several means of gaining honor lie in everyday life: working hard at whatever worthwhile task, generosity, the pursuit of beauty, etc. Any opposite behavior detracts from a person’s honor. Living up to one’s loyalties is another means by which honor is gained. As mentioned above, a Silkuree’s loyalty is threefold: first to hearth, then to home, and then to heritage.

Family is very important to the Silkurees. A Silkuree is expected to support his or her family members and relatives should they need it. This support can be economic, political, or even physical. Elders are well cared for in Silkur, as it is a point of honor for a man to respect the elders of his family. The hill lords and their folk in the north take family very seriously, more so than most Silkurees. There, family sticks together, and it isn’t uncommon to see an entire village as the home of just two or three families (in the extended sense: aunts, uncles, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc.)

Loyalty to one’s place of birth comes next. Many Silkurees stay put and travel very little during their lifetime, and so their loyalty lies in their place of residence. Those that do travel carry their place of birth with them in their hearts and cherish their memory of it. To a wanderer born in the village of Methre on the Flower Coast, Methre will always be the sweetest place, home to the most hospitable of folk, surrounded by thousand of fields of flowers, where the sun always shines. The wanderer will hold Methre in her heart wherever her travels take her. Anyone who calls this memory into question, who insults Methre, or has unkind things to say about it, calls her honor into question, and this is not lightly done. This is why Silkurees are quick to compliment a place and slow to criticize, no matter what their opinion of it. Many violent confrontations are avoided this way.

"Fair Havens and Fal"

The Silkuree anthem is of ancient date and is beloved by the Silkuree people. It is as appropriate to sing it in the tavern as it is to sing it during matters of state or on holidays. The words of the first two verses are recorded here. There are forty-four in all.

Oh fair havens and Fal, my fair havens and Fal,
I look ever to thee, blessed land!
Though I roam from thy ways and thy sun-brightened days,
I still hold thee in heart and in hand!
And if dark days descend and nigh bring to an end
The beauty that in thee endures,
In heart still art thou fair, and to thee I’ll repair
As the wind makes its way to the Fal, the Fal.
As the wind makes its way to the Fal.

Thy shores ever will last, and from ages now past
Thou hast risen to greatness and fame.
And the whole of the south, from an unbidden mouth,
Sings high praises to thy mighty name!
And the glory that flies out of thy fairest skies
Shines abroad to illumine world.
But to its own it yearns, and it e’er must return
As the wind makes its way to the Fal, the Fal.
As the wind makes its way to the Fal

Lastly comes loyalty to heritage. Silkurees are proud of who they are and how they live. Silkur is to the Silkurees as a shining crown, more glorious than any in the world, and each Silkuree’s birthplace is to them the gem in that crown. Foreigners can’t be expected to understand this, and so the Silkuree will always treat them with respect, yet ever so subtly as a child also, for their ignorance in this. Silkur-Na-Fal, the default capital of the fragmented Silkur lands, is the greatest symbol of this loyalty. It is quite obviously (to Silkurees) the grandest city of any of the great cities of the world. Its towers are higher, its walls thicker, its streets more beautiful and more bright. Just about everything that is best about Silkur (and thus about life) is found there. Often the memory or mention of the capital city will draw surrounding Silkurees into the singing of "Fair Havens and Fal," the traditional Silkuree anthem. Anyone who insults Silkur or its capital insults the Silkuree.

After the big three loyalties lie others that one would expect: loyalty to friends, to profession, even loyalty to brands of wine. It’s plain to see that there are many ways to insult a Silkuree, and altercations where honor is on the line are common occurrences. The traditional-and practically only-means of resolving questions of honor is combat. Silkurees are extremely quick to a fight. That includes all Silkurees: men, women, and children. What makes it complicated is that if one Silkuree is insulted, ties of blood, friendship, or geography may draw others in. An ill-timed remark can erupt into a brawling mob if the right people are present.
 

Fortunately, most often the conflict is only between two individuals: the insulter and the insulted. And the most common form of combat in these situations is the knife fight. All Silkurees carry knives. The size and style may vary with the region. Rural folk tend to carry larger knives with broad blades, and they wear them outwardly on their belt. The urban Silkuree more often carries a smaller knife, quicker in the hand and more easily concealed. There is nothing sinister about concealing a knife in Silkur; any man or woman is expected to be carrying one whether it’s visible or not.

There is nothing formal about the duels, and no procedure or ceremony is followed. Gender makes no difference either, as speed and skill are as important as strength in the knife duels of the Silkurees, so women may duel men and not think twice of it. Once it’s agreed that there’s to be a fight (usually indicated by the insulted party drawing their knife and glaring at the offender, who draws in return) it’s not over until one party yields. As mentioned above, it is generally very bad form to kill in Silkur, even during the heat of a duel. To kill a rival in a duel is to cast great dishonor upon one’s self, and in many places is punishable by law. It is of necessity, then, not only by the frequency of their duels, but by their nonlethal manner as well, that the Silkurees are very skilled knife fighters. Prowess in arms is another path towards honor, if approached correctly, and the greatest knife fighters are some of the most respected and honored individuals in a community. Another result of the frequency of duels is the high incidence of scars among Silkurees.

This culture of violence also helps to explain the effectiveness of their citizens’ militias, which are formed according to need. When need arises and word is spread of conscription, it isn’t long before all able bodied men, and some women, line up outside the city hall or landowner’s gates of their own accord. Service in the militia brings not only an opportunity to achieve honor in battle, but the opportunity to achieve it in defense of the Silkur lands and heritage, and few things are more honorable and important to the Silkuree.

Religion is not a powerful element in Silkuree culture. Their most frequent religious urge is to express gratitude in celebratory toasts to the angels, gods, or whatever powers that be for the blessings of the beautiful life they enjoy. There are those Silkurees who do worship regularly, but the devout Silkuree is the exception to the rule.

Native Silkuree religion consists mostly of wandering priests. These wandering priests never get too doctrinal or deep, and do not belong to a clear organization. Becoming a Silkuree priest often only requires a respectable knowledge of the general Azmothian religious tradition and a desire to take up the vocation. For this reason Silkuree priests are not very respected as religious figures outside their native lands. Silkuree priests sometimes use other cultures’ religions to flavor their ministry. They may borrow from the faith of Tarth and Parthann, lugging around a weighty text of scripture (which would be more of an accessory than a useful religious device.) Or they may borrow from the Church of Bask, using the Sailor’s Prayer and wearing an ornate Basker sea charm as a necklace, or from the Bregtorian Army of the Faithful, hefting a warhammer and frequently spouting battle metaphors. The degree to which they borrow depends on the priest. Mostly the borrowing is that of form rather than substance.

As far as religious practice goes, the Silkurees don’t like sermons. Priests are there to perform weddings and the initiations of infants into life, the young into adulthood, and the dead into the afterlife. They may say a few words on these occassions, but anything longer than five minutes is considered bad form. They live from charity and the gratuities they receive for performing these very ambiguous ordinances (which are often specified and designed by the worshipper who desires them.) As a result, they aren’t very wealthy. They’re given respect for their office, but it’s a courteous, social respect, not a reverential one.

Exceptions to the generally superficial nature of Silkuree religion are the Silkurees who have taken loyalty to family to the extreme, and who practice a form of ancestor worship. Small cults exist, none of them very organized, which hold that revered ancestors become angels when they die. This ancestor worship is most common in the northwestern hill country of Silkur, but can be found elsewhere in the land. In Silkur when honor is concerned, matters of religion are largely irrelevant, unless it’s a matter involving a slight to one’s ancestry and the worship of those progenitors.

Aside from the priests that borrow from other traditions, evidence of foreign religions can be found in Silkur fairly easily. In Venda’s Little Breg and in other areas to the south where significant populations of Bregtorians can be found there are chapels of the Bregtorian faith, the Army of the Faithful. In every major city Parthite or Tarthite (or sometimes both) seminaries and worship halls can be found, and their scholar disciples even succeed in the occasional convert among the more urban Silkurees. While the Church of Bask maintains no official presence in Silkur, expatriate priests can be found in the towns lining the Bay of Silkur, and at the harbor of Silkur-Na-Fal. The Silkuree capital is also home to the only official presence of the Tylerian faith in Silkur. This temple caters to the small Tylerian population of the city and is tolerated, but those in authority keep a watchful eye on it.

In addition to religion, Silkur has been culturally influenced in other ways by neighbors, particularly Bregtoran. The influence of Bregtorian culture can be found mostly in the far south, in large instances such as Little Breg in Venda, or in smaller ways, such as the presence of traditional Bregtorian metalwork and patterns in the handle of a fieldhand’s blade.

 

The Schools

 

For Silkurees, fanaticism or abundant zeal are not virtues, and anyone who gives themselves over to a sole purpose or occupation, who dedicates their life to just one thing, is considered slightly touched and well outside the norm. Too much dedication can bring a loss of honor, and this explains why little of renown has emerged from Silkur lands, except for wine, of course. Dedication to wine is a dedication to life and to beauty, and is not counted as overly zealous.

Some few Silkurees believe that a dedication to combat, like a dedication to wine and celebration, is also worthwhile. This is an easily understood position by all Silkurees, given the often violent nature of their relationships, but it is not often shared as it is far too taxing for the tastes of most Silkurees, given the inevitable encroachments on their practice of celebrating often. While most Silkurees mock the sacrifices these martial devotees make, and do not share the belief that their practices give to them any special advantages, they do respect their abilities, and are very careful not to offend them.

These devotees have organized themselves into various groups that can be found all over Silkur. There are schools, as they call themselves, that date back hundreds of years, and others that are relatively new. These schools are not religious in nature. One thing common among all schools is the belief that the greatest abilities are endowed to those who achieve ultimate control over the physical body. This focus on bodily discipline takes many forms, depending on the particular group and their code. All groups regulate the intake of alcohol and other body- or mind-altering substances to some degree, and some ban their consumption altogether. Diet, sleep habits, and the use of herbs, among other things, are means towards their end of bodily control. While often mocked, the benefits that these regimens grant to those who follow them are real, and the most adept practitioners achieve sometimes amazing results.

Following is a list of the main schools in existence, as well as their areas of focus and where they are found.

The Unity is the oldest known school. Branches can be found in all major cities of Silkur. The head of the school, the "One," leads the branch in Silkur-Na-Fal. The Unity is a moderate school, limiting consumption of alcohol and meats but not forbidding them. Their main focus is meditation and stretching exercises. Dropouts of The Unity are often hired on as contortionists in circuses in lands outside of Silkur.

The Green School was founded in the hill country and is mostly restricted to that area. Devotees of the Green School are vegetarians, and they are also forbidden to consume alcohol. While they do not drink it, they do maintain the curious practice of washing their bodies with highly distilled alcohol, which they claim purifies the flesh of imperfections. Widely held to be the most conservative and extreme order, both male and female devotees also take vows of celibacy. Those who break this vow are cast out of the school and held in great dishonor by their peers. While extreme in its regimen, some of the most celebrated and accomplished fighters in Silkuree history have come from this school.

No one, not even any of its members, knows where the Land Fish School acquired its name, but it is still in use. The Land Fish originated in the lands near the River Nabal in the west, and have spread to include members and branches in much of central and southern Silkur. Their largest school is located roughly a day’s ride east of the mouth of the Nabal, close to where the plains rise into the hill country. While not as extreme as the Green School, the Land Fish School is almost as curious. Its members hold to a unique sleep schedule. They sleep for one hour, and then are awake for four. They then sleep for another hour, followed by four more hours of wakefulness, and so on through the day and night. Members train themselves to fall asleep on a moment’s notice, and to also awake naturally after the space of an hour. Land Fish devotees are also very silent, and while they do not forbid speech, they speak only when it is very, very necessary.

The Yurinath School is named after its founder, the famed cattleman Yurin Tellara, and is located in Luf and its environs. Their practice is unique in that they incorporate the mastery of horses into their regimen of self-discipline. Yurinath devotees spend much time on horseback, sometimes going for days without dismounting. They have developed a form of communication with horses through sound and touch that many find uncanny. They also are strict vegetarians, and often subject themselves to fasts where they consume nothing but mare’s milk for extended periods of time. Yurinath horsemen are of world renown for their abilities, and are much sought after, but few ever leave the plains and pastures of southern Silkur, and none without good reason.

 

Silkurees Abroad

As Silkur is not a unified nation or kingdom, Silkur itself maintains no formal diplomatic relationships with any other national entity. Sometimes individual cities or other authorities may form these relationships, but they form them on behalf of that city only, and not of all Silkur. Given its nature as cultural capital, Silkur-Na-Fal often sets the tone for the Silkuree approach to other nations.

Silkur as a whole has had little trouble with its neighbors. Their most frequent contact comes with the Bregtorians to the south, with whom they have an amicable relationship for the most part. Some scholars believe the Silkurees and Bregtorians to be distant cousins, racially.

The Silkurees have little to no contact with the nomads that inhabit the plains to the west. Most of the nomad lands opposite Silkur across the River Nabal are forested, and the nomads themselves venture there only infrequently. As the nomads are not a business-minded people, the Silkurees have seen little reason to seek them out.

Silkurees, and Silkur-Na-Fal specifically, maintain a peace with the Tylerians to the east. There is some trade across the Little Bay, or over the gentle mountains that divide the Silkur lands from the Tyleri Jungle, from which both Silkuree and Tylerian profit. Politically, though, the Silkurees are watchful of their imperial neighbors and wary of any encroachments they might make. They are aware of Tyleri conquests to the east and the uneasy peace they maintain with the Free Cities, with whom Silkurees share a love of independence, if nothing else.

As individuals Silkurees sometimes travel abroad, either as sailors on the merchant vessels of other nations, or as adventurers seeking honor and accomplishment in faraway places, or as agents for various Silkuree commercial enterprises that have business abroad. Some Silkurees leave their lands to make a new home elsewhere, though this is not common, and is generally the result of some falling out or other unfortunate event at home that drove them away.

It is hard for people of other lands not to have opinions of the Silkurees. They are very social and personable, and very hard to ignore. Wherever they are, they carry their culture with them. While the Silkurees themselves think they are being reserved, people of other nations find that Silkurees tend to boast and brag of their home country often.

With their entrenched concept of honor and the violence it often causes, the Silkurees have earned a reputation for rashness and hot tempers. This can get them into trouble very easily outside their own lands. This has also caused many people to see all Silkurees as criminals and vagabonds constantly in search of fights. Generally, though, Silkurees are seen of as fun, and nice to have around in a party, if you can tolerate them and know your way around their culture.

The Nomad Plains: Wanderers in a Strange Land

The Nomad Plains are a wildland of bluffs, grasses, griffons, and stranger creatures. The people who live there are as unique as the land and the fauna.

Physical Geography

The geography of the area known as the Nomad Plains is rather simple. Aside for a forested region along the Silkurt bay, the region is almost a homogeneous savannah grassland, sometimes of rolling hills, with a few scattered pockets of trees.

The northern forest, called simply the Treeland by the natives, is a relatively temperate forest is less heavily peopled than other parts of the plains, but as the locals are nomadic, and there are resources in the forest, there is usually some presence there. The forest is fertile with a large diversity in flora and fauna, including game fowl and a variety of edible roots that keep for lengthy periods of time.

The plains are generally dry, but are good ground for raising several hardy grains that the nomads live on. Several of these plants look like grasses, but have hidden kernels inside. One type, the oarth, can be eaten raw, and is the primary staple food of the region. The oarth has a very tough, fibrous stalk and leaf which are used as textiles and rope.

Wild oarth produces the strongest fibers, and thus the natives do not raise it. In fact, it is often necessary to take measures that slow the spread of oarth so that other crops can be raised.

The natives of the plains divide the region into seven "lands," each of which has a resource it produces: livestock, crops, and so forth – Treeland, for example, is where lumber and some foods are gathered.

The other six lands are Shevnu (livestock, primarily Hegs – see below) to the west of Treeland; Arklon, (other livestock, such as fowl and the snake-like Quet-ku) south of treeland along the Gaolv river; and four crop producing lands: Quenar and Belqu on the west, Denla filling a huge expanse of the south, and Pyj, at the south of the Gaolv. In thei local tongue, “Gaolv” means “ghost” or “darkling,” sometimes even demon. Jun-Gaolv is the word they use for the ocean, which implies an even darker and greater power. Whether this is why the nomads are not sea or river-farers, or the other way around, is a subject for debate.

These lands surround a central territory called Queni, or “the home.” Queni is located atop a broad mesa, from which one can see for miles {look up normal sight distance}. The mesa’s top itself is roughly 20 miles in diameter. Queni is where the locals gather annually in the winter.

In the center of Queni is a the largest artificial structure known to humans: a humongous step pyramid that is surely thousands of years old. Some scholars speculate that the trolls or the giants built it, much like the ruins in Bregtoran. Whoever and however the pyramid was built, however, it is clear it was built for inhabitants of human size. All the ceilings and doorways within the pyramid are roughly 8-10 feet high.

The nomads appear to use very little of the pyramid, but neither do they allow outsiders to visit. Little is known how they use this building, though it is clear that much of its use is for religious worship and ceremonies. At the very top of the pyramid there is an observatory that allows for very detailed astronomical and meteorological observation: There are portals for viewing solstices and equinoxes, new moons, eclipses, and so forth. The carvings throughout this observatory, what little has been copied and studied shows a very detailed knowledge of these sciences.

The Nomads

The roughly 200,000 people who live on the plains do not dwell in cities. As the name of this land implies, they are entirely nomadic. Despite their nomadic lifestyle, the natives, who refer to themselves as talka (literally "wanderers"), have an advanced and complex culture. In addition, they are not simply hunter-gatherers. Their social system revolves around allowing wandering while still having reliable food sources.

During the winter, the talka, every last one, gather to Queni. For several months they worship, observe the solstice (the primary holy day), redistribute resources, and mingle with the other tribes — each tribe effectively disbanding. Tribes remaining even the appearance of coherency during the winter is discouraged culturally. The holy men and tribal leaders spend almost all the winter within the labyrinthine pyramid, taking care of government and spiritual matters.

As the spring nears, the people re-divide into tribes. While there is little ceremony involved in diving into the tribes, each family or single adult must get permission from the tribal leader – called a Talkiin to join the tribe. This makes sure the Talkiin knows who is in his group and what they’re needs are. The talka believe in caring for all their people, so very few people are actually refused permission — even if they incapable of doing a fair share of work. However, the Talkiins keep in contact with each other, and if a tribe has enough people to fulfill their work load while others lack, the Talkiin will refuse permission. The other usual circumstance for rejection is when a Talkiin sees that many of the petitioners have been in his tribe for multiple years.

Neither of these situations occur frequently, however. The cultural mindset of the talka encourages them to switch often. Their philosophies, religion, and lifestyle are about flux and change. Just as they do not have a permanent residence, neither do they expect to be permanent associates with most of the people they meet. It is considered lazy to try to stay in the same tribe, or to move to a tribe with the same group of people outside of the immediate family.

Small family groups, however, generally remain together. A husband and wife will stay together for the rest of their lives. The talka are strictly monogamous, and a window or widower will never re-marry. The symbolism of the marriage is that it should be the one stable concept in a person’s life. The dedication to the marriage then should be unwavering. The spouse and family are the highest priority, the talka only after that. Remarriage is seen as a betrayal of that foundation.

Young children stay with their parents. They are considered minors until they can climb the ladders into their homes. Then they are in an adolescent status (kinth, the talka call it) until, independent of their parents, they have been in a tribe to each land in the region. Generally this can be done by the time they are 15 or 16 years of age. After this, they are free to marry and are given full rights and responsibilities of any adult.

The most remarkable feature of talka life, however, is the heg. Hegs are enormous, feathered domesticated beasts. They stand on four, thick elephantine legs, also covered with a thick layer of feathers that hide a band of spurs around near the feet. They have long, thick, clubbed tails and short beaks filled with hundreds of small, flat teeth. Their backs are board and flat, and the shell-like skin is covered with a thick layer of small, soft feathers. Along the sides of their bodies run three rows of spikes which form a circle around the back. The top-most row is the largest and run roughly horizontal. The bottom-most row points downward about 45 degrees from the top row. The middle row is at the midpoint between the others in both size and angle.

The talka build housing on the backs of these beasts. A dome framework is bound to the spikes and is covered with material made from skins or oarth textiles. Usually ten to twelve people live on a single heg – a combination of families, kinth, and single adults. Ladders hang from the spikes to allow residence to climb into and out from their home. Cooking is not done in the home, for fear of harming the beasts. A draft is allowed through the spikes in warm weather, but in colder times this gap is covered by furs and carpets.

The talka ride hegs whenever they travel, and sleep in their heg-tents at night. The hegs bear them from Queni to the outlying lands in early spring. They also carry the talka from location to location within the lands, since they do not take up residence in any specific location. Instead, they wander throughout the land, usually in groups of two or three hegs to tend the fields or livestock in the territory.

Hegs move slow, to conserve energy — it’s difficult to keep an animal of their size fed as it is. Thus the talka keep a very small heard of horses for the Talkiins to use. The Talkiin of a tribe is expected to travel quickly from location to location within the land to ensure all the groups within the tribe have their needs met.

There are two great natural dangers on the plains. The first is the quetzl – a feathered, flying, venomous serpent. Quetzls, like most serpents, would rather leave humans alone, but can be surprised. When a quetzl is unable to flee, it’s first reaction is to bite. Quetzls can be found individually or in nests of several dozen. The venom of a quetzl is so dangerous that even a heg can be killed if it accidentally steps into a nest. Fortunately, hegs seem to instinctively know how to avoid the nests, and when traveling someone is usually on the ground in front to look out for this danger. Hegs, in addition to being so large, live for hundreds of years, and breed rarely.

The other danger is more frequently encountered. The plains support a large number of griffons. A single leonogriff or hippogriff is hardly a match for a heg, but the lupogriff (half wolf, half eagle), unknown in other areas, hunt in large packs. Before the heg was domesticated, the lupogriff was a natural predator. A single heg can feed a pack for weeks before it’s too rotted to eat. And, naturally, even a single griffon can cause damage to a heard of cattle or sheep. Thus the talka are zealous in watching for and griffons.

Griffon feathers and hides, however, are used extensively in talka dress and decoration. Rank and social standing is communicated through elaborate headdresses made with griffon feathers.

Talka are of the plains-type. It is possible there are exceptions (most likely a forest, or possibly a hill type), but none are documented. It is theorized that this is because the Treeland is the least popular tribal area.

Government and Military

The talka have no military as such. They are willing traders with any spare they have. But while oarth is a versatile and strong textile, it is not considered elegant or comfortable in the rest of the world. Ropes and canvases might be made with it, but they can usually be manufactured at less cost than importation. Thus the talka have little worry of invasion. Every individual is trained with the spear and the bow from a young age, however, if only to defend against griffons.

Nomads in the Eyes of Others

The greater part of the world sees the Nomads as curiosities at best. Many, like the religious leaders of Parthann and Tyleria, have branded them as heretics. They are universally seen as throwbacks to a more primitive time.

The talka are not well known in the world because of their insular culture. There is very little trust of outsiders. Thus knowledge of their daily life is sparse, and even less is known about their religious life. This has given them a reputation for dishonesty. In the areas even less familiar with them, they also have a reputation for being thieves.

The talka are semi-patriarchal, in that the father or husband is the head of an individual family, but their family groups feel no tie to their grandparents, though great affection is common. There is a Conqu who leads a group of 2-4 hegs, but his responsibility is only to schedule work and supervise. Real political leadership does not exist beneath the Talkiin level, though the Talkiin will usually have several lieutenants of unofficial rank to aid him. There are seven Talkiins at any time (one for each tribe/land).

Life on the plains is hard, and so the talka respect the aged who survive more than five decades with great reverence. When in Queni, a council of all talka over the age of fifty meets in the pyramid and make any decisions that need to be made about distributing the goods and assigning new Talkiins. They are also the religious leaders. All talkiins and elders can perform religious rites and worship.

Culture

The talka culture revolves around impermanence and transition. It is believed that this stems from their ancient nomadic roots. It is not known why they refused to give up their nomadic tendencies, but their religion, lifestyle, and philosophies are tied into this idea of change. There are only two permanent things in talka life: Queni, and one’s spouse.

There are very few prayers or observances in the nomads’ daily religion. Rather, they have an outlook. They speak respectfully of angels and the faerie (which are more often seen, if not actually more populous on the plains) and honor their work. They believe that the world must change for Az-Mozeth to claim the world (one of their beliefs is that he will come at the pyramid in Queni), and thus they make no attachment to anything in it.

Because of this outlook, the one thing they do consider permanent, the marriage bond, is deeply sacred. All marriages are conducted during the winter and are permanent. In talka culture here are no allowances for divorce, polygamy, or re-marriage after a spouse dies. The husband is called quext, the wife quezti. Both words come from the word identifying a sort of obelisk the talka construct to memorialize events and mark territory. Once a talka is married, his life is entirely centered on that relationship.

Talka marry at the first or second winter gathering after they have become adults (which could be as young as 13 or 14, depending on when the child learns to climb the hegs’ rope ladders). Some young people spend more than a year in a land before going to the next, but it is unheard of for an unmarried adult to be over the age of 18.

Because they are so focused on the transitory nature of life, the talka have no fear of death. Nor do they honor it. Occassionally a quext will be erected for the dead, but there is little ceremony for the dead, and almost no mourning.

The talka dress simply, in robes or loin cloths made of oarth textile. Sandals and headdresses are made from the skins of quetzls or griffons. The primary personal decoration, however, is body painting. The paints are fairly permanent, in that they don’t wash off with water. However, they will fade after a few weeks. Most talka will redo their body paint (or have someone do it for them) when the paint fades. Colors include ochre, brown, and crimson, and the dyes are made from the plants the talka grow as well as quetzl blood and venom. Most body paint designs are highly abstract. Swirls are popular patterns. Many talka, both men and women, shave their head to provide more space for paints.

The Griffon Hunters

The talka never leave the plains.

"Never" is a strong word, but it is almost entirely true. Occasionally a nomad will cross the Gaolv river, or venture into Parthann for a short time, but there is no record of any nomad who has actually left the plains to live elsewhere. Banishment is not a punishment the talka use (in fact, there are few people who are punished in anyway) and the nomads tend to work together in their society very well.

In a few extreme cases, there have been talka who have felt they did not fit into society. Instead of leaving, however, these talka become griffon hunters. They spend their life killing griffons by themselves until they die in the attempt. These individuals still return to Questi in the winter, bringing back any trophies or resources they managed to gain during the year. They do not live on hegs, however, so they do not carry much.

Talka leisure is difficult to define because, like their lives, it is constantly in flux. The talka are naturally physical people, relying on subsistence living in the wild as they do. And much of their leisure involves wrestling and boxing style sports. The rules are constantly changing, and must be defined at the beginning of each game. This tends to be the case with any competitive endeavor on the Nomad Plains.

However, talka are also artistic. As mentioned before, they make quexts to memorialize certain grand events. Just because life is always changing does not mean they do not remember it. Most quexts are very small, other than the ones that demark territories. The black marble that is found under Questi is the most common material for quext making.

A more common art form is tent painting. Both the insides and outsides of a heg-tent will be painted. However, like the body paints, it is not permanent (though it does last much longer) and the same dome will be painted many times before the material must be replaced.

By far the most popular art in the Nomad Plains is sand "painting." On the rare occasion that a talka has a day of leisure, he will make grand designs using the patterns and colors in the sand and dirt. Some of these pictures are narrative, some representative, but most often they are abstract and symbolic.

Second only to sand painting is weaving. However, artistic talka weaving never has a practical purpose. It is done using elaborate patterns of grasses and trains.

Atypically for nomadic peoples, the talka have very advanced knowledge and practice in several of the sciences. Most notable among these are astronomy and agriculture.

The talka are experts in animal husbandry, and have produced excellent breeds of cattle and sheep. These animals are hardy and large. Their flavor is not enjoyed by other cultures, however. The talka overcome the flavor by spicing them heavily.

In addition, the nomads have produced several new breeds of grains. One of the early concerns was overcoming the weed-like vitality of the oarth plant. Early in their history other crops were constantly overgrown by oarth. While this did not generally supply a survival problem, the talka dedicated efforts to overcoming it. They have successfully managed to breed oarth that is slightly less rapacious and forms of wheat and corn that resist being overcome by oarth.

Talka crops and farming methods need little attention. Most of their fields require only a few days of care every few weeks. This was a deliberate innovation of the talka to support their nomadic lifestyle.

As was said before, the talka are advanced astronomers. A common saying is that change is inevitable, but change can be predicted. Not even the philosophers of Parthann can more accurately predict celestial phenomena. The talka combine astronomy and astrology, and their tribe divisions and marriages are dictated by the stars. Their knowledge of the sky also extends to meteorology, and by the age of four or five, most talka children can predict the next day or two of weather.

Bregtoran: Warriors of Steppe and of Skov

Geography

The rolling plains of Silkur eventually give way to the Bregtoran Steppe, which unfolds to the south uninterrupted, except by the Troeggskov, until the Final Hills on the edge of lands. It’s a quiet land. The gentle rolling pastures of Silkur to the north give way to the vast Bregtorian steppe, where the land streches out flat and treeless as far as the eye can see. In the middle of this is the Troeggskov, a forest of immense magnitude where ancient, towering trees stand silently as they have for thousands of years.

The Troeggskov, or "troll-forest" is the great forest that lies in the middle of all other Bregtoran lands. It emerges from the Bregtoran Steppe like a giant sea of green, and the trees of the Troeggskov are truly a spectacle. The immense trunks support a thick canopy, and the effect is like walking through a vaulted, natural cathedral, with a shadowy roof, speckled by the beams of light that occasionally force their way through. The roots of the Troeggskov delve deep into the ground, reaching down to vast, cavernous underground lakes that feed the great trees in an otherwise inhospitable land. It is said that some of the troll buildings in the Old City have secret stairs that lead to these lakes, but only the Masters there know for sure.

Scattered throughout the forest are villages and towns of Bregtorian woodsmen, who make a living hunting wild game, foraging for berries, and in the smithies of the forest. Usually located near a stretch where the undergrowth grows thick, and smaller trees search for gaps in the canopy, the settlements draw on this lesser lumber to build their houses and fuel the fires of their workshops. They are very reluctant to cut down any of the old trees, and very few have been brought down ever since the Bregtorians drove the trolls out and settled the wood. While blacksmiths exist all over Bregtoran, they are most concentrated and of highest renown in the Troeggskov.

Near to the heart of the forest is the Troegghost ("troll-home,") the Old City, with its troll-built buildings.

When the Bregtorians first moved into the steppe to which they gave their name, they avoided the forest, and settled all the surrounding land. There were few elemental forest humans among them, and so the Bregtorians were content to leave the trees to themelves. In time, though, reputation of the unexplored forest spread and the forest humans among the Bregtorians, along with adventurers from other lands, set to explore the forest and settle there. When they disappeared and were not heard of for months, a party was sent to investigate and found the people slaughtered. This exploration of the forest coincided with the rise of the first real vorralcolm (the Bregtorian version of a king.) For revenge, but also in part to solidify his own power, this vorralcolm marshalled a large force and invaded the forest, unaware of what awaited. Thus commenced the Troll wars.

The war continued after the leader’s death, with seasons of uneasy peace broken by fierce aggression from either side, for well into one hundred years. While obstinate and powerful, the trolls eventually became overwhelmed by the ever-increasing number of humans now pouring into their forest, and the Bregtorians gained the upper hand, driving them back to the gates of their city, the Troegghost. The city was eventually taken and the trolls exterminated, but not without great loss to the Bregtorians.

Stories from the Troll Wars are staples for Bregtorian skalds, and while there is general agreement as to the outline of the story, each skald gives it his own particular flavor. One point in all the stories is unclear, though: how the trolls came to be organized and built a city. There exists no other account nor evidence of such organization among trolls, nor of such craftsmanship. Some hold that they were ruled by a demon or other powerful being who made the city for them, but none of the stories makes any mention of darklings or other accompanying creatures. Others believe the trolls of the Troeggskov were the last remnants of a dying, more intelligent race of trolls that once ruled much of the south. There are probably as many theories on the subject as there are scholars or skalds that consider the issue.

The victorious humans did little to alter the Troegghost, or Old City as it is now often called, and the city still looks much like it did when trolls walked its lanes. The gates of the Troegghost are made straight from the trucks of trees, not as large as those trunks of the trees still living in the forest, but large by any standard. They ring an area (the Troegghost is small as far as cities go) about the size of an ordinary human town. The houses and buildings of the Bregtorians have passed beyond the walls and outward into the forest. Inside the city the troll buildings loom, with newer human-built structures scattered among them. The troll buildings are all made of stone, and they stand out; there is no quarry within the forest, and the stones themselves must have been brought in from a distant location. Aside from its strange architecture and history, the Troegghost is an ordinary city. The City Masters, a hereditary council of stewards, are responsible for maintaining order and preserving the unique quality of the city’s architecture.

To the north of the Troeggskov lie the lands bordering Silkur. The weather is mild and while there are definite winters, it rarely snows. Here, as in many other places on the steppe, Bregtorians farm or raise dairy cattle. The steppe is less fertile than the plains and pastures to the north, and so Bregtorian farmers generally have a harder time of it. Bregtorians as a whole have not taken to horses as the Silkurees have, relying rather on oxen to aid them in their labors. In Bregtoran, most Bregtorians travel either travel by ox-cart, or they march.

Not too far from the northeast borders of the Troeggskov is Murgen Dyr, which for the most part is a rather chaotic place. Murgen Dyr sits on the edge of the steppe, and from its walls a person can gaze into the rolling grasses of Silkur. A wealthy man named Old Frehg founded the city long ago. Upon his death power was divided among his sons, who then divided power among their sons, and so on and so forth until the present state of affairs, where different sections of the city are ruled by different men or women, some of whom are no more than leaders of street gangs. No one lays claim to Old Frehg’s lineage today; no one really cares anymore. As a result of this fractured and oft-changing leadership Murgen Dyr is a lawless city, and an exciting one. While certain understandings exist to allow the day to day business of commerce to proceed, it’s largely by force that things are accomplished. If a man can back up his claim with an ax and the strength to use it well, he’s probably right. Unless, of course, there’s a stronger man with a bigger ax to challenge him.

The largest structure amidst the jumble of one- and two-story buildings in and around the city wall is the Judgment Hall. It takes its name from its old use; Old Frehg used to resolve high-profile disputes-civil and criminal-through combat. He had the hall constructed to house these fights. The Judgment Hall is round and tall, supported by buttresses on the outside and pillars on the inside to hold the roof up over the expansive interior. It is a very spacious building. The central feature is the ring, one hundred fifty feet in diameter, surrounded by seats and stands for the onlookers. No longer used for resolving disputes, the Judgment Hall has become the home to a regular series of gladiatorial contests. The fights in the Judgment Hall are non-lethal, and mostly consist of wrestling or boxing matches. There is a vibrant gambling industry that accompanies these fights.

While it’s not spoken of openly, the city tolerates a lethal version of these fights, complete with all manner of weapons. While each city and town in Bregtoran sponsors wrestling and boxing matches, lethal contests are mostly taboo or illegal. In Murgen Dyr these more violent bouts are held in various nondescript locations throughout the city, many of which are underground. The city lies above a network of tunnels and sewers that serve as home to many activities, enterprises, and people that don’t care for the light of day. The full extent of these tunnels is known to probably only a few, as new tunnels and entrances to the underground are occasionally dug for one reason or another. This extensive tangle of tunnels has given rise to the legend of Houthmaw, a beast that stalks the tunnels in search of the unwary man or woman to devour. Whether or not Houthmaw actually exists is hotly debated in many an alehouse. Bregtorian mothers use Houthmaw to scare their children into obedience. Various versions of Houthmaw exist in stories, including a slimy black-skinned troll, an enormous wolf, and a giant fanged serpent. Houthmaw sightings are common fodder for gossip, and corpses are sometimes found in the tunnels. While these bodies could belong to victims of Houthmaw, they could just as easily be the result of the ordinary criminal element that exists in the city.

To the west of the Troeggskov, the steppe stretches out until it reaches the River Nabal that forms Bregtoran’s border with the Nomad Plains. To the east it opens up into a broad expanse that continues until the mountains. Beyond the mountains lie the Tyleri Jungle and Empire. The mountains are actually two different ranges, separated by a high plains pass. On the northern side, the mountains are lower and fairly gentle, not much higher than the high plains themselves. To the south, the mountains are much more intimidating: tall, treacherous, and deemed to be impassable. The high plains are the domain of the Bregtorian oxherds. In the summer, the oxherds feed their oxen on the hardy grasses that grow between the ranges. When winter arrives, they drive their herds down into the lowlands of the steppe at the base of the pass where the temperatures are milder. At the onset of summer and warmer weather, they drive the oxen back into the high plains.

The oxen they herd are larger than the typical ox and hardy enough to withstand cooler temperatures year-round, for even in summertime the high plains aren’t very warm. Their fur is longer, and their horns are longer also. The oxherds rely on their beasts, using their fur for clothing, their skins for the travelling shelters when there are on the march, and living off their milk and meat. They sell the oxen to traders for other goods they can’t produce from their livestock.

Towards the southern end of the gentler northern mountains is Ulvem, home of the forgelords. The Bregtorians found veins of ore in the gentle mountains to their east, and mining operations are a common sight among their peaks and ridges. Near these mining camps and shafts is the city that houses the great forges that refine the ore into metal. Ulvem is a newer city compared to the Troegghost, Murgen Dyr, or the other large cities of Bregtoran. It was a lonely settlement near the entrance to the high plains for most of its history, until the ore was discovered and the miners arrived. While newer, it has been around long enough to become quite a city. The rulers of the city are the owners of the various mining operations in the region, commonly known as the forgelords. They have concentrated production of the raw materials into this central location for important reasons: nearby Lake Jeyd provides water for the refinement processes, the location on the steppe provides a comfortable retreat for miners who’ve been in the mountains, and with the variety of operations nearby, they are easily able to specialize.

While some rudimentary refinement takes place at several of the mining camps, most of it happens in Ulvem. Caravans of oxen pulling carts of valuable ore are constantly arriving, as well as caravans bringing coal or ox manure used to fuel the fires of the forges. Others bring the goods of Bregtorian farms and smithies to exchange for the raw metal that the city produces. The most common ore brought is iron, although smaller amounts of other similar metals have been found as well. As a planned city, the design of Ulvem is quite ingenious. The forgelords were then, and continue to be, very cooperative in their efforts. Although ultimately concerned with individual wealth, they have found that working together usually provides much more opportunity for gain in their industry. While there is no formal governing body to embody this cooperation, the forgelords themselves often meet in council to discuss matters of business and the city.

Ulvem was built on a small hill, which was leveled off. The city rests upon it. The city proper, as the portion built on the hill is called, consists of sixty-four large blocks, making a square of eight to a side. The eight principal forges are housed herein the city proper, one in each corner and one in the center of each side, taking two or three blocks apiece. The smokestacks of the forges rise higher than all else in the city, and seem to ring it with towers. The taller smokestacks have balconies towards their tops, where guards watch over the surrounding lands. The forges also extend underground, into the hill. In the bottoms of the forges are the bellows and the hottest parts of the works. Access tunnels run beneath the city to link the forges, and open up to the hillside to give caravans direct access to the works without having to pass through the city. The hillside has been built up to form a sort of foundation and wall for the city. Access to the city proper is gained by large stone ramps gradually leading up from the steppe on the south and west sides of the city.

The Irons of Ulvem

Ulvem is renowned for its forges and the metals they produce. While the forges produce a variety of pure stock as well as alloys, each particular forge has a specialty brand they’ve developed. The formulas on these special metals are a closely guarded secret. Almost all metals, including the specialty brands, are iron alloys. Listed below are some of the more famous alloys the various forges have produced.

  • Soffel Hard: a good general use iron, frequently found in heavy machinery or other weight-bearing functions such as cart axles. A durable iron that wears well over time.
  • Grey Agyrn: an alloy valued for its use in making armor. Its high density makes it weighty, but difficult to pierce or rend.
  • Lawred: a specialty iron used in fine detail work. Much more malleable than most alloys, it works easily into thin strands, and once formed can be hardened by a tempering process.
  • Brint Benall: often used in weapons (especially blades,) this iron boasts a nice balance between weight and strength.
  • Ox Foot: a very low-grade iron, produced cheaply and used when quality is not an issue.

A chief factor in the design of Ulvem was the climate. In its southern location, temperatures can get cold in the winter. The heat from the underground fires and furnaces of the forges rises up to the city proper, keeping it warmer than the surrounding steppe. Heat also travels through the access tunnels, and so the inner part of the city, where no forges are located, receives heat as well. It keeps the city comfortable in wintertime. Of course the summers, even though they aren’t as warm as they can be in lands to the north, can be sweltering, for the flames of the forges are never quenched. These tunnels, unlike the subterranean mess of Murgen Dyr, are well kept and maintained by the forgelords.

As a mining town, Ulvem has a peculiar character. For the most part, its residents are laborers in the forges, miners on leave from the work in the mountains, or residents of the city who cater to the miners. The miners tend to spend their earnings freely during their leave on ale and entertainment. There are more than the usual number of alehouses and inns, and even some euphemistically named "social halls." There are significantly more men than women in Ulvem. The forgelords themselves live in large manors within sight of the city, but far enough away to be free of the grit of the forgeworks and the ambience of miners squandering their wages.

Surrounding the hill of the city proper are smaller buildings and huts. They mostly line the broad lanes that lead up to the forge accesses built into the hillside.

To the south of the Troeggskov, from the River Nabal to the looming mountains of the southeast, lie the cooler southern lands of Bregtoran. Here the summers are shorter and the winters colder, but by no means frigid. Farms and villages are fewer than in other parts, and less prosperous. Snow is common during the coldest months. The Bregtorians commonly refer mostly empty quarter as the "edge of lands," and with good reason. At the furthest southern point of Bregtoran, a line of hills rises and blocks the view to the south. The Final hills, as they are named, mark the start of the truly cold lands to the south, and due to the temperature and the barren landscape the Bregtorians have not settled them. These hills are not spoken of much by Bregtorians. There’s a good amount of superstition involved, and most fear the southern lands beyond the steppe. Very, very few have ever dared to climb into the hills. Only a small handful is known to have returned, and those few have not spoken at all of their travels to the south, for reasons they do not explain.

 

The Bregtorians Themselves

Bregtorians are by and large of the elemental plains, mountain or hill types. Other types exist, but are not as common. This is due to the simple nature of the landscape of Bregtoran: an open steppe that rises into hills and mountains. Of course, the Troeggskov lies right in the middle of it. Attracted to the great trees, elemental forest types from abroad have slowly migrated to the forest and been assimilated into Bregtorian culture, mingling with the other types that chose to remain after the trolls were defeated. In the Treoggskov it is not uncommon to find forest types, or even a jungle type here and there. Outside of the woods, elemental forest types are hardly to be seen.

Less common than the plain, hill, and mountain types, but not rare by any means, are the elemental river types. The Bregtorian Steppe is more dry than surrounding lands. Elemental types that are truly rare among Bregtorians are ocean, desert, and jungle types. So far from their typical environments, ocean and desert types only exist in Bregtoran at need or due to other circumstances that might attract them. They can mainly be found in the cities. Jungle types are the least common of all. Only a few exist among the great trees of the Troeggskov, and these usually keep to themselves.

Due to the predominance of certain elemental types, Bregtorians can be a little suspicious of less common types. Not all Bregtorians feel this way, but a good number do, and general sentiment often leans their way. Of course, being in the majority, the mountain, hill, and plains types most often harbor these feelings of suspicion. The most inclined to suspect will look upon river and forest types with a wary eye, and will automatically judge any ocean, desert, and especially jungle type to be up to no good. These rare types may experience some degree of social isolation and find themselves the objects of religious persecution (regardless of their religion,) depending on where they find themselves in Bregtoran. The most liberal and accepting of Bregtorians are in lawless Murgen Dyr, while the most mistrusting are in the far south.

Another result of this climate of mild mistrust is the division between the Bregtorians of the steppe and those of the Troeggskov. While it isn’t to the level of animosity, or even blatant dislike, the differences between the environments and the elemental types that live there have placed a subtle wedge between Bregtorians of the two regions. Ralcolms who rule near the borders of the regions often play upon this division when they wish to stir up their people to war.

 

Government and Military

While unified ethnically, politically Bregtoran is as fragmented as a puzzle. There are as many rulers of Bregtoran as there are cities, towns, and villages, and perhaps more. Each town has its own leader, called a ralcolm. The word means "chief" or "head." Whether a person is claiming to be king, queen, duke, countess, mayor, steward, captain, or boss, in Bregtoran they’ll be referred to as ralcolm. How one gets to be ralcolm can vary. Some places have hereditary ralcolms. Some people become ralcolm through wealth, others through strength of arms, and yet others through sheer charisma. Obviously the ralcolm of a large city is going to be more powerful and respected than that of a small town, but the title is the same. There are two exceptions: the leaders of the Troegghost are the commonly known as the Masters, and the rulers of Ulvem are known as the forgelords. Both groups are effectively ralcolms over their cities, but they have come to be known by these specific names.

Ralcolms usually keep a group of advisors to aid them in managing the affairs of land that they rule. These advisors range from capable people who are chosen by merit, to sycophantic yes-men. It follows that the larger the realm, the larger the group of advisors.

Aside from ruling their domain (establishing laws, enforcing them, providing protection, resolving disputes, collecting taxes, etc.) another chief occupation of a ralcolm is warfare. Like their neighbors the Silkurees, the Bregtorians are a fighting race. While the Silkurees’ violence is mostly of a personal nature, though, the Bregtorians’ violent nature is accomplished through organized warbands and raiding parties. It is not uncommon for a ralcolm to raise a warband to pillage a neighboring village or city. Success in warfare brings much prestige to a ralcolm, along with stolen goods and treasure. Thus stronger ralcolms are constantly making vassals of their weaker neighbors, and the tides of power are forever shifting.

Occasionally a ralcolm will conquer a great amount of territory, bringing large numbers of villages, towns, and cities under their dominion. It is then that such a ralcolm will often assume the title of vorralcolm, meaning "great among ralcolms." If more than one ralcolm has assumed this title, war is quick to follow, and eventually there will be only one to make the claim. The reigns of the vorralcolms, especially the most powerful, are turbulent times of constant warfare. Their dominion ends with death, also. No dynasties have ever been established amongst the Bregtorians, as vassal ralcolms all grab for power upon the death of their lord and restore Bregtoran to its typical fractured state.

Throughout its history, some few vorralcolms have united all of Bregtoran under their banner. The elite among these few have even pushed beyond Bregtorian lands in their conquests. Notable vorralcolms of Bregtorian history include Tyrl the Magnificent, Gemek Fellhand, Frigur, the Bladequeen Vanika, and Orom hul Crod.

Warbands are most often composed of ordinary men, and sometimes (but not often) women. Aside from their everyday occupation, every Bregtorian worth his or her salt is a fighter, and a Bregtorian (especially a man) who cannot fight or fights very poorly is at the bottom of the social ladder.

Most ralcolms maintain a small standing military force, typically mercenaries, who act as bodyguards, police, and a first line of defense in case of attack. Mercenaries can be found for hire all over Bregtoran, typically in alehouses. In the cities and larger towns of Bregtoran there will be a guild hall for the Mercenary’s Guild of Bregtoran, called the Belgorym. The Belgorym is the most respected organization in Bregtoran, and is comprised of the greatest warriors. To be accepted into its ranks is a great honor and brings much prestige. The Belgorym hires its warriors out to whoever can pay the price, and has no political affiliation or aspirations of its own. Once hired their loyalty is never suspect. Unlike many common mercenaries, Belgorym warriors can only be bought once.

Culture

Bregtoran is a hard land that breeds strength in its inhabitants. A reflection of this is the quiet confidence that many have observed in the Bregtorian race. Bregtorians are for the most part not showy, and like to immerse themselves in their work. Many Bregtorians are farmers or herders. Many also make their living as blacksmiths, working the metal mined from their mountains and refined in the forges of Ulvem.

The blacksmith tradition of Bregtoran goes back as long as recorded history, and the blacksmiths are highly skilled, producing quality tools, weapons, and occasionally works of art. Most Bregtorian weaponry, while being very functional, is also highly decorated in traditional Bregtorian patterns. These patterns are often carved into the metal itself, or found as metal inlays into wood. Every town and village has its blacksmith, and it isn’t uncommon for a town to have two or three, with the less successful smiths supplementing their income with a garden or dairy cow.

Another important part of every Bregtorian town is the alehouse. As much as Bregtorians like to immerse themselves in their work, they enjoy immersing themselves in song and drink when the work is done. The alehouses are comfortable, inviting places in the cool of the Bregtoran Steppe or the shadows of the Troeggskov. Always with a good-sized hearth, and often more than one, the typical alehouse is filled with wooden tables and benches surrounding an open raised platform in the center, with a bar off to the side and a kitchen behind. The furniture is well worn from much use, and the mugs are tall and thick. While a variety of drinks can be bought, especially in the larger, urban alehouses, the most common drink is that which gives the establishments their name: stout Bregtorian ale. It may seem that such establishments, serving alcohol and catering to large part-time warriors with no inhibitions towards drunkenness, may get ransacked by drunken brawlers nearly every night. This is rarely the case; the Bregtorians value the alehouses so much that any violence is always taken outside. It is the height of ignorance and bad manners to fight inside an alehouse, and even drunks respect this. This being said, the exits are large and many in number, and frequently used. This is just one part of an informal code of alehouse behavior, rich with tradition, that is much of what makes the alehouses of Bregtoran such accommodating and entertaining-and interesting-places. Many alehouses, but not all, will have rooms above the alehouse floor to rent on a nightly basis. Alemasters (managers of the alehouses, who are often the owners themselves) retain the right to refuse to house anyone they wish, without having to give reason.

The raised platform in the center of every alehouse is the skaldstam, the seat of the skald. Here these bards of Bregtoran sing songs, tell tales, and generally entertain the customers. Skalds are not paid or employed by the alehouse. Rather, they travel from town to town and make their living performing in various alehouses along their way. The patrons of the alehouse tip the skald in a wooden chest on the edge of the skaldstam facing the bar. The best alehouses have the greatest skalds, and also the biggest-tipping patrons. Some alehouses are so popular that they regularly turn down skalds who seek to perform in their halls, allowing only the best that chance. Likewise, the most famous skalds can be discriminating when it comes to which alehouse they will perform in. Skalds are fond of travelling, and often leave Bregtoran for lucrative tours abroad, as they are much sought after. They never remain to long abroad, though, not just because they long for home, but because the audiences are best in Bregtoran.

For the Bregtorians’ love of song and story, Skalds hold an important and respected place in Bregtorian society. Skalds serve as the historians of Bregtoran, passing along the stories of antiquity each night as they perform. There is a loose organization among the skalds, and when they meet they often take the time to swap stories or songs, and give advice as to which alehouses tip best.

Any Bregtorian can aspire to become a skald, but it does require talent, practice, and musical ability, especially with an instrument. The career of a poor skald is mercifully short. Skalds are expected to own their own instrument and accompany themselves as they sing. The best skalds also compose music to play during the tales they tell. The songs of the skalds fall into four general categories: work songs, battle songs, love songs, and lullabies. Each form is appreciated for what it is, and skalds will pepper their performances with songs of each form. Of course, most nights the work and battle songs, being the liveliest, are favorites. Common to all forms is the metaphor of war, which curiously makes its way into even the sweetest of lullabies.

As close to their hearts as song and story is the Bregtorians’ love for battle. As mentioned above, every Bregtorian is a warrior, regardless of what they do to make a living. Each man and woman owns a weapon of some sort, used when they are called into warbands or when defense of their homes requires it. To be a warrior is requisite for any kind of standing in Bregtorian society, and the worst fighters are held in the lowest esteem. They value most a straightforward, heavy-hitting style of fighting, as opposed to the "dancing," as they often call it, of the Silkurees to the north.

As warlike as they are, they usually reserve this tendency for organized conflicts. This often takes the form of participating in a warband, or defending against one. Men and women can also participate in contests. Every town and city in Bregtoran hosts regular contests of wrestling and boxing, sponsored and presided over by the ralcolm. Winners often receive small prizes from the patron ralcolm, and the best are sent along to the annual competition in Murgen Dyr.

Alehouse Etiquette

In Bregtorian alehouses, there are rules. They aren’t laws enforced by police, and you’ll never see a copy of them posted on the wall. Rather, they are part of a long held tradition. Foreigners are often surprised to find in Bregtorian alehouses places of comfort and hospitality where they expected something much more rowdy. Ask any skald why they always return to Bregtoran, even if the money’s better elsewhere, and they’ll tell you: foreigners don’t know the rules. Below is a summary of some of the more prominent "rules."

  1. It’s fine if you get drunk. You can get as hammered as you want, but do not let your drink get the better of you and goad you into a fight. There is no fighting in Bregtorian alehouses. If you feel the need to teach someone a lesson, take it outside. Plenty do.
  2. Remember to tip the skald. No one’s going to keep track of who has tipped and who hasn’t, but it’s a common courtesy, and helps to bring quality skalds to the establishment. If you’re a stranger or new to the area you’ll be watched, and tipping the skald is a good way to show that you’re just like everyone else, and that you have good intentions.
  3. Never steal from the skald’s tipping chest. Someone’s always got their eyes on that chest, not the least of which is the skald. Getting caught trying to steal the tips is one of the fastest ways to get kicked out of an alehouse, and a city. When you go to tip the skald, drop the tip into the chest from above (it will be open when the skald is on the skaldstam.) Never put your hand inside the chest.
  4. Have fun along with the skald. Sing along with him. Be vocal. Express satisfaction during a story, and interact with the skald as she tells it.
  5. Unless they’re terrible-and you’ll know-don’t heckle the skald. Hecklers are often called upon to take the skaldstam and sing or recite themselves, and are always given a good dose of their own medicine.
  6. To express discontent or disappointment with a skald, remain silent. A silent house is the sign of a very poor skald.
  7. To call a waiter or barmaid, don’t raise your hand and wave. You don’t even need to make eye contact. Especially, don’t yell or call out. Simply rest your elbow on the table or bar where you’re at, with your forearm straight up and your hand in a fist. The help is watching, and they will come.
  8. Treat the help with respect. Have a little fun, of course. Flirt with a barmaid or a waiter. But if you carry it too far and the alemaster will call on the "house committee"-comprised of anyone that wants to join (they’re usually very large)-to take the offender outside and educate them.
  9. If you’re a stranger it’s custom for you to "wear the plant" by placing a flower, leaf, or blade of grass somewhere noticeable on your clothing. By acknowledging that you are new to the area and the alehouse, the locals will give you the benefit of the doubt and generally treat you with respect. A stranger who doesn’t wear the plant will more than likely be held in suspicion. A stranger who’s worn their welcome will have their plant removed, which is a polite way of asking them to leave. A stranger not wearing the plant who has worn their welcome will be forcibly removed by the house committee without much warning.

Every year on the first day of spring, the Great Contest begins, and lasts for about two weeks. Murgen Dyr is a lawless city, except during the Great Contest when the eyes of all Bregtoran are upon it. During this time it manages to keep its shadier activities under the surface and put on a semblance of civility. "Contest law" is the term used to describe the informal understanding the various petty ralcolms of the city have while the Great Contest is on. Even with contest law in force, Murgen Dyr bursts with activity during the time of the contest. The city’s population swells with visitors and activity in the city never stops, no matter what hour of the day or night.

The best fighters are drawn from all over Bregtoran to participate. The Great Contest is actually a series of tournaments. The most prominent are the wrestling and boxing tournaments, as they represent the coming together of the champions of local contests that have been going on all year long. A town, village, or city takes great pride when one of its own succeeds on a national level. Other tournaments involve weaponry of all sorts. The contestants here are all very well armored, and the weapons they use are blunted to prevent harm. These armed contests are regulated to ensure the general safety of the participants. There are marksmanship tournaments for archers and hurlers. Some of the more powerful ralcolms have in recent years taken to sponsoring a marksmanship tournament for catapults in a range outside the city. The highest profile matches of these tournaments take place within the Judgment Hall of Murgen Dyr.

The Great Contest is open to any that wish to enter. Entrants usually come sponsored from a ralcolm or other powerful sponsor, but it is not necessary to be sponsored thus. Contestants that enter of their own volition, without a sponsor, are held to a higher standard, though. Sponsored entrants are considered to have proven themselves. Unsponsored entrants must prove themselves in the eyes of the crowd. Those unsponsored entrants who do poorly are considered to have wasted the spectators’ time and are mocked in Murgen Dyr and at home when the news reaches.

Technically not a part of the Great Contest, but coinciding with it and for all intents and purposes considered to be a part of it, is the Festival of Skalds. Long ago, with large numbers of skalds converging on Murgen Dyr to profit from the constant demand for entertainment, the skalds decided to organize a competition of their own to celebrate the best of their craft. Over the centuries the festival has grown in profile and tradition, and today is held by many as important as the tournaments of the Great Contest. Small competitions are held over the two weeks in alehouses throughout the city, with the final contest bringing together the greatest skalds in all the land in the largest and oldest alehouse of Murgen Dyr, Old Frehg’s Bottom. The best musician receives the Wisserdrom, a trophy in the form of a solid gold lute, and the champion storyteller receives the Fortaellig, a golden trophy crown.

Another item of significant importance within the culture of the Bregtorians is the use of hounds. Long ago Bregtorians tamed wild dogs to accompany them and help them in their labors. A typical Bregtorian household will include a pet hound, which is generally well cared for. You can find dogs of many breeds in Bregtoran, below are some of the most popular.

The southhound is a breed much used by farmers to help them with managing their livestock, especially in the south. More thickly furred and well suited to the colder winter of the southern Bregtorian Steppe, the southhounds are strong animals that work well with other beasts. Each spring they shed their dense coats and the Bregtorian farmers that keep them weave their wool into warm clothing. The Grevan is the largest of breeds in Bregtoran. They stand tall, the largest among them even reaching a man’s hip. Loyal and with fierce tempers, Grevans are commonly employed as guard hounds. Some Bregtorians also use specially trained Grevans in war, as they are intimidating animals. Redcoats are smaller hounds with short, nimble legs and slender bodies. Their name refers to the long red hair that forms their coats and gives them the illusion of greater girth. Redcoats make excellent companions, and are happiest when in the company of their human masters. Mothers will sometimes get a redcoat for a young child, to watch over it. Redcoats are also useful for hunting rodents in the house. Skovhounds are excellent hunters, employing keen senses of smell and hearing when tracking wild game. The hunters of the Troeggskov use skovhounds to great effect.

As far as religion is concerned, most Bregtorians have some kind of beliefs and attend a regular worship service. Their religion is very cultural, and many Bregtorians are merely habitual worshippers rather than truly devoted. Their church is not centrally organized but based on a similar approach to theology. The Bregtorians, in line with their martial nature, are military in their worship. The church is technically called an army, the "Army of the Faithful," and priests are officers in that army.

Each town has its temple, and what is preached therein depends on the priest. The position of priest, in Bregtoran, is hereditary. Doctrines as well as the office are handed down from generation to generation, and this accounts for the great deal of variety in Bregtorian religious belief and practice. They preach lots of hellfire and damnation, and a common thread that binds the beliefs and practices together is the theme that this life is a war: a war between elumen and shailumen, Azmozeth and Dianthik, or angels and demons, depending on how the priest chooses to characterize it. This theme of supernatural warfare ties in nicely with the Bregtorians’ natural proclivity towards battle. It’s unclear whether one gave birth to the other, but today these beliefs and proclivities are mutually reinforcing. Of course, the righteous will side with the angels. Many different priests and temples hold different angels as their patrons, and these patrons are often worshipped as much as anything else.

In addition to wars between divine and infernal beings, the Bregtorian religious tradition also focuses on the conflicts within each person. Worshippers are sometimes called upon to make sacrifices to prove their devotion to the powers of good. It is rare, but Church officers have even raised small armies composed of followers to physically fight some force they have determined as evil. Some priests use their religious authority in the pursuit of political authority and become ralcolms. As mentioned above, authority isn’t centralized, but is held by the local priests who build their congregations with charisma and forceful preaching. Strength in arms always helps, too.

 

Bregtorians Abroad

Given its politically fragmented nature, Bregtoran maintains no relationships with foreign entities. Individual ralcolms may, and those bordering foreign lands often do. Vorralcolms, when they arise, often attempt to create foreign policy, mostly because they can and see it as a matter of prestige and a perk of the position. More often than not these attempts are abject failures, given the typically bombastic, threatening natures of their creators.

As a whole, Bregtoran has good relations with Silkur to the north. While not exactly alike, the Silkurees and Bregtorians have many things in common, and generally respect one another. This hasn’t stopped the occasional Bregtorian warband from sacking a Silkuree border town, though. Such occurrences are few and far between, given the vengeful nature of Silkuree pride, and the vigilance of the Yurinath horsemen.

Bregtorians trade little with the Tylerians to the east. Mostly this trade consists of the forgelords exporting their coveted metals across the mountains in return for gold. The forgelords have an understanding with their nearby oxherd brethren, and use passes through the mountains rather than disturb the summer feeding grounds. The oxherds’ only dealing with the Tylerians is to destroy any encroachments they make into the high plains. Thus far they have been successful, and the Tylerians appear not to be interested in this kind of relationship, as they have ceased any attempt in that area long ago. In general, Bregtorians do not care for the jungle.

To the west across the River Nabal are the Nomad Plains. Relationships between the nomads and the Bregtorians have their high and low points. The border with the nomads’ lands is the most porous, as far as warbands are concerned, and there seems to be a constant skirmish between tribes and ralcolms with lands on the river in a cycle of vengeance. As a result, nomads do not welcome Bregtorians into their lands. The exception to this rule is the skald. The nomads have a deep love for the stories and songs of these travelling performers, and consider a visit from a skald a special treat. While they do not open up all of their secrets to the skalds, they are very friendly with them, and allow them passage through their lands.

On a more individual level, Bregtorians exhibit a somewhat casual disregard for the affairs outside their lands. They are concerned with their own lives, and see to their own business, and do not look to take on the troubles and problems of other nations.

Bregtorians are most comfortable with their own. They aren’t quick to learn foreign customs, and don’t welcome the scrutiny of foreign eyes. As a result, they do not care too much for travel abroad. If they do travel, they do not remain in foreign lands for very long. When abroad, Bregtorians are most comfortable in bars or taverns, resembling in many ways the alehouses of their home. Larger in stature and confident, they see themselves as tougher than foreigners, and generally hold themselves to be better fighters. The noble among Bregtorians will see a kind of chivalry in this, making a point of defending those who they believe are weaker, but without drawing too much attention to themselves. The most base of Bregtorians will become bullies in the company of foreigners.

Foreigners perceive expatriate Bregtorians to be quiet and reserved. It is true, for Bregtorians are not big talkers in lands outside their own. Unless they get a little drink in them, of course, in which case they’ll move quickly from talking to singing. Those who dislike Bregtorians see them as bullies and drunkards. Most people don’t mind them, and find them nice to have around in a fight. The Bregtorians’ attitude towards battle leads to their being the center of attention in most fights they’re involved in abroad, which is just fine with the Bregtorians, who kind of like it that way.

Bask: Islands of Power and Wealth

A nation of islands, the Kingdom of Bask has naturally come to depend on the sea. A kingdom of mariners, traders, and civilized folk, Bask has become the envy of many due to its success in matters of exploration and wealth. Despite its place as the smallest kingdom in terms size, it is quite possibly the wealthiest of all lands on Azmoth.

 

Geography

The Kingdom of Bask consists of three islands: Bask, Skolders, and New Fairen.

Smallest of the three, the Island of Bask is the heart of the nation. Baskers, and others familiar with the nation, commonly refer to the Isle of Bask simply as “the Isle” to distinguish it from the nation as a whole. It is home to the seat of government, the large houses of commerce, and is the most densely populated isle of the three. Nestled safely deep in Silkurt Bay, the Isle of Bask has been sheltered from storms and enemies, providing a perfect place for the kingdom to develop a rich culture and a famous seafaring tradition.

The Isle is the smallest of all Bask lands, and consists mostly of rolling, fertile hills surrounded by the numerous coves and inlets that line the coast. The largest of these coves, really a small bay itself, is home to Royal Harbor, the capital and largest city in Bask.

Royal Harbor is home to numerous landmarks and grandiose buildings that document the rise to wealth and power that the nation of Bask has enjoyed. Chief among these is the First House Regal, home to the ruling family of Bask. The Firsthouse (as it is commonly known) is the largest residence in Bask, and law forbids the building of any larger. Its walls contain audience halls of tall, vaulted ceilings and numerous large stained glass windows, a multitude of lavish living quarters, and in its north wing the Observatory Truelle, named after the short-lived but well-beloved queen of Pedernon II, who oversaw its construction.

The grand audience halls are awash with color on sunny days and are a popular attraction for visitors. On every fifth day of spring and summer the gardens surrounding the south and east walls are also open to the public, and grand picnics are held with small children frolicking in the pools and fountains and adults lounging and strolling under parasols. They are grand social events and the season is looked forward to with much anticipation.

While the gardens and halls are more celebrated by society, the Observatory Truelle is the most remarkable. Its spacious movable dome opens to the heavens above, where a great “glass perceiver” gazes on the stars when night falls over Royal Harbor. Built of wide, carefully ground lenses set into a framework of trusses, gears, and catwalks, the curious instrument allows men and women of science to peer at the stars, observing their qualities and movements and preparing the charts that comprise the famous Registry Celestial. The Registry is the book that has allowed Basker captains of the last century to navigate their vessels across the great sea and explore the northern lands by following familiar stars and constellations according to the seasons.

After the Firsthouse other reminders of Bask’s royal history are scattered amidst the city. At the centers of plazas or large intersections stand various monuments to former kings and heroes of the nation. It has become tradition for each monarch to have a monument in his or her honor somewhere inside the city walls, and the city is becoming quite crowded with them as each must be more grand than the last. The latest trend among artisans in Royal Harbor calls for fountains to be integrated into the design.

Also among the many sights to behold in Royal Harbor are the great houses of commerce, their size only held in check by the law of the land. Commerce is the lifeblood of the kingdom, the ships of its fleet the many vessels, and the heart these spacious and grand halls in which the merchants conduct their business. In the well-apportioned suites deals are arranged that send goods and ships to all corners of Azmoth. These suites are private affairs where only the stewards of merchant lords or the lords themselves gather, partaking of various luxuries while they draw up their contracts and agreements. Alongside the Basker merchants, wealthy and important foreign interests also maintain suites. The more public areas contain the barter halls where agents of various trading houses come to sell and to purchase according to their need and their profit. Noisy affairs by day, they are full of the clamor of raised voices calling figures, prices, and quantities while they remain open. By night the sweepers brush away the dust and discarded parchment of the day’s business in starkly contrasting quiet.

The goods themselves, the objects of all the clamor and contracts, are held in the warehouse quarter near the harbor. Amongst the warehouses and alleys of the quarter the more humble residents of the city reside, some in the squalor of shared tenements, others in neater yet still sparse cottages. The wealthy and noble citizens have their estates and city manors near the Firsthouse and its gardens.

While various roads lead in to the city and the gates within its walls, the truest way into Royal Harbor is by the path which gives the city its name. The harbor is large and well maintained, thoroughly ordered and policed and truly one of the wonders of the civilized world. The first sight the sailors see upon nearing the harbor is the broad sea wall. Two centuries ago the harbor was crowded and jumbled, too busy for the increased traffic that the modern world had produced. The old sea wall, then too near to shore and too enclosing, was at great pains torn down, and a new one – at even greater pains – was built further out. Wider, deeper, and solidly made of fitted stone, the new sea wall also rises higher, and is topped with towers and fortifications. On its landward side, the small craft of the harbormasters are housed, which by day guide the galleys, trading ships, and smaller craft in the many lanes leading to the long docks.

The harbor is as wide as the city, and is capped at either end by the city walls that protrude a small distance into the bay itself. The walls encompass the city, and have gates that open to wide roads on the northwest, east, and southeast. Hard by the city walls between the northwest and eastern gates is the terraced garden, a park open to the public year-round. Early in the last millenium, before the city walls were raised, a great storm blew into Silkurt Bay and proceeded to pound Royal Harbor to the uttermost. Many buildings were destroyed, and the hill to the northeast let forth a landslide that buried a portion of the city. After the city was rebuilt, the walls were built, and to prevent such a landslide again the entire hillside facing the city was terraced. In time the rulers of Bask created gardens among the terraces. The topmost terraces near the crest of the hill are the domain of the wealthy, while the lower classes have claimed the longer terraces toward the base of the hill.

Outside Royal Harbor, the rest of the Isle is dotted with numerous small hamlets and villages, home to the dairy farmers that make up most of the business of the rest of the island. The ways about the Isle are well kept and the villages neat and beautiful in a simple way. It is a matter of pride among the more rural residents of the Isle that their villages are presentable and welcoming to strangers.

To the north, set amidst the waves and whims of the great sea is Skolders, the second isle of Bask. After the Isle of the Demon Cliffs it is the largest in the open sea, and the only habitable one. Skolders is an isle open to the blazing heat of the equatorial sun and the violent blast of ocean-born storms. It is very sparsely forested and mostly flat, with only the occasional hill to break the monotony. The isle is a plateau ringed by short cliffs, broken only in places where the inland heights descend to a sandy beach.

For the most part, Skolders is covered by ryndstyd plantations. Ryndstyd, commonly known as “root,” is a crop plant cultivated for its nick-namesake. The tuberous root lies one or two inches beneath the ground, well suited to the shallow soils of the island. Above ground it is a low-growing plant, sending vines along the surface rather than shoots into the air. The blossoms of the ryndstyd plant are white and blessed with a subtle scent, carried by breezes across the isle. The residents are all accustomed to the aroma, but it is a matter of great wonder and pleasure to visitors.

Central on the southern coast, is the leading city of the isle. The city, Anders Foll, is a curious sight, made entirely out of the natural rock and stone cliff face, built in the cliffside at the edge of the isle, and it sits like a half-excavated city, part ancient and part modern. The cliffs have been dug down so that the old city lies shadowed on either side by the two-hundred-foot walls of its own seaside canyon. The ground floor of the city lies some eight or twelve feet above the sea, depending on the tides. Stairs, ramps, and ladders lead from the city down to the docks below, carved out of the stone in the sea, all across the face of the city a quarter mile wide. A full half of the oceanfront is taken by the great shipworks, which extend beyond the city face and off round the coast beyond on shaped islets, also carved from the natural rock that was there. In the shipworks oceangoing vessels find a place for repairs and refitting after the treacherous journey across the waters. The shipworks are outfitted with lumber and rope rigging exported from the north and south, which rigging is designed to be removed and taken indoors for storms. It is in the shipworks that many of the residents of Anders Foll find employment. Aside from the unending labor of the shipworks Anders Foll is a lazy town, made so by the oppressive heat and the nearly ever-present sun. Many shops and houses shut themselves up at mid-day, and many residents stop their business to retire for a few hours when the sun is hottest. Consequently, the activity of the city continues on into the nighttime longer than in most cities, with many establishments still open after dark when numerous torches and lamps light the city.

The old city of Anders Foll lies at the base of the canyon, so created to partially shelter it from storms. Other buildings have been carved into caves and steep terraces on the canyon walls, and the newest part of the city lies at the top of the canyon starting at the rims and spilling outward. The buildings are an odd mix of sturdy and ramshackle. This reflects the varying strategies for weathering storms; the sturdy structures are also made out of the natural rock formations, having proved their ability to remain in the face of the blast. Some flimsier structures built with an intent to be disposable, and easily rebuilt after the winds and rains have passed.

The canyon extends a good half-mile inland, and at its end begins to slope upward until it has met the natural level of the island’s plateau. Six blocks of city in from the oceanfront is the Governor’s Mansion. The residence of the ruler of Anders Foll and all of Skolders, it is not an overly ornate affair, carved stately and soundly rather than decoratively.

A more recent addition to the city lies at the top of the canyon near the rim on the western side. A broad and deep maze of low stone buildings dug half underground, the Covered Market is filled with small stalls, each holding a different merchant within its shadowed shelter. The market arose along with the increased traffic from the south bent on crossing the great sea. A great portion of it stops in Anders Foll, and many sailors on shore leave walk the city for a respite from the rolling seas and the monotony of the voyage. In the covered market they find an easy place to waste their wages, buying the trinkets, baubles, and curiosities that such disposable income has come to demand.

To the northeast, full on the other side of the island, is the city of Crowshaven. While it does lies within the kingdom, it is more a power unto itself than a subject city. Crowshaven – also affectionately known by residents and regulars as Hag’s Hovel, Rat’s Nest, or Swine’s Hut – is the very capital for pirates, thieves and ne’er-do-wells in Bask and abroad. Crowshaven is tolerated by the rulers of Bask, or more ignored than tolerated, symptomatic of the kingdom’s attitude towards many such activities.

Crowshaven sits on one of the few beaches that descend from the island’s plateau to the sea. The city is ramshackle, unkempt, and filthy as one would expect such a city to be. Rickety piers extend into the sea, and the waters outside of the city are littered with ships wrecked and run aground and standing or leaning in the waves, inside of which curious hermits, cutthroats, and other odd individuals make their homes. Alongside the stores, smithies, and homes are plenty of taverns, gambling dens, and houses of other entertainments. Gambling on animals is a special preference of Crowsers (as city residents are called) and those that visit. Among those that seek such spectacles the city is famous. Races are run with mice, roaches, and toads on makeshift tracks in cellars and alleys, and fights are wagered on involving rats, cats, dogs, fish, and more exotic game, although cockfights are the most common.

Famous among all establishments in Crowshaven is Aunt Gudda’s House for Boarders. Gudda’s has been standing as long as Crowshaven itself, and has long since abandoned any pretence of being a managed affair. Aunt Gudda long dead, the large house – extending now into the better part of a block – is a place where visitors can come to find a space to sleep, hide, or meet while they are in Crowshaven. While it costs nothing to meet or stay at Gudda’s, it is a rowdy and a dangerous place, and lodgers must ever be on guard.

The biggest business of the city is the black market, where contraband and much stolen goods are bought and sold. The black market knows no permanent home, existing rather in backrooms, certain street corners, beneath the docks, and hidden in alleyways, forever shifting to meet the needs of convenience and secrecy. Every other year or so the rulers of Bask deign to clean the city up, and the dens are cleared out and an unfortunate individual or two are made examples of. The market disappears at this time, warned in advance of the routine enforcement, and re-forms as soon as the marshals leave in their ships having fulfilled their obligation to law, however nominal.

Newest, northernmost, and largest of Bask’s possessions is the Isle of New Fairen, home to the Basker colonies near the newly settled coasts of the northern continent. New Fairen was the first of all the northern lands to be discovered and claimed. It was found by Jehen Fuiyn, a commissioned captain of the Basker Merchant Marine, who named it after the village of his birth on Bask. Many more ships followed soon after, and it has been fifty years since the colony was founded.

The storms that batter Skolders visit New Fairen as well, but not so often. Sheltered on the north by the continent, the weather only arrives at the island from the south. The isle is hot in summer and warm in winter, and humid all year long. It is covered in hills, mostly low but reaching greater heights in the interior. The entire island, hills and all, is covered in trees and undergrowth. It is a great jungle. To the west a smaller island lies, also within the claim of the Basker colonies. This lesser land is mostly flat and largely treeless.

New Fairen Town is the only settlement on the island large enough to be considered a city. It is the oldest settlement, and was built on the southern shore at the site where Captain Fuiyn landed decades ago. As such a new city, very few buildings are made of stone. Most are constructed of the abundant timber that covers the land. The largest of the stone buildings is the Colonial Seat, where the government of the colonies is maintained. It is here that the Duke of New Fairen holds audience and conducts his business. The first Duke was Per Malleus, cousin to the king. He ruled nearly twenty years until his age prompted him to seek retirement and confer the ducal crown to his son, Per II. Per the Second held court for only three years until an unknown illness claimed him. His oldest son was too young to effectively take up the governing of the colony, and so the crown shifted the title from hereditary to appointed status. The first appointed Duke maintained the office for nine years until he tired of the colonies and the distance from Bask, and retired. The current Duke – the venerable Lord Jue Uriegel – has ruled wisely and effectively for twenty years, but he is aging and it is rumored he will soon return to Bask.

The Duke of New Fairen is an important office, for the royalty of bask values its colonies and keeps a tight rein over them, quite unlike its attitudes towards some of the lawless elements of Skolders to the south. To this end it employs – and well rewards – the Duke. All new settlements must be registered with the Colonial Seat, and ownership of land is granted only by the Duke or his officers. Illegal settlers are banished and punished.

Registered settlements – and a few illegal ones – are scattered along the coasts on all sides. Larger than most is Golling Point on the northern tip of the island. Placed opposite the strait from the Tarthite colonies on the continent to the north. It is there to coordinate traffic between the two nations, and also to keep the Tarthites from eyeing the south too greedily. The small isle to the west is entirely unsettled by southerners, and is left to the natives that live upon it. Relations between the Baskers and the natives are tense at best, and when the occasion arises that the two peoples meet violence is not uncommon.

There are few inland settlements on New Fairen, and only half of the island has been explored and charted. New Fairen itself has been found to be uninhabited by natives, although the ruins of cities, temples, and burial grounds have been found, covered up by the jungle. They are estimated to be hundreds of years old, or older. The natives of the small isle will not set foot upon New Fairen, and they say the island is cursed. They will not say what happened to its former inhabitants, if they know.

The inland settlements have been built by miners and historians. The historians have set up specially authorized camps among the ruins, examining what is left of the structures and unearthing the tombs, hoping to learn something of the island’s previous civilization. The miners have set up camps to ply their trade also. Early explorers of the interior found evidence of mineral wealth on the island, and this has drawn much attention from the wealthy merchants in Bask, and is much of the reason why the colonies have been so well supported as they are. Miners dig for tin, gold, and other precious or useful metals. The camps are rough places – camps in every sense of the word – and have no sense of permanence about them.

Aside from ruins and mineral wealth the explorers have also found new plants and animals in the north. Exotic birds and beasts, new plants and flowers are kept as pets and decorations in colony houses. Some species have proven more domesticable than others. Attempts have been made to bring live specimens back to Bask, but few survive the journey. Those that do die quickly in their new homes. Just recently some merchants began bringing seeds and bulbs of northern plants back to Bask markets, and these merchants hope this to be a new source of trade and have been actively cultivating demand.

 

The Baskers Themselves

In a kingdom dominated so by the ocean, it is only natural to find a predominance of ocean-type humans in Bask. Fully a third of all Baskers are ocean types. The remaining types can all be found in Basker bloodlines, more or less to an equal degree. Perhaps there are less desert types than others. While most have been ocean humans, there have been representatives of all elemental types in the Basker royal families over the years.

For this representation in high places, for its natural diversity of type, and for the cosmopolitan nature that mercantile traffic endows, Bask is a land which accepts all types equally and largely without reservation. Only the most untrusting or self-serving Baskers discriminate, and only in private at that, for such discrimination is considered uncivilized and in very bad taste.

This being said, ocean or river types are very much valued in the seafaring trades for their abilities. It is possible for any Basker to get work on a ship, but the watery types naturally gravitate to the work and so dominate the industry.

 

Government and Military

The Royal House

The current ruling family is of the House of Zeym, which house has held the throne since King Thronyk of House Beel abdicated more than three hundred years ago, leaving no heir nor close relative untouched by the mercantile scandal that caused his downfall. Zeym bought enough support amongst the other houses, and Olim of Zeym took the throne. The kings and queens of House Zeym have ruled well and their reigns are well accepted by the kingdom.

Currently ruling is King Messen, son to the late Pedernon III. His wife is Lady Fluea, who is the darling of the kingdom. She is even more popular than her husband. Messen is still young at thirty six, and Fluea appears to be at the prime of her beauty at twenty seven. They were wed while Messen was serving as Lord Skolders, she from House Beel, and her graciousness and charm as crown princess has done much to restore Beel’s reputation after the centuries-old scandal.

Messen and Fluea have three children: Juril, Wellia, and Durni. The Heir-prince Juril, now five, is too young to serve as Lord Skolders, and so his uncle – the king’s brother Hurni – is holding the office until he comes of age. Princess Wellia appears to be as charming as her mother at a precocious four years, and Prince Durni is still an infant, having been born only two months earlier.

It has been many years since the kingdom has known such a young royal family, and it has infused much life and excitement into the affairs of the kingdom. While they may lack the experience that many years confer the king and crown princess bring the vigor of their younger years to bear upon their duties to good effect, and the young children running about the Firsthouse lend it a very endearing quality.

Bask is a monarchy, and has been for more than a thousand years. Its lineage of kings and queens has stemmed from numerous families amongst the many noble houses of the Isle. The royalty is a cherished and powerful tradition in Bask. Baskers respect their sovereigns and love them also, in the way that masses fawn over celebrities. While there have been more kings than queens, both men and women may succeed the throne and queens are as loved as kings, and in ways fawned over even more.

While the king’s word is law, there is a general code that is adhered to and which each monarch inherits. It is the prerogative of each sovereign to change the laws but this is only done rarely and at great need, for the citizens of Bask have come to rely on the laws and their continuity.

After the throne are two other posts of importance within the kingdom. The heir to the throne holds the title of Lord (or Lady) Skolders, and it is in their charge to maintain the affairs of that island. If of sufficient age, they are sent to live on the isle from which their title is derived, and expected to learn the art of governance there with selected counselors and teachers to guide them as their experience requires. Being Lord Skolders is as much a trial as it is a privilege. To be so far away from the court and the luxuries of Bask is difficult, and Skolders is seen as a bit of a backwater island. It has long been the design of the kings and queens of Bask, though, to send their heirs away, so that they might learn to rule of their own experience, and to keep them from the scheming and political intrigue that can at times infect the capital.

Bask is home to many noble houses, most having risen on the tides of merchant wealth. The houses vie with one another for power and influence, and wealth is the means with which they strive. Almost all high houses have their homes in Bask. Few noble families have arisen from Skolders, and New Fairen is far too recent a possession to give birth to any influence outside of the duke.

The Church of Bask also holds some political power. Many bishops and church officials are from the noble families of Bask, and the head of the church – the Patriarch – is appointed by the king himself. The Church of Bask is wealthy, and uses its means to promote the faith, as well as its interests.

While Bask is a merchant nation, it is a military one as well. The pride of the armed forces is the fleet. Bask arguably commands the finest navy on Azmoth. The many ships are sent forth to protect Basker interests around the world. They escort government trade ships, protect Basker cities and settlements from raiders and invasion, and keep watch over the high seas. The largest of the ships in the fleet, the grand galleys are a sight to behold. Tall ships and long, they are floating camps of war equipped with rams, plated sides, and fiery pitch – ammunition for the archers and ballistas that adorn the decks. With the ports and harbors, and patrolling the many coasts, are smaller vessels, light and quick upon the waves and able to sail up smaller river mouths if need be.

The galleys and ships of the fleet are staffed with crews to maintain their functions, but they also bear the Basker Marines to their destinations. The Basker Marines are the greatest warriors in Bask. They draw from the best of lesser military bodies to fill their ranks, and are well trained in close-quarters combat, the boarding of ships, and landing on hostile shores.

The kingdom also employs a more traditional military force, called the Inland Guard, whose purpose is to protect Bask shores against invasion. Another important body is the Corps of Colonial Police, those who act under the duke to enforce royal policy on the isle of New Fairen. There is plenty to be done in the colonies, with so much land and so many eager settlers. It is demanding and difficult work, and in the last couple of decades many aspiring soldiers have used service in the Colonial Police as a quick entrance into the Basker Marines.

Aside from the official armed forces of the kingdom, the more powerful noble families also maintain small armies themselves, which they use as security for their persons, estates, and holdings throughout the kingdom. These private armies have jurisdiction only on the lands belonging to their lords, and even there they must defer in the presence of the king’s forces. Most noble houses also employ guard ships to protect their more important mercantile shipments.

In times of need it is the right of the king or queen to call upon the nobles to levy forces for their sovereign’s use. The private armies can be put to this use, and temporary soldiers are hired of the general populace also.

 

Culture

Bask is a kingdom that prides itself on its civility, and the civilized nature of its lifestyle. As the tidy villages of the Isle demonstrate, Baskers value cleanliness, propriety, and keeping up appearances. The nationalism that Baskers feel most often manifests itself in this way – all things Basker are civilized, and other nations just don’t measure up. It isn’t an oft-expressed sentiment, but deep down Baskers do take comfort and security in their familiar and ordered lifestyle.

Those that can afford to always try to look their best when out and about, and presentability is even a priority in more private circumstances. And while Bask is home to its fair share of rogues, thieves, and rascals, a modicum of respect is expected from everyone. Public conversation should be kept to appropriate subjects. Public displays of affection are discouraged. The elderly should be deferred to, and one should remember one’s manners when eating.

On Bask this code of civility is definitely the rule, and the conservative among Baskers hold to it like they hold to the law of the land. To the north in Skolders the environment is a bit more relaxed. Those that live there try in their way to live up to the standard, but the heat is so oppressive, and the distance from Bask, the Houses of Commerce, and the royal court so great, that it is fairly easy for residents to let propriety slip a bit in favor of comfort. And Crowshaven is the absolute antithesis of propriety. It is as if the focus on civility has caused the national subconscious to produce something entirely uncivil by which all things else can be judged. At least that’s how some scholars explain why the city of scoundrels is tolerated.

It is perhaps because of the lax nature of Skolders society that such great care has been made to establish order in New Fairen. In a land so very far from the center of power and society it might be very easy for an attitude of “anything goes” to predominate. The duke is given express charge to raise up the colony as one worthy of Bask in all ways, and in large part the dukes have responded. The government of New Fairen, including the duke, his agents, and the Colonial Police are quite possibly the least corrupt organization in the kingdom. Not that corruption is rampant or even significantly present elsewhere, but the colonial government is particular about keeping its affairs above the board, so to speak.

The wealthy of Bask spend great amounts to keep up appearances. Entire industries are maintained to satisfy this appetite for civility. Tailors, seamstresses, and designers are employed to keep the upper class fashionably dressed. Hordes of laborers are employed to maintain the gardens of their estates in the city and elsewhere. A good cook is as valued as a chest of gold, and the kitchens of many noble houses have staffs that rival or exceed those of many inns.

Another product of the mix of wealth and propriety is the lifestyle of leisure. Nobles and other “refined” persons are expected not to work, as work is the sign of a meaner man. In their business affairs and negotiations they take great pains to make them seem to be social affairs. Business meetings are always very well catered and occasion for wearing one’s finest. Pursuits outside of the business world are tolerated, but treated as “hobbies,” and the only the eccentric will pursue them with any real dedication.

With so much time on their hands the wealthy have made an art of throwing lavish parties and organizing various entertainments and other social events. Hunting is considered refined entertainment, as well as viewing and wagering on various contests of sport. The contestants are all hired, of course.

Sometimes an afternoon is passed on a pleasure cruise. The Basker affair with sailing and the sea is well known and evident. Through the coming and going of ships with their cargo Bask has become a nation that can afford a leisurely upper class. The profession of sailor or shipwright is a respectable one in Bask, and none can look down on one who makes her living thus. It is often the case with the lower classes that they send their children, when they come of age, to apprentice with a captain, mate, or crewman, so to learn the trade. There are those who keep to the sea all their lives, but it is very common for a man or woman to spend a few years at sea and then to come home to land to settle down in one trade or another.

As a result many Baskers are as comfortable on board a ship as they are on land. The briney fragrance of the sea infuses the air which they breathe, and travelling inland they find the air overly crisp or else empty. Baskers eat more fish than any other people, and a majority are proficient swimmers, even among those who are not of the elemental water types.

Every good and honest trade has its opposite, and that of sailor and sea-captain is no exception. Piracy has flourished around Bask. It is the strict policy of the kingdom that any ship bearing goods for trade into a Basker port be treated as a merchant ship. It is not important how those goods were obtained. Part of this is a carryover of a very ancient tradition, for in the earliest days of the kingdom many noble families arose through piracy, which later legitimized themselves through honest trade. It is a quandary that Basker merchants deal with: they are quick to purchase stolen goods as they can get below-market prices from the pirates who are eager to unload ill-gotten cargo. On the other hand, they have to protect their goods from those who would rob them.

The Sailor’s Prayer

The Sailor’s Prayer is a part of Basker religion that has made its way into mainstream Azmoth culture. Every sailor knows it, and many others besides. Only some believe it has any power to protect, and most utter it just as a tradition and a familiar comfort at the beginnings and endings of voyages, and in times of peril on the high seas. It reads:

To the oceans and their masters, I implore:
As I respect thee as a parent, take me as thy child
Nourish me with thy bounty, for which I am grateful
When the winds howl, bid them fill the sails
When the waves conspire, keep them from the decks
When the storm rages, shelter me to a safe end
Thy beauty, in tempest or peace, is fairer than any land
And I’ll forswear them all
Deal with me as thou wilt, and wilt thou deal me kindly
Amen

For the protection that the kingdom can offer them, many pirates linger near its shores or weigh in at Basker harbors. For the presence of the fleet, though, they rarely waylay ships in these waters. Baskers generally ask no questions where money is involved, but when presented with evidence of piracy right before their eyes they are obliged to act. Even in the waters surrounding Crowshaven it is dangerous for pirates to attack other vessels. While scoundrels can be tolerated, wanton violence has never been accepted.

Like much else in society, Basker religion is a stately and civil affair. An appendage of the central government, yet fairly independent, the Church of Bask oversees the spiritual guidance of the kingdom and acts as the authority on moral and civil behavior.

Not all Baskers go to church, but most do. Attending church is as much a social event as it is a spiritual one. While by no means scarce, those who attend because they actually believe in the theology are in the minority; the rest come for the sense of comfort and community that they get from the nature of the gathering. The wealthy go partly because it is expected of a refined person to attend, and partly because it is such a social event. Worship-day gatherings are prime opportunities for gossip, networking, preening, and posturing before, after, and even during the meetings. Those of lower classes attend also out of a sense of propriety, but also because the closeness with peers and the sermons offer some respite from the dangers and insecurity that the lower classes face which the wealthy might not.

The wealthy and the lower classes do not attend church together. Chapels and cathedrals can be found in all neighborhoods in all cities and towns of the kingdom, and while there are no rules dictating who can attend which services, the classes do not mix in a religious setting. The wealthy attend in their cathedrals (which they have helped to finance) while others attend in chapels and other meeting places depending on their location and station. The chapels in the poorest of neighborhoods are still well-built and respectable, so to stay in keeping with the position of the church in society. The cathedrals in the best neighborhoods are spectacular affairs, designed to showcase the majesty of the church. In Holy Crown Cathedral near the Firsthouse the Patriarch presides and the best of Bask – including the royal family – attend on worship-days.

The Patriarch is the head of the church, and is appointed by the king or queen. He is given much autonomy in his office, though, and basically runs the church as he sees fit. Changes are rarely made and most patriarchs hold to the traditions that have been handed down to them, as one of the offices of the church is to safeguard the traditional. The Patriarch appoints all bishops that oversee the many branches of the church throughout the kingdom, and is also in direct control of the church’s finances. Beneath the bishops serve priests of varying degrees. The priests minister directly to the public in the majority of cases, although those with enough influence can demand audience and attention from bishops. Lay volunteers from the general public assist the priests in many cases. These lay volunteers are much more common among the lower classes.

The theology of the Church of Bask is decidedly vague. Reference is always made to “the lord” or “the master” but no attempt is ever really made to explain who or what he/she/it is. Doctrine is given, but it is little more than “be good, avoid evil” in its many forms. There is an afterlife with rewards for the good and punishments for evildoers. The absence of any hard doctrine is evidence of the social and psychological function of the church. It’s there mostly to make people feel okay about themselves and each other.

Specific functions of the priests and other leaders are not only to give sermons and lead worship-day services, but also to bless sailors about to embark, create sea-charms for the sailors or their loved ones to wear for protection, to bless the harvest or other undertakings, and to consecrate ships to the “Lord of the Sea.” With so many nods towards the seafaring life the Basker religion is the default religion for most sailors, regardless of nationality.

Small groups within the Basker faith exist which focus on specific ideas. The most famous is the cult of the Sea-Angel. Four hundred years ago a shepherd named Ivruun saw in a vision an “angel of the sea” on a hillside overlooking the Silkurt Bay. Centuries later Ivruun is now “Holy Ivruun,” an oft-referred-to figure with many more miracles attributed to him. Believers revere Holy Ivruun and the Sea Angel, as it’s come to be called, as the heavenly patrons of the waters. Today there stands a large shrine where the vision supposedly took place, and alongside it is the Cathedral of Holy Ivruun, a destination place for pilgrims. The hierarchy of the Church of Bask tolerates and in many ways encourages the cult within its membership. Cult members mostly come from the lower classes, and as long as they don’t start getting heretical or fanatical it’s likely the church will work with them towards their common end.

 

Baskers Abroad

The Kingdom of Bask enjoys interesting relationships with the rest of the world. Although it is a fairly small kingdom, its wealth and fleet make its presence felt in all corners of the world. Many nations appreciate the trade that Bask ships bring to their harbors, and the opportunity to ship their goods to the isles of the kingdom to trade in turn. A majority of overseas commerce passes through Basker hands at one point or another. For this, nations and empires are eager to maintain good relations with Bask.

On the other hand, Bask’s attitudes towards piracy is too lenient for the tastes of many other nations. That Bask should harbor pirates and profit from the goods that they steal angers the merchants of other lands and those who serve their interests. Between these competing attitudes arises a compromise where many do business with Bask out of necessity, but do not enjoy it – especially those who have lost a ship to piracy at some point. Those who are fortunate enough to have their vessels well protected with military or mercenary escorts have less of a problem, but do sympathize to an extent with others.

This matter of trade and piracy aside, Bask does attempt to be a civil neighbor and member of the community of nations. It looks down on those who wage wars of conquest, but realizes that wars of conquest will happen regardless of their attitude towards them, and they take a practical approach to diplomacy. With its immediate neighbors Bask is on very good terms. The Silkurees appreciate the money that Bask brings into the region, as Bask is a major consumer of the beef and grain that the Silkuree plains produce. The Baskers have no major interactions with the nomads to the south of the Isle. They respect them and leave them to their lands. Some centuries earlier merchants began to take an interest in the lumber available north of the plains, and some camps were established. These came to a violent end when the nomads destroyed them and killed all that did not flee. By royal decree the lands to the south were left to the nomads, who were now seen as more savages than civilized, and thus pitied. There is enough business elsewhere to make the loss of any opportunity for profit there easily bearable.

There is little interaction between New Fairen and the Parthite or Tarthite colonies in the north. New Fairen receives all its goods from the isles to the south, and no significant trade has arisen between the colonies yet. Visits of foreigners to New Fairen are very regulated. On an individual basis, foreigners are generally well received in Basker lands. Baskers treat them with gentility, even if born of a certain sense of superiority in many cases.

Baskers in other lands try to behave themselves with the same decorum that is demanded of them in their own kingdom. The people of Bask do much travelling, either as a part of their jobs or as, in the case of the wealthy, vacations. Foreigners generally welcome Baskers on the surface, for as sure as they’re wealthy they’re spenders. Those who do not like them see them as arrogant, and those who look upon them favorably believe them to be very polite. The best among Baskers will look at other cultures to appreciate and understand them, and the worst will think they’re the only civilized ones and will hardly deign to speak with a foreigner.