THE WORLD OF ORIANA
“It seems to me that the natural world is the greatest source of excitement; the greatest source of visual beauty; the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living.”
– last words of famed natural philosopher Darian of Tarraco
Oriana is a world of extremes. Thanks to the abundance of spirits and their effects on the environment, the world possesses great beauty as well as terrible darkness. From the cloud-capped peaks of the Spine of the World to the spectacular beauty of the azure Ringsea, through the algae-choked, iridescent depths of the Canyonlands and the endless vast of the great southern deserts, north or south, east or west, Oriana contains natural wonders undreamed of on other worlds. Looking up into the night, one can see the moon charting a golden path across the sky, giving way to stars gathered in constellations, each named for a god of legend.
The heart of the world is a single great continent that has no name; it wraps around the southern pole, its edges creeping up past the equator until it plunges at the Great Scarp into the sea that commands the northern half of the world. The utter south, Polaris, is a frozen wasteland none have ever seen. Deserts of sand and blasted rock march northwards from its limits in all directions until they meet the great landmarks that force bitter winds to give way before the bounty of green. No such mark is greater than Tharsis, the Spine of the World, a colossal north-south mountain range that rises from the southern desert hills above the tallest clouds, before tumbling, thousands of miles north, into the sea.
A million rivers fall from the snow-capped peaks of Tharsis west into Amazonis, one of the cradles of civilization. Thousands of years ago it was beautiful and green, but now it is a harsh badland wormed by countless threading rivers. Clinging to the cliffs of Tharsis and facing the Amazon Sea are the nations of Arvad, Medusan, and Sthenan; north of them lies the colonial-republic of Semotia, founded by Thalassian expatriates over the past century. All four face the enormous kingdom of Therme, a giant which straddles the mighty Mangala River. Therme’s badlands hold the ruins of many ancient civilizations – Kumat, Xarak, Stygia, and infinite others.
West of Therme along the coast lie Pelusia and Letora, ancient Midian realms along the Aeolian Straight, the norther half of which is formed by the enormous island of Elysium, host of the Midian countries of Charontis and Orcanis, the Thalassian colony of Kerberos, and the kingdoms of Namneta, Volca, and Axona, the last realms of the Morgai bird-men. While Charontis and Namneta have been for decades reduced to mere puppet states of the Empire, the others remain free. The Aeolians of the Straight are a proud and ancient people, tracing their history back to fabled conquerors like Shargon and Philander, who once controlled an empire that stretched from Therme to Thalassia. Those days are long past them, however, and the last thousand years of their history have been spent squabbling with the Morgai across the Straight and the Ashrak of the great desert.
Ashrak migration has been a major factor in the history of the east; the interior grasslands south of Therme and Aeolia were once the deep outposts of Midian civilization, but century after century the inland cities fell to the scaled hordes of the south. Only in the colonial era was this pattern reversed, the result of many small and bitter border wars waged by the so-called “Greenlanders” against the Ashrak. From east to west the countries of Bozisharod, Apsyan, Sakan, Ballakan, Lurmsakun, Chelkar, Haruzan, and Pesarzan coat the liminal zone between the Midian coastal countries and the deeper and wilder desert. These are hardscrabble places where life is cheap, and anything can be bought and sold – slaves, fossils, artifacts, and desert gold all abound in the souks and bazaars of these dry and deadly lands.
West of the north-south column that is Elysium-Aeolia-Ashrakan is the mighty Thalassian Empire, jewel of the eastern world. Built on the fading memory of Rhoscan glory and forged from a Revolution that fused four decaying kingdoms into a modern imperial state, Thalassia stretches from the Isidian Sea in the west to the Aeolian Straight, its southern back shielded by high mountains from the Ashrak of the desert and the Chagri of the Ringsea. But those uplands are not empty; a panoply of highland Thaal nations – Laasmaar, Jogiriik, Maarvald, Jahimaar, Vanariik, and Idarien – cling to its peaks and valleys. Thalassia here plays the role of a dispassionate hegemon, intervening in local feuds only to ensure a constant supply of silver, iron, and coal flow down the rivers to its great industrial cities, from which frigates, steamships, and dirigibles all launch into the Utopian Ocean, bound for Aeolia, Isidia, or stranger lands on the far side of the world.
The western border of Thalassia bridges the land of Isidia, which is almost a ringsea but forms only a crescent opening into the Utopian, a colossal bay called Isidis by the ancients. Its shores were once the breadbasket of Rhoscar, and the homeland of bronze-age empires before that – Apygia in the south and Syrtis in the north – but the eastward migration of the Sheng changed the region immeasurably. Now Isidia is a place of mongrel kingdoms like Amganisag and Tamurisag in the south, Yakhustan and Orokhistan on the northern crescent. New to the region is Mahtavamaa, a young highland state carved by Thaal rebels out of Amganisag territory in the last century; the two countries are ever at odds, and the Empire keeps a firm and careful watch should war break out again upon its western border.
Finally, south of those feuding lands is the Ringsea, a huge inland basin shielded in the east by deep highlands against the Ashrak of the desert. This is the land of the Chagri, their home for millennia, and the northernmost spur of their civilization is the Mauryan Realm, the only eastern empire truly strong enough to threaten Thalassia. It is good that high mountains, thick with Thaals, keep them from each other, and the minds of their sovereigns focused on trade instead of war.
“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to get, and a time to lose, a time to keep silence and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time of war and a time of peace. What profit hath the worker from that in which he toils?”
– from “The Writings,” attributed to King Sofan Amon
Outside the Ringsea, the people of eastern Oriana mark the passage of time according to the standards developed by the Thalassian Empire (based on earlier Rhoscan systems) and sanctioned by its senate almost a hundred years ago. Days are twenty-four hours long, divided into day and night. Seven days (Sulday, Molan, Zolan, Wiran, Zoran, Farday, and Sarday) make up a week, four weeks a month (Zarantyr and Olarune to begin the year; Therendor, Eyre, and Dravago for the spring; Nymm, Lharvion, and Barrakas for the summer; Rhaan, Sypheros, and Aryth for the autumn; and Vult when winter begins), and twelve months a year. The old system of weeks and months doesn’t actually correspond to the solar year, and for centuries the ecumenical astronomers have tried to produce a pattern of “saintly days” that exist outside the calendar and can be introduced periodically to realign it.
While a particular culture may count the years dating from some significant event in its past, the common calendar of eastern Oriana is the Messian Calendar, which counts from the First Dawn Council to the present day. The adventure begins in the year 1837 ND (the 1837th year of the ‘New Dawn’). During the Revolution that spawned the Thalassian Empire, there was an attempt to secularize the calendar by reverting to the pre-Messian system of dating from the founding of the city of Rhoscar, but it never caught on, and while previous emperors have flirted with the idea, the current compromise is to write “IR” (Imperial Reckoning) on official documents, not “ND.”
GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS
“The ruler who implants in the hearts of his subjects not fear resulting from cruelty, but love occasioned by kindness, is most likely to complete his reign safely. For it is not those who submit from necessity but those who are persuaded to obedience who continue to serve and to suffer without suspicion and without pretense of flattery. And they never rebel unless they are driven to it by violence and arrogance.”
– from “Meditations on Death,” by Emperor Valenian II
Since the fall of the Rhoscan Empire over a thousand years ago, most Midian countries have been feudal monarchies. While the Revolution a century ago resuscitated ideas of republican rule, the bloodshed and terror that resulted from it quashed much of that sentiment, and so although Thalassia has a senate and plebiscite few would pretend that real power does not lie with its monarch the emperor. However, it is no longer feudal, having long ago transitioned to a mercantile economy: the rural farmers are either freemen or tenants, and a middle class of laborers and shop owners has developed in the larger towns and cities; noble titles and ancient bloodlines may guarantee social status or exclusive legal rights, but no longer any economic or military power. The ‘nouveau riche’ are strong competitors with the surviving aristocracy, and several times an emperor has granted such bourgeoise elites noble titles to increase competition.
Outside Thalassia, the old model of government still holds, especially in Therme, Elysium, and the lands of the Thaal (though Thaal monarchies often resemble military dictatorships more than anything, especially the newer states). Aeolia has always had a strong tradition of federated, if not necessarily republican, rule, and in some ways the Sheng states of the west and the Ashrak countries in the south are as much theocracies as they are monarchies. The Mauryan Realm is a monarchal empire, but unlike Thalassia it has not senate or constitution and is far less centralized, with many regional princes enjoying near-autonomy from their sovereign; many ethnic minorities are nearly-autonomous as well, and local government is incredibly varied among the Chagri.
MAGIC AND RELIGION
“Proclus the Successor grandiloquently defined theurgy as, ‘a power higher than all human wisdom, embracing the blessings of divination, the purifying powers of initiation, and in a word all operations of divine possession.’ It may be described more simply as magic applied to a Godly purpose and resting on a supposed revelation of a religious character. Whereas vulgar magic, goetia, used names and formula of sacred origin to profane ends, theurgy used the procedures of vulgar magic primarily to a sacred end.”
– from “Before the Dawn,” by Magister Aelian the Quiet
The distinction between “magic” and “religion” is a prickly one. Often times, historically, the local man of woman to whom you turned for guidance and help was a priest at your temple, while a “magician” or “cultist” was anybody that practiced magic but you didn’t trust. Spirits effuse the world, everyone knows that, and even in the modern day, when a Thalassian mesmer might perform rituals without a mention of religious or philosophical thought, his client knows that he is contacting the world of spirits for aid.
In Thalassia there are three kinds of “magic-users” to whom people usually turn: mesmers, cantors, and speakers. All serve as the shepherds of spiritual matters in some way or another: whether by officiating births, marriages, and deaths; by easing troubled minds with council and exorcising wicked spirits; or be serving as keepers and judges of the moral law. Mesmerism is, of course, a secular job and not a religious position, though the practice did emerge from esoteric mysticism and occultism, and most mesmers are religious. People know that mesmers have studied to be in tune with secret energies that permeate the world and are aware of all kinds of invisible particles that infest it; by subjecting a patient to a trance, a mesmerist can reveal these things to him too, for as long as the hypnotic state lasts. Most clients seek out the mesmerist as a kind of combination psychiatrist and exorcist, though they can also provide a number of healing services. Judges may employ mesmers to extract confessions from prisoners, though most constables just prefer to beat the truth out of poor suspects and reserve expensive mesmeric treatments for the rich and well-connected.
Cantors are the priests of the Apostolic sect of Messianism, the oldest and most orthodox. Its name comes from the apostles that followed the prophet Yshan; as the personal companions of an incarnate savior, they attained central status in the emerging religion, and the direct transmission of their words and teachings was considered vital. This was formalized in the ‘doctrine of transmission,’ the idea that the word of the apostles was the most direct method by which the divine law could be passed on while there was no savior on Oriana; the priesthood, which traced itself to them, was thus said to have the sacred power of ‘magisterium,’ the ability and duty to tutor the peoples of the world through sacred ritual. To an Apostolic, it is extremely important that the words spoken during a ritual are in the language of the original apostles – otherwise they cannot be sure that they are receiving real divine connection, as the true meaning of the sacred word may not be translatable. This doctrine has led to Apostolic services taking on a very emotive, musical quality; since the vast majority of worshippers (and even many priests) do not understand the liturgical language, it is often sung to help convey its meaning via tone, meter, and gesture – hence the term ‘cantor.’
Speakers are Messians too, though they are ordinary unordained men and women – they are not Apostolics, and they would resent being called “priest,” though many lead assemblies as well as perform other services. The Evangelists and Charismatics completely reject the priesthood and the doctrine of transmission, among others, and so their speakers communicate solely in the ‘vulgar’ tongues.
The traditional myths of Chagri are quite different. Those that have not converted to Messianism study the texts of historic prophets and reformers, such as Zarathar and Mazak; the religious built around these men do not have priests but gurus and teachers, men that have studied philosophy but clam no divine connection. In some ways, the patriarchs and matriarchs of the spell-castes fill this role, as their connection to their clan’s progenitor-god is physically evident. Chargi spell-castes are something between unique and sacred bloodlines and professional guilds of fraternal warlocks, each with a single and unique suite of eldritch powers. The Chagri claim that these are evidence of their divine descent, and each spell-caste has its own secret rituals, passed from parents to children, performed in veneration of the ancestor god.
“One of the students asked Zarathar, ‘Are you a god?’ He said he was not. ‘Then are you a healer?’ He replied that he was not. ‘Then are you a teacher?’ the student persisted. Again, he denied it. ‘Then what are you?’ asked the student, exasperated. ‘I am awake,’ Zarathar replied.”
– from Dr. Marcus d’Laimey’s “Annotated History”
While many Sheng and Thaal in the east are Messians, their ancient traditions are still strong, and most have not given up spirit-worship completely. While true shamanism is rare, many families and communities still revere a patron spirit. Nobody disputes that these beings exist, or that they cannot grant powers, but many Thalassians scoff at such practices. Professional mesmers will tell you that spirits have nothing to teach us that our scientists have not discovered for ourselves, while cantors, speakers, and caste-leaders scoff at the idea of “worshiping” beings no better than ghosts, animals, or powerful men. “Spirits may be immortal, ethereal, and yes, at times even helpful,” they will say, “but they most certainly are not ‘gods.’”
“See them pretty ladies there, / Husk that corn before you eat; / They will fix it for us rare, / Husk that corn before you eat. / I know supper will be big, / Husk that corn before you eat; / Think I smell a fine roast pig! / Husk that corn before you eat…”
– traditional Izhorian work-song, sung while husking
Farmers dominate the countryside of most nations, raising crops and providing food. In some places farmers are bondsmen indentured to the lords that control their lands, while in others they are free workers who own or lease their land and pay taxes to the ruling class. Farmers toil through the daylight hours and rest when darkness covers the land. They live within a mile or so of a trading village, which is guarded in turn by a local official, whose position may be elected, inherited, or appointed by a higher authority. When legal disputes arise, it is this officer (or his appointed agent) who settles disagreements and issues rulings.
Some farmers have magic and technology to help them with their chores, provided by their local official or purchased from a merchant. Most have to worry more about bandits, ghouls, and marauding monsters than the armies of the neighboring nations or the politics of the capital city. The average farmer doesn’t wander far from his home, but every family has a member that went off to fight in a war or seek employment in a city, and everyone knows someone whose brother or sister decided left home entirely in search of fame or fortune.
“Farewell and adieu to Venenian ladies, / Farewell and adieu to you, pearls of the west; / For we’re under orders / To sail out to glory, / But know in our hearts you girls beat all the rest! / We’ll rant and we’ll roar, us true Relian sailors, / We’ll range and we’ll roam all across the salt seas; / Until we strike sounds / In the harbor of Bukhar; / From Hell’s heart and back’s only thirty-five leagues!”
– traditional Relian sea-song, attributed to the Second Corsair War
For as long as there has been trade and piracy on its rivers and seas, caravans and bandits flitting from oasis to harbor, the east has been a place of cities. All townsfolk and city-dwellers engage in a craft or trade of some kind, though for every professional there are three or more common laborers working in the city. People live in close proximity in the cities, swimming in the harbors, shopping in the markets, working and relaxing as need and opportunity presents themselves. City-dwellers have a bit more access to the conveniences of magic than their rural counterparts do, and cities are the only places where one can buy clockwork wonders or devices made of unweight or archsilver. Factories fill the towns and cities, and even the least well-to-do city has gas lanterns to light at least the major thoroughfares and exchanges.
In a city, law and order prevails – or at least it tries. A city watch patrols the streets and a local garrison protects the trade roads and caravan routes passing nearby. Courts and judges hold sway over matters of law, deciding disputes and determining guilt or innocence through something akin to due process. News also travels much faster, as rail lines and the rare telegraph tower ensure the local broadsheets are up-to-date on all the latest goings-on in the world.
From the rural communities that dot the countryside to the villages, towns, and cities that rise wherever need and circumstance come together, the people of Oriana fall into three economic categories: poor, middling, and wealthy. There are ranges and degrees of wealth in each category. Six out of ten people in Thalassia are common farmers, unskilled laborers, and tradesfolk who are in the poor economic class, having no more than 40 or 50 argents on hand at any given time, and most having considerably less. Three out of ten people are in the middle class, which includes skilled laborers, prosperous traders and shop owners, skilled artisans, most nobility, and low-level adventurers, folks who normally have a few thousand silver pieces or more to their names. One out of ten people fall into the wealthy category, those with access to a tens of thousands of argents at any given time; this class includes powerful government officials, barons of commerce, the patriarchs and matriarchs of the old-money aristocrats, the most popular and successful professionals, mid- to high-level adventurers, and the ruling royalty.
LANGUAGE AND EDUCATION
“So many tongues; it is a wonder at man’s infinite inability to communicate, and one may be forgiven for being surprised that any two persons can understand each other.”
– from Brobevik’s “The Accounts of the East”
“Thalassian” is a very artificial language – really it’s more a style of speaking, a Relian dialect created in the imperial academy that reverts, where possible, to historical Rhoscan. All part of aping the splendor of that vanished age. Most educated men in Thalassia and the Isidis region can read and write in Thalassian, even if they don’t really speak it, but only for technical descriptions, medicine, and philosophy. The common language in the center of the Empire is Relian, since this is the homeland of the Relians, one of the many Midian peoples; the darkest by skin and hair, they pride themselves as the direct descendants of the Rhos. Vastians, in the west, are well-regarded as a martial people. Descended from the marriage of the Rhos with the ancient Kitarans, mixed with some barbarian blood from the highlands and the steppe. Their eastern counterparts, the Nerians, are sometimes regarded as effete, but they are also stereotypically imagined as the most intelligent and prosperous of the imperial peoples, living as they do along a major trade route and descended from Rhos colonists mixing with the ancient Aeolians. Finally, the Armen of the southern highlands are the fairest in color but also the poorest and most rugged – their region has always been a borderland in the empire and one ravaged by invasions throughout its history. Of course, numerous minority groups exist throughout the empire, and the modern races of Thalassia are very mixed. Almost any group of people can be found in its cities, if one searches hard enough, but the largest and most significant Midian groups are the Gyptians and Aeolians, and of the Thaal the Latgal and Izhorians.
Throughout the history of the east, Messians have always stressed the importance of education, not least in the sacred word but also in knowledge of the grammar and history necessary to understand it and the math and science by which to appreciate and use it; formal schooling thus is considered a necessary part of every child’s training. Local curia and town councils often pool money to hire teachers for children; in the countryside, some families of means still maintain schools for the sons and daughters of their laborers, the last vestige of the old noblesse oblige. Private tutors provide an education for the children of the upper classes, and in the larger cities there are usually one or more academies, which cater to all who can afford to attend. Higher education is available at a number of colleges and universities, as well as among the religious institutions from which they sprang, and many professional and government positions, such as those of doctors, lawyers, and mesmers, increasingly require such accreditation. Still, the overwhelming number of people learn their trade via apprenticeships or on-the-job training, even if they did spend a few winters in school as children. Most people can read to at least some degree, though penmanship is stereotypically abysmal among the lower classes.
DEATH AND UNDEATH
“Who knoweth that the spirit of man goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast goeth downward to the earth?”
– from “The Writings,” attributed to King Sofan Amon
Among primitive peoples in eastern Oriana there is a fairly consistent idea of death as an inevitability, and existence beyond it as a certainty. The souls of the dead linger at rest, and the difference between an ancestor and an elemental is blurred and confused in the folklore of the Thaal, Ashrak, and eastern Sheng. Ghosts abound in their myths, but the souls of the unimportant, while immortal, are expected to fade over time.
Quite differently, the Chagri have always believed in the transmigration, or “reincarnation,” of the immortal soul. While their ancient beliefs took this very literally, the reforms of Zarathar in the 9th Century changed this: instead of understanding the movement of the soul as “you are your great-grandfather,” the Zarathrians argued, among other things, that the animating force of the body, the shakti
, is not unique to individuals but flows like water from a greater source. Mortal man is merely one spoke of a mighty wheel spinning far beyond his ken. The orthodox, however, stop at bloodlines; Mazak, a 15th-Century prophet who claimed to be Zarathar’s true disciple, was most the extreme and argued that all were merely part of a universal One – his doctrines are persecuted, if not outright illegal, in the lands of the Ringsea.
For a Messian, the question “what happens after death?” has an easy answer: “they are united with God.” More interesting is to ask what happens to the non-believers. The answer for the Apostolics, the oldest branch of Messianism, was hammered out in the Third Dawn Council. The Apostolics have always held a belief not dissimilar to that of the pagan shamans, that unclean souls wander the earth until they are forgotten and fade, but that this is not merely the regrettable reality of existence, but a horrible curse. For all that the old pagans scoffed at their idea of divine union and transcendence, the ruins of Rhoscar embraced this religion millennia ago.
Evangelists and Charismatics hold to a very different tack. These heterodox, reformist movements (Apostolics would say heretical…) preached that the animating force is mere energy, and that what people called the soul, the “you,” was reason, will, and though, and that this could not survive death without embracing of the transcendent Word. They firmly deny the existence of ghosts and other “lingering souls,” – a spirit might pretend, out of innocence or malice, impersonate the dead, but those that have gone will never return except through God.
“I waited patiently; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to God.”
“Surely the lowborn are but a breath, the highborn are but a lie. If weighed on a balance, they are nothing; together they are only a breath. Do not trust in extortion or put vain hope in stolen goods; though your riches increase, do not set your heart on them. Yes, my soul, find rest in God; my hope comes from him. Truly he is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will not be shaken. My salvation and my honor depend on God; he is my mighty rock, my refuge. Trust in him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.”
– excerpts from the Hymns, translated
All sects of Messians believe that their god incarnates in the world at times as saviors to lead his people, and in addition to the three universally accepted saviors they hold to a rich body of saints, the “probably incarnates.” And because the faithful dead are believed by Messians to unite with God, it is very possible for a Messian to believe a departed holy one might speak to him, either because he was a saint (and so really a part of God) or because, now joined with God in death, his is now the same voice as the divine.
None of this conjecture on the soul, of course, applies to the un-dead.
Many people think that ghouls are undead that prey on the living. They have it backwards: ghouls are living men that eat the dead. Many people think that ghouls are thin, skeletal things. This is not usually true: ghouls are corpulent, bellowing, vital creatures, grown fat from eating death. Like all living things, they eventually age and die. But when a living ghoul dies from old age, it quietly transitions into undeath. Many ghouls don’t even notice the change.
Because everyone knows that once one has indulged in cannibalism, the urge to return to it becomes stronger. Eventually the urge becomes an instinct, and then the instinct becomes a drive, and then it rules out all other urges. A freshly-minted ghoul is a puffy man with bad breath and a stutter. An ancient ghoul is a giant beast that has forgotten his language and his name. The oldest, most powerful ghouls have been so overwhelmed by these instincts that it is incapable of pursuing any other goal. And so, although it may be a form of immortality, it is a very poor one.
“The psychology of a ghoul is especially remarked upon. The classic legend, told in taverns everywhere, tells of the loving husband who died protecting his loving wife in the midst of a hateful war. But he returned as a ghoul, and lovingly hunted down his wife before lovingly eating her alive.
“You see, when a person becomes a ghoul, most of the memories remain intact, and the personality also tends to survive the process. The mood is, allegedly, much improved, and stories abound of good-natured ghouls who are as cheerful as they are ravenous. What does not survive are the specific cares and motivations. They still crave the company of their old friends – and remember their addresses – but care nothing for their health or happiness. Ghouls gradually segue into undeath from life through a process a bit like dementia: they lose themselves bit by bit, and the soul decays before the body does. But ghouls still have attachments, can still enjoy the world – and that they do, with gusto.”
– from “Death and Undeath,” by Dr. Istan Therevy