Where can I even begin?
I suppose I will begin with the skies. On Earth, if you look up on a clear day, you will see the sun suspended in a sea of mere blue nothingness. But if, instead, you look up on a clear night, you will see the whole universe before you. Earthers are lucky that way: your sky is limitless, an opportunity without bound.
With us, it is almost the reverse. If you look up at night all you see is the moon, embedded in an empty black void. But if you are lucky enough to look up on a clear and sunny day (for such days are rare), you see the whole world rising away from you on all sides, with all its continents and archipelagos, its mountains and its oceans, its rough, hard dirt and its cool, enveloping waters.
If you are confused, Earther, think of it this way: You live on the outside of a ball. We live on the inside of one. There are no stars, no planets, no galaxies, no far-flung astronomic universe for us—just our world itself. We have known since first we had eyes to see that there was nowhere else to go. We lack even the word for "Universe", a word so much more expansive than "world" or "Earth".
Our Sun and Moon do not hang distantly revolving in the sky; each rests in a definite place. The Sun caps our ball at one end, the Moon at the other, held aloft by mountains ten times the height of Everest. "Mountain" is a poor word; at their peaks they are more like pillars. Together we call them the Eyes of Heaven. The lands surrounding the Eyes are ever shrouded in clouds—they must be a strange place to live, if anyone does live there.
Day begins when the Sun, lain dormant overnight, wakens to brighten the skies. It takes about two hours to reach full strength. Even then it is not as bright as your Sun, and it sheds a warm red-tinged hue—gentler to my eyes than your Sun's blinding white, but you might find the effect macabre. As day turns again to night, the Sun wanes and the Moon waxes. Unlike Earth's moon, ours does not change strength from day to day. Its light is a soft golden color, as bright as a full moon on Earth.
Our skies do not revolve as yours do, stars wheeling overhead every night; but neither are they fixed. The direction of Moon and Sun never changes, but their distance, and thus their height in the sky, does. Forthyr, the continent from which I came, moves back and forth between them as the seasons change, but there is no discernible pattern of connection between the two. Sometimes the Sun is high in Winter; sometimes it is low. Other continents do the same, as can be seen by watching the sky. They move in a slow, endless, patternless dance, the only thing constant their orientation towards the Sun and the Moon.
From this constant we take our bearings. Our four cardinal directions are Sunward, Moonward, North, and South. One could as easily call the last two East and West, or Clockwise and Anticlockwise, or Fi and Fum; but if you think of the Sun as being in the East, where on Earth it rises, then you will grasp which direction North and South are relative to Sunwards and Moonwards.
That, in brief, is how our skies differ from yours; perhaps the briefest of all our differences.
There are three seasons on Forthyr: the monsoons, the dry season, and Winter.
The year begins when snow gives way to rain and the monsoons begin. Immediately the land is drenched by torrential, ceaseless rain. The air grows heavy with humidity and heat, especially in the lowlands. After the initial onslaught the rain lessens a shade, just barely enough for the soil to turn from impenetrable waist-deep mud into something dry enough to sow seed in. So begins the growing season—which is merely a name for the time when it is possible to grow crops topside. It is not one of the three seasons itself, but it is just as important as any of them.
After the monsoons comes the dry season. The rains slowly taper off and the air grows hotter yet, a dry heat this time. The land parches and bakes, and one by one the rivers dry up. The growing season's end is traditionally marked when the nearest riverbed begins to crack in the heat. Only the mighty Pelluin remains flowing for the entire season. Halfway into the dry season, the dust storms begin. After that, travel topside is nearly impossible.
After the dry season comes Winter. The dust storms end, the heat fades, but the air stays dry as parchment. These are the dying days, as what little vegetation survived the dry season wilts as if in knowledge of what is to come. Shortly the temperature falls below freezing and the snow begins. And it snows, and snows, and snows, and the snow piles up and does not melt until Winter is over. Nobody is quite sure how deep the snow gets; nobody and nothing survives Winter above ground.
During Winter we hide underground, like moles. We hide in the caves and tunnels that riddle the surface of this hollow ball we live in. We hide in the ruins of cities the Ancients built, we hide in natural caverns carved by underground rivers, and, if we must, we hide in cramped caves painstakingly hollowed out by shovel and pick, generation by generation. We live on grains and roots stored up during the growing season. We grow some food underground, fungi mostly, but not enough to live on; and you cannot make a good diet of fungi alone. Malnutrition is a serious problem in hard years.
Most years last about four hundred days. The monsoons last for a quarter of the year; the dry season, another quarter; cruel Winter takes the rest. But all of these are generalizations. A year can be four hundred days, yes, or three hundred, or two, or an unhappy five hundred. Sometimes the dry season comes early, and the crops are stunted; sometimes it arrives late, and Winter barely comes at all; and all too often Winter arrives on time, but doesn't leave when you expect it to.
If I make our world sound harsh, that is because it is. If I make our lives sound hard, they are. My friends and family, and those others I know who still live on Forthyr, would not say it is so; but that is only because they have nothing else to compare it to.
III The Ancient World
Our world is strewn with the remains of an ancient civilisation far more advanced than our own, and indeed than yours.
The Ancients built on a massive scale. Our greatest cities occupy only the upper levels of their ruins. They made tunnels wide enough for a thousand men to march abreast; the same tunnels continue razor-straight into the distance so far they shrink to mere points. Above ground, they left vast bridges spanning mountains peak-to-peak; monolithic spires jutting a thousand paces into the air; dams that define entire ecologies; and of course, the Great Chasm that divides Central Forthyr in two, about which I will say more later.
They built with materials we cannot replicate. From my time on Earth I can now identify a few of them, but not all. Their edifices have withstood uncounted millennia unmarked by rust and uneroded by weather.
They left behind not only architecture, but artifacts. They left weaponry: guns, tanks, artillery, armored suits, self-sharpening swords, death rays, psychic dampeners, flying machines, hunter-seeker drones, city-destroying bombs, the whole shebang. They left infrastructure: power stations, lights, plumbing, hydroponics, teleporters, laboratories, factories. And they left thousands of other tools and gewgaws: direction- and path-finders, lock-pickers, puzzles, jewelry, autonomous robots, toys, music-boxes; the list is endless.
Unfortunately, they forgot to leave instructions. We don't know what half these Ancient relics are even meant to do, let alone how to use them. Most Ancient gadgetry would simply sit abandoned in some king's treasure hoard, if it weren't for the savants. I'll get to them shortly, but first, there is an Ancient device that demands more explanation than an entry in a list.
1 The Immortality Machines
Of all the technological relics left behind by the Ancients, without doubt the most significant are the Immortality Machines. I cannot tell you how to operate one, or even how one looks; I have never seen one personally. But I can tell you what they do: two persons go in, a master and a victim; the machine is activated; and the mind of the master walks out in the body of the victim. The master's old body is dead, and the victim's old mind is gone.
These machines are of course rare. They are beyond price: their value is measured in lost lives and ruined kingdoms. Society recognizes three kinds of people who possess and use Immortality Machines. The Exarchs are rulers who use the Machines to achieve undying sovereignty. The Arhist Elders are religious leaders who use the Machines—so they say—to preserve their wisdom for the good of humanity. Anyone neither a ruler nor an Elder, anyone else who, by secrecy, sorcery, or trickery, manages to possess and use an Immortality Machine, is called a Lich.
The Immortality Machines have shaped the history, religion, and politics of Forthyr since time beyond record. According to legend, their use was discovered by the First Exarch, Sikanda, at least four thousand years ago. Sikanda subsequently conquered all of Forthyr and ruled for over a millennium before suddenly vanishing (often it is said they set sail across the Sunward sea).
Every so often, a person is born who displays from a young age a unique and innate talent for working with Ancient devices. These people are savants, and their talent comes with a curse: savants are never quite of sound mind—or at least, not of normal mind. Their abilities are intuitive; they do not study to acquire them, and cannot explain their techniques to others. Indeed, savants generally struggle to communicate, although the extent of this disability varies from mere difficulty putting things into words, to complete incoherency, to muteness.
Put simply, savants are weird. Difficulty communicating is their only universal oddity. Other common traits include: physical and verbal tics; obsessive but pointless habits; childish behavior such as tantrums, pickiness about food, and the need for security blankets or dolls; and intense aversion to magic. Savants sometimes behave oddly toward artifacts they are investigating: caressing, smelling, or licking them, meditating or ritually preparing themselves before using them, and so forth. Savants who engage in artistic expression produce surreal and disconcerting work, as if they see and experience a universe totally foreign to us.
Savants' utter strangeness is little-tolerated by society. Without the patronage of a baron or king, they are doomed to being social pariahs, beggars and vagrants—and that's if they're lucky enough not to be lynched. But they frequently receive such Noble protection, because their abilities are invaluable to those in positions of power and responsibility. A savant's skills can turn a moldy Ancient ruin fit only to be a Winter enclave into an artificially-lit city with running water, impenetrable defenses, and a vat-grown supply of nutritious food. Savants are also a practical necessity for any Exarch who does not wish to spend decades studying the workings of the Immortality Machines.
The primary intelligent species of Forthyr are humans, dwarves, and the Traders. There are also orcs, kobolds, and a few other species of which I know little. Once there were goblins, but they have not been seen in centuries.
I am human, and this guide is written from a human perspective. When I say "we" or "us" or "our", I speak of humanity, as it exists on Forthyr and other continents of our World. When I say "you" or "yours", I mean the humans of Earth. As far as can be determined, we and you are of the same species. This is somewhat surprising. It does, however, save me the trouble of explaining your own species to you.
Humans live underground when they have to. Dwarves live underground permanently, because they like it. They are masters of the depths and the dark; they are skilled in all manners of crafting and artifice, but above all in stone- and metal-work; they are strong, sturdy, and have both a taste and a tolerance for alcohol and other mind-altering substances; they are secretive, though not deceptive, and slow to trust non-Dwarves; and they have divined the operation of many Ancient artifacts, although they lack the intuitive genius of human savants.
They are also short and bearded, in case you were wondering.
They are not, however, greedy for gold or jewels; neither are they of particularly warlike demeanor; nor are they honor-bound to a fault, save in the matter of Dwarven Secrets; they do not have a long-running feud with a race of elf-like beings, as indeed there are no such beings on Forthyr; and they certainly do not speak in a Scottish accent.
So much for Dwarven stereotypes.
Despite Dwarves' fairly frequent contact with humans, surprisingly little is known about them, apart from the common knowledge I give above. For example, it is not known how long Dwarves typically live; how and by whom they rule themselves; what or how they worship; or how their writing system works. We have myths and folk-tales about all of these things, of course, but they vary inconsistently from region to region and teller to teller.
For another example, all Dwarves have beards and none appear to have breasts. It is not clear what, if anything, this means anything about their sex. The most common folk theory is that they are hermaphroditic. Dwarven corpses which have been examined have two holes, a front and a back, in their nether regions. A urethra and anus, apparently, but how to be sure? This suggests a species of asexuals, which raises as many questions as it answers.
Dwarves have certainly been observed to form strong individual bonds, some of them so close and lasting as to appear marriages, but whether these are truly romantic relationships or merely companionate ones is anyone's guess.
The Dwarves themselves quite pointedly have nothing to say on the matter. It seems likely that it constitutes a Dwarven Secret. Indeed, according to legend, the only person to ever dissect a dwarf corpse, seeking to discover the truth of the matter, was murdered by Dwarves and then dissected himself—or, in the more gruesome version of the tale, vivisected.
2.1 Dwarven Secrets
It seems appropriate at this point to explain the matter of Dwarven Secrets.
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3 The Traders
The Traders are a mysterious folk, more secretive even than Dwarves. They are called Traders because that is the one thing that we know them to do. We do not even know if they need to sleep, eat, breathe, or excrete.
They swathe themselves from head to toe in bright-hued cloths. Their faces they cover with metal masks, no two alike, etched with spirals, whorls, and geometric patterns. Inset in their masks are glass eyepieces, usually tinted green or red or gold, which are opaque and mirror-like from the outside. From where their mouths would be hangs a bag of a flexible black substance, pierced here and there with holes (for breathing, perhaps, although they make no sound). On their feet they wear large leather boots with pointed toes, and on their hands leather gloves with metal knuckles and fingertips. They are fond of decoration and jewelry, wearing gold-trimmed turbans, tasseled shawls, bracelets and necklaces. They often wear decorated belts or silken sashes, hung heavy with pouches, trinkets and weaponry: swords, hooks, whips, and Ancient weapons of strange designs.
Beneath these clothes, they are covered in the same black substance their mouth-bags are made of. I now suspect this substance is rubber, or something like it; but rubber is not known to us on Forthyr. Not a scrap of Trader skin has ever been seen by human eyes—at least, not unless they have skin of rubber.
They trade for all manner of odd things, for religious relics and children's toys, for heirloom jewelry and story books, for Ancient artifacts and lotus flowers. Legend says they will trade for anything that someone holds dear. Above all, they trade for people. This does not earn them many friends; but they have a knack for getting what they want anyways, and their enemies always seem to wind up dead or missing.
What do they give in return? Silk. Gold. Food. Tools. Weapons and armor. Spare parts for that Ancient machine that broke down ten days ago. Whatever the town they're in needs most. Many is the starving enclave that's been visited by the Traders with pallets full of grain, their asking price inevitably too high, at first—but the town's supplies dwindle and their crops stay dead and Winter is on the way, and they give in eventually, though the price has doubled in the meantime.
The Traders have no permanent abode that we know of. They travel in caravans, composed equally of Ancient vehicles and wrax-pulled carts. Meeting a Trader caravan on the move is rare, however; when they visit a town, they seem to arrive out of thin air, and depart just as suddenly. Even if you manage to catch them leaving, trying to follow a Trader caravan is a sure recipe for getting oneself lost.
It is a mistake of legendary proportions to attack the Traders. They rarely stray from their caravans, which never camp inside city walls. They are almost always armed, and even when they do not seem armed, I would not be surprised to see a knife emerge from the deep folds of their clothing. According to the few stories of those unwise enough to attempt the deed, they are preternaturally fast, can shrug off heavy blows, and their rubbery "skin" is tough and resistant to edged weapons. Nonetheless, individual Traders have been slain, and Trader caravans have been driven off (though not destroyed). Every such incident has been repaid, however, by a retaliatory strike of overwhelming force.
4 Other species
I do not know much about orcs. They live on the other side of the Moon Mountains, where also dwell the Moonward tribes. To my knowledge they are much like humans in stature and intelligence, and much like the tribesfolk in technology and social structure. But they are said to be of a brawnier build than humans and have strange features (tusks, horns, a third eye; accounts differ). I have never met one; it is possible they are merely an unusual race of humans and the stories about them are exaggerations.
Clever creatures that live in Ancient ruins and lay traps for unwary treasure-hunters. They do this mostly to defend themselves, but also as an intellectual pastime. Successful raids on kobold strongholds have discovered meticulous records of each adventurer slain, how they died and who was responsible for the trap that got them. The kobolds, in other words, had been keeping score.
The goblins were a peculiar race, extinct now for almost three hundred years. The most common opinion of them today is that they were an enormous nuisance and they got what they deserved. They were by all accounts small, impulsive, aggressive, barely intelligent enough to carry on conversation, but possessed of a strange cunning, not unlike their more thoughtful cousins the kobolds.
There are many tales of other varieties of strange intelligent creatures, generally malevolent or treacherous, but few are attested by solid evidence. The University at Roke has an enormous skeleton that they say proves frost giants exist. Perhaps; or perhaps giants existed once and are extinct; or perhaps it is not a single skeleton at all, but a mere jumble of bones, some from humans and some from wrax or mammoths.
There are regions of Forthyr so isolated, unexplored or impenetrable that strange intelligences could easily lurk in them all but unknown to the outside world: far within the Fungal Forest, or in the darkest depths of the Great Chasm, or beneath the Hill-Mazes of Zoth, or some lonely spot on the far side of the Desolate Isle. But most monster tales talk not of such exotic places, but of trolls lurking beneath bridges, or ratmen hiding in caverns just a secret passage away from the well-trodden tunnels of commerce; and it seems to me that if intelligent species were to be found in such pedestrian locations, we would surely know more of them than old wives' tales by now.
V Life on Forthyr
1 Villages, Enclaves and Cities
Good places to live underground are few and far between. You need a source of water, an aquifer or well. You need a space large enough for many people to live, and also enough to store the supplies of crop to last you through the winter, and seed to plant once it ends. You need a connection to the main network of underground tunnels that run beneath Forthyr. And of course, all this needs to be defensible.
Consequently, life underground is concentrated into sparsely scattered but individually crowded and cramped dwelling-places called enclaves. A single enclave usually holds from a hundred to a thousand people. Anything larger than that tends to become a city—the distinction being that enclaves are Winter refuges, while cities are inhabited year-round.
When Summer begins, an enclave's inhabitants disperse into a number of topside villages of roughly twenty to fifty people each. The enclave itself is left with only a token guard (which rotates to avoid boredom and to evenly distribute labor); this leaves the enclave dangerously vulnerable, but is necessary to free up labor to work the fields. The first weeks of the monsoons are spent rebuilding the villages from the damage they sustained during Winter. At Summer's end, the topside villages empty and people return to the shelter of their enclaves.
Cities are much the same, but remain inhabited (albeit less densely) and fully guarded during Summer. Living in a city during Summer is a sign of affluence and power; it sets you apart from the peasants who work the fields for a living.
2 The Caste System
In the Heartlands and Low Countries of Central Forthyr, society is organized according to a strict caste system. At the core of this system are the Four Castes: Peasant, Warrior, Noble, and Priest. These are merely the beginnings of the many distinctions of rank and kind made by virtue of one's birth; but as these distinctions vary wildly from region to region, I can give no brief account of them here.
The Peasant caste are the laborers and craftsmen who form the backbone of society: millers, carpenters, smiths, potters, weavers, miners, and such. Almost all peasants are farmers, in addition to their other work. When the growing season comes every able-bodied peasant is needed to tend the fields, to ensure that the enclave has enough food to make it through Winter and still pay its taxes. Peasants are bound to the land, and may not move freely without their Noble's permission.
Warriors are village chiefs and battle-leaders, trained swordsmen and scribes, minor officials and enforcers of the law. They generally receive tutoring from a Priest in reading, writing, culture and law. They are bound to the service of their Noble, rather than to the land. Generally a topside village has one or two Warrior families living in it. Nobles also keep some Warriors in service at their court, as guards, scribes, messengers, courtiers, etc. Courtly Warriors generally have higher social status than village Warriors.
Nobles are the ruling class. Every Noble family has a dominion, a territory that belongs to them, along with the Peasants bound to it. Nobles are the only caste that owns land (topside or underground); the land their subjects live on is merely granted to them temporarily. Nobles are arranged in feudal hierarchies: sovereign Kings at the top taking fealty from lesser vassal Nobles, who may have vassals of their own in turn.
The Priest caste serve many roles: teachers, historians, mediators, counselors. The highest calling for a Priest, of course, is to be a priest of the Church of the Devout (discussed later). Priests are the only caste not bound to a Noble's service or territory; they may go where they please, although they are not above the law.
Religion is a major force on Forthyr, more powerful by far than any king or exarch. The dominant religion is called the Church of the Devout, although it has not been unified under a single Church for a thousand years. For the last three hundred years its main competitor has been Arhism, a new religion—or perhaps merely a way of life, since it is without deities—introduced by newcomers from across the ocean.
1 The Church of the Devout
The Church of the Devout is a splintered, many-faceted thing. I here describe it as it exists in the Heartlands of Forthyr, the region I am most familiar with. Even so it is more a group of related religious traditions than a unified church.
The last time the Church of the Devout was united under one leadership, Forthyr trembled beneath the boots of its armies, and it very nearly exterminated the Exarchs and destroyed their Machines. That was a thousand years ago, during the Crusades. The Crusades failed, however, and the weakened Church was wracked by a Reformation led by a loose coalition of iconoclastic upstarts.
The failure of the Crusades split the Church along two axes. First, the initially successful Reformation soon splintered into many competing Devic Cults. Each Cult has its own priesthood and institutional structure, and worships its own deity—although acknowledging the existence and divinity of the others in the Pantheon. Second, in the Heartlands these Cults, seeking to gain converts, merged with various local animistic religions. This produced a split between the syncretic Low Church tradition, popular with common folk and incorporating the local religions' ancestor- and nature-worship, and a purer High Church tradition practiced by the nobility and upper priesthood.
Thus, if you ask the Cult priests what the essence of the Church is, they will speak of the Pantheon of the Devas, of how their particular god or goddess is foremost among them, and of the great histories and scriptures and the guidance they offer us. If you ask the peasantfolk, they will speak of nature spirits, of venerated ancestors, and of the rituals that ensure a long summer and a good harvest. But the true core of the Church is its attitude to reincarnation, belief in which is so universal and unquestioned, shared by Arhists and Seekers of the Way and even the Travellers in their own way, that it is considered beneath mention.
1.1 The Ladder of Reincarnation
Although almost all Forthyrian religions believe in reincarnation, they disagree on its significance and moral nature. The Church believes that when a person is reborn they are they are given a specific and immutable fate. This fate is determined by the person's ka, meaning roughly the state of one's soul. This fate in turn determines everything important about one's life: where, to whom, and into what caste one is born; how one shall die; one's personality and moral tendencies; one's profession or calling; and what one may hope to accomplish in the world.
Though our fates are decided at birth, it remains to us to decide whether to willingly fulfill our destiny to the fullest degree, or to senselessly fight and resist it, and so become a mere shadow of what we could have been. Deliberately following one's inevitable fate is noble and right; conversely, denying one's fate is both futile and reprehensible.
In particular, by following one's fate one acquires positive ka; resisting it generates negative ka. The greater one's ka, the more noble and desirable the fate of one's next life. Eventually, a person possessed of truly magnificent ka ascends into Heaven upon being reborn. Heaven is not, however, the end of the journey. There is Great Ladder of spiritual existence, on which our world is merely the middle rung. The realms of Heaven are the rungs above it, and those below it are of Hell.
The caste system is an integral part of this ladder of reincarnation. Everyone has an assigned place in the caste system, a role to serve in society. They have this role, they are in their caste, because their ka deserves it. If they live according to their place they are rewarded by just treatment in this life and a grander fate in the next.
This may sound unjust to your ears, Earther, but bear in mind that it is a source of immeasurable comfort to millions of people. The caste system merely codifies that which would most likely be the case anyways: the vast majority of people lead powerless, inconsequential lives toiling for a king or Exarch who cares little for them or their lot. They are subject to innumerable diseases, to the vagaries of the seasons, to the whims of their lord and the ambitions of their lord's enemies. Church doctrine does not serve only to castigate those who would exceed their place—it gives value and purpose to the lives of those for whom exceeding their place was never a real option to begin with.
1.2 The Pantheon
There are many Devas, and almost as many Devic cults. But in the Heartlands the Church has long been dominated by an alliance of three major cults: the Cult of Joe, the Cult of Liz, and the bipartite Cult of Tom and Tomas.
1.2.1 The Cult of Joe
Joe is the law-giver and the oath-binder. He is the god of order and of a well-ordered society; he is the architect of the caste system and the upholder of the rules of civilization. Justice is his domain, and justified wrath his privilege. He is also the patron of architects, artificers, stone- and metal-workers; and more generally he blesses those who create and build things of good use, and aids those who destroy things of ill use.
The Cult of Joe is the wealthiest and most politically influential of the Cults. There is a temple to Joe in every major city not controlled by an Exarch, and a few that are.
1.2.2 The Cult of Liz
Liz is the goddess of death and rebirth, of fertility, of sex, and of war.
Although each of the three major Devas play a role in the process of reincarnation, Liz is the most central. Death is but a return to her womb, from which one is reborn into the next life. When a person dies, Joe judges their ka, and Tomas guides their soul on its journey into its new body; but Liz alone determines their new fate. At funerals, Liz is paid respect above all others. She is asked to look mercifully on the departed and grant them a happy next life.
Liz and Tom are lovers; the monsoon rains are her tears of joy at the return of Tom at the end of Winter. Liz is the goddess of the fertility of the soil, and Tom of the virility of the seed planted in it; they are prayed to when seeds are sown and when crops are harvested.
Liz is the goddess of sex and passion, but not of love or of marriage. Women may pray to her, but only prostitutes take her as patron. She is the goddess of fertility and rebirth, but not of motherhood; she is not prayed to for safe delivery. Although she is portrayed as beautiful, she is not even the goddess of beauty: that is Tom's domain.
Liz is the goddess of war and conflict, which is of course connected with her aspect as the goddess of death, and also with her aspect as goddess of passion. Warriors pray to her for victory before battle—and the less confident pray to her for a better fate in their next life should they die.
The Cult of Liz boasts the most worshippers of any Cult; Liz's many roles, and in particular her prominent roles in planting, harvest, and funeral ceremonies, guarantee the Cult a large audience. They are also the Cult which most vehemently detests the Immortality Machines, due to Liz's connection with the cycle of rebirth.
1.2.3 The Cult of Tom and Tomas
Tom and Tomas are names for two aspects of the same Deva, who takes on different aspects at different times of year: Tom during Summer, Tomas during Winter. Together they are sometimes called "the divided god". The Cult is similarly divided, into two separate but parallel priesthoods, one of Tom and another of Tomas. Each priest of significant rank has a counterpart in the other order with whom they work closely. Their temples are split into halves; a groove runs down the middle of the main hall of worship to demarcate the boundary between them.
Tom is the god of male generativity and virility, of vegetation, youth, laughter, beauty, and of topside. Tomas is the god of mysticism and magic, gateways and thresholds, of seeing or finding that which is hidden, of prophecy, ordeals and paths, of age and of the underground. They are both, in different ways, gods of intelligence: Tom of extroverted intelligence—poetry, creativity, wit—and Tomas of introverted intelligence—book learning, craftiness, hard-earned wisdom.
Like Liz, Tom and Tomas are related to life, death and rebirth. Tom is reborn at the beginning of each year, but is only fully alive during the monsoons. The dry season is Tom's slow, agonizing death, repeated each year as punishment for a crime unknown. With the onset of Winter, Tom is dead, and becomes Tomas.
The Cult of Tom and Tomas is by a small margin the least powerful of the three major cults. Tom is consistently popular among youths, and (with Liz) is important in planting and harvest rituals; and as the representation of Winter, Tomas is much-worshipped during that half of the year.
Arhism is a belief system, a culture, and a sovereign nation occupying the Sunward half of Himlas, a broad peninsula North of the Heartlands. In all three aspects it is fundamentally opposed to the dominant culture of the Heartlands and the Church that defines it.
The first Arhists arrived in Forthyr by sea about three hundred years ago. From humble beginnings as itinerant laborers and street preachers, they rose to power through a combination of good luck and shrewd planning. Besides their stronghold in Sunward Himlas, Arhism has converted a few of the Low Countries. Its liberal attitude to the use of Immortality Machines lends it popularity among kings wishing to extend their rule indefinitely.
The Arhists have no deities. They believe instead in the principle of Arha, and its opposite, Kamma. They believe also in their Elders, spiritual-political leaders granted perpetual life through the Immortality Machines. Chief among the Elders are the council of the Nine Immortals, who govern all of Arhism from their seat at the Citadel.
Their full name is the Strivers toward Arha. The concept of Arha is difficult to convey; it combines the ideas of life, progress, order, fairness, meritocracy, wisdom, and perfection. Kamma is conversely death, stagnation, chaos, arbitrariness, aristocracy, foolishness, and flaw. Arha is the ideal world that the Strivers seek to bring about, as well as the ideal state of being for an individual. It is a driving principle of nature and humanity: intrinsic to every person, every deed, every thought, and every thing is some mixture of Arha and Kamma.
The Arhists have one extraordinarily brief holy book, the Precepts of Arha. It enumerates the principles and goal of Arhism, but contains no history, no legends, no codes of conduct, no prayers, hymns, or rituals. Those are passed down institutionally, through upbringing and tradition. Every Arhist is given a copy of the Precepts as soon as they learn to read, and is expected to keep a copy with them as long as they live.
2.1.1 Arhist morality and Church morality
The ethics of the Church center on individual spiritual progress: good works advance one's soul towards higher realms of existence. These realms do not improve over time, but are forever more or less imperfect according to their rank on the Great Ladder. The Arhists, however, strive for collective social progress. There are no "better realms" above us to reincarnate into; there is only this world, and it is up to us to make it a world worth living in, to mold it into Arha.
The Arhists find Church morality mechanistic and meaningless: why should we act according to the fate given us by the Devas? "Fate" is an extrinsic goal bestowed upon us, in demeaning carrot-and-stick fashion, by beings we cannot comprehend and have no evidence of. Arha, by contrast, is the intrinsic purpose of all life: the betterment of life itself.
The Devout see the Immortality Machines as evil, but to the Arhists they are indispensable. Those who are close to Arha—the Elders—must be rejuvenated through the Machine to preserve their wisdom, their perfection, their ability to bring us closer to Arha like them. Death and reincarnation are servants of Kamma, ever seeking to destroy the progress we achieve in our lifetimes by recycling us into new and spiritually unimproved lives. Arhists willingly sacrifice themselves on the altar of the Machines, that by their death they may preserve the Arha of the Elder who takes their body.
2.2 Society and Culture
Arhist culture is strange. Money is used rarely, mostly for trade with outsiders. There are no loans and no debts. There is no marriage, though life-partnership is not uncommon. There is a strong drinking culture, but all other drugs are proscribed, even the ubiquitous kresh-root. Most strangely of all, children do not know their own mothers. Children are raised communally, to avoid the possibility of privilege-by-birth.
Children are educated until they come of age. Their 13th Summer they begin artiklas, a period in which they work a different job in a different place every season or so. This lasts until they find a task and place suitable for them, which generally takes two to five years.
Arhist society is carefully organized from the top down. Arhist religion, state, and society are inseparable; religion governs and permeates society. There is no code of laws per se, only the principles of Arha; the Law is a tradition like any other, passed down institutionally. Advancement up the grand unified ladder of Arhist social status is synonymous with and dependent on recognition as a religious leader.
3 The Seekers of the Way
The Devout of the Church believe in living according to one's fated place, come good or ill. The Strivers toward Arha believe in fostering progress in society, bringing it closer to Arha. A Seeker of the Way cares not for fate or for progress, but seeks personal enlightenment above all else.
The Devout and the Strivers, for all their differences, both view the cycle of reincarnation as something like a ladder to be climbed, a path toward perfection so long it spans many lifetimes. To a Seeker of the Way, reincarnation is a distraction to be escaped, an illusion to be pierced.
The Devic Cults and Arhism both seek popular support and political power; for the past three centuries they have struggled for dominance, sought to convert each other's believers and gain the ears of kings. The Way can barely be said to be an organized religion, and does not seek power or proselytize, though individual Seekers may seek power or followers for their own ends.
The Way was founded five hundred years ago by Otaumo, a former priest of the Cult of Tomas in the North-Moonward Heartlands. He "pierced the veil" and perceived the true nature of life and reality during a visit to an abandoned enclave overrun by a fungal bloom. Otaumo preached the insights he had gained, quietly and without fanfare, for the rest of his life. It is not known how or when he died.
Otaumo himself wrote nothing, but his five foremost disciples each wrote chronicles of his life presenting their understanding of his philosophy. These books form the Pentad, a core text for Seekers. The Seekers have few traditions, and foremost among them is this: every Seeker keeps a copy of the Pentad, with selected commentary from later eminent Seekers, and blank pages at the end for the Seeker to write their own thoughts.
Seeker doctrine is varied and contradictory; there is little to nothing that all schools agree on. The only unifying characteristics are meta-doctrinal emphases: on literacy, on the Pentad, on forming one's own opinions by careful analysis and observation, and above all on reaching personal enlightenment. What constitutes enlightenment, however, is not agreed upon.
There is also a general sense that most of the obvious answers and common attitudes to basic questions about the nature of reality are misguided and in some way or other have been "fooled" by an illusion. For example, Seekers do not all agree on the question of the existence of deities; but even Seekers who think they exist do not think they are important.
4 The Tradition of the Travellers
The Travellers migrated into the Heartlands from out of the Northern Wastes, some eight hundred years ago. They have not mixed with the native Heartlanders, and preserve their own peculiar religion, culture, and language. They live in wandering bands, as their name suggests, and make their living as performers, tinkers, traders, doers of odd-jobs, and occasional treasure-hunters.
A group of Travellers is called a Cord. No two Cords are entirely alike; each has its own peculiar way of making decisions, its own traditions and stories, its own interpretation of their common religion. Usually, but not always, a Cord consists of several extended families. Almost all Cords are matriarchal, but they may be led by a single Cord Mother, or by a counsel of matriarchs; leadership may be inherited, or passed down by choice. Votes of all adult Cordmembers (or of all women Cordmembers, or of Cordmembers with children; the criteria vary) are often taken for important decisions, but some small Cords vote on almost all decisions.
Traveller culture values stories highly. Each Cord keeps its own library as well as maintaining an oral tradition. The Travellers believe a story is only truly alive so long as it has tellers. If they write down a story, they are committed to telling it again and again, or else they will have wasted parchment on a dead story. So they write down only the important stories, the ones they will always tell; and the less important stories are passed down by mouth.
The Travellers are vegetarians and pacifists, avoiding the use of force unless absolutely necessary. As they provide valuable services and entertainment, however, fighting with or taking advantage of Travellers is taboo among Heartlanders. This taboo is often justified via a superstition that claims the Travellers are protected by a magical Covenant that curses any who mistreat them. This taboo does not translate into personal respect or hospitality, however. Travellers dealing with Heartlanders are thus the objects of a unique mixture of eagerness and admiration for their tinkering and performing skills, fearful respect of their Covenant, and suspicion of them as outsiders and infidels.
4.1 The Shattered Goddess
The Travellers believe in one universal Goddess, whom they call the One, who is immanent in the world; in some sense, the world is the One. (Although they avoid describing the One when talking with foreigners, among themselves they regard Her to be female; however, the word for deity is gender-neutral in the language of Central Forthyr, so "God" and "Goddess" are both slightly inaccurate here.)
Their view on reincarnation is yet again different: for them, an individual is but a fragment of the One, and death is a return to the One, a reintegration of the part into the whole. Birth is conversely the separation of a fragment from the One into a new body. But these fragments lose all identity when they rejoin the whole, so reincarnation is not the recycling of a particular, individual soul, even though the essence of our being is immortal and endlessly recurring.
The Travellers believe that the Goddess originally created the world separate from herself, as a sort of game or plaything. When she realised that the world was full of suffering because of its separation from her, she entered into it and became One with it; hence the name "the One". In doing so the One became shattered into many parts and aspects, just as the world is shattered into many peoples. This is why so many different gods are worshipped by different peoples; and yet the Goddess remains essentially One. For this reason they also call the One "the Shattered Goddess"; other culture's gods are "faces of the Shattered Goddess".
1 The Heartlands and Low Countries
Forthyr is a large continent; we know the shape it makes on the sky, but we do not know what sorts of peoples dwell at its far limits. By "we" I refer to the dwellers of the Heartlands, a region lying more or less at the center of Forthyr, and my homeland.
The Heartlands are mountainous, but well-populated, for the underground tunnel system is dense here and the land fertile. Only the Low Countries, which lie in the verdant valley of the great river Pelluin as it runs Sunwards to the sea, are more populous. The Heartlands and Low Countries are separated by the Great Chasm, a canyon so deep the bottom lies in permanent shadow. It is perhaps a kilometer wide. Its depth is unknown, and its bottom has never been reached. No river carved it, for it does not reach the sea; besides, it runs too straight and its walls are too sheer to have formed naturally. It is generally believed to be the relic of some Ancient disaster.
No human-made bridge spans the Chasm, and no tunnel runs under it. There are three ways past it: go around its North end on the Nightmare Coast; go around its South end, in xenophobic Chengusa; or cross the Gap. The Gap lies at the center of the Chasm's North-South run. It is a pair of apparently natural stone bridges. One bridge runs between two underground tunnels on each side of the Chasm. The other carries the Pelluin from where it waterfalls over the Moonward side to an underground aqueduct on the Sunward side, from which it eventually springs forth onto the surface.
The Heartlands are bounded to Sunwards by the Chasm, and otherwise are ringed by mountain ranges: to the North, the Himlas Mountains; to the Moonward, the Moon Mountains; to the South, the Tall Mountains; and to the South-Sunwards the Short Mountains. (It should be noted that the Short Mountains are "short" only in comparison with the Tall mountains; they are the Alps to the Tall Mountains' Himalayas.)
Himlas lies North of the Heartlands, across the same-named mountains. It is a broad flat land, comparatively barren and sparsely inhabited, for the dry season begins early there. It is divided by a small mountain range, the Lorheins, into Sunward and Moonward Himlas. These were once united under the Torvil Dynasty, a religious empire with its own peculiar interpretation of the Church of the Devout. Sunward Himlas fell to the Arhists two hundred years ago. The remains of the Dynasty hold most of the smaller Moonward Himlas, clinging desperately to a century-old stalemate line. "Dynasty" is now a misnomer; since the last Torvil heir disappeared centuries ago, the country has been ruled by regents.
3 The Northern Wastes
Moonwards of Himlas, North-Moonwards of the Heartlands, are the Northern Wastes. They are more barren than Himlas, and permanently inhabited only by a few scattered tribes, but when the monsoons come the nomadic Northern Barbarians migrate into the Wastes, raiding the villagers and living off the land. Occasionally a particularly greedy barbarian warlord crosses the Horned Pass and attacks the Heartlands, seeking to carve out a new kingdom. These raids are rarely successful, but always bloody.
The Wastes are bounded Sunward and Moonward by the sea, forming a wide isthmus. The barbarians, when they can be convinced to talk at all, tell of a grand empire beyond the Wastes, from which they are either exiles or emissaries. The Travellers, who came out of the Northern Wastes and share many of the barbarian's ethnic features, have similar histories, which they are similarly reluctant to speak of to outsiders.
4 The Tribelands
Beyond the Moon Mountains lie the Tribelands, and beyond them the sea. The monsoons last long and the dry season is mild in the Tribelands, so that the land overflows with life in Summer. The Tribelands harbor many unique and unfamiliar species of wild plant and animal life; but the soil there is strange, and our crops will not grow in it.
The Tribelands are so named because they are inhabited by numerous tribes, organized along lines of kinship in a fashion similar to the clans of the South-Moonward Heartlands. The tribes are suspicious of outsiders, although not as insular as the Chengusans, and so there are but few reports of life among them. I have little more information to offer.
5 The Southern Kingdoms
Across the Tall Mountains are the Southern Kingdoms. The Tall Mountains live up to their name; moreover, there are not many underground passages through them. Consequently the Heartland and the Southern Kingdoms have little contact. The Southern Kingdoms are a bastion of the Orthodox Church of the Devout, so-called because the Church there was less affected by the Reformation than in the Heartlands.
6 The Sunward Lands
South-Sunward across the Short Mountains is Chengusa, a large kingdom with intensely insular, xenophobic tendencies and relatively advanced technology, including primitive firearms. Despite of their xenophobia, they are rumoured to enjoy good relations with the Dwarves, which may explain the source of their technology.
Sunward and a little South, crossing first the Chasm and then the Short Mountains, you will find the Zothian steppes, and beyond them Fennimore. I know little about the Zothi, and less about Fennimore. The steppe is completely separated underground from the rest of Forthyr; no tunnels run into it, save perhaps through the Hill-Mazes of Zoth, an uncharted and unnavigable tangle of tunnels lying below the volcano Azilmur, at the tail-end of the Short Mountains.
At the Sunward edge of the Low Countries lies Gurth, oldest of kingdoms, ruled by Zangma (also called Satmak, or Engmar, or Sidmung, or Saõ Mong), an even older exarch. Zangma was old when the Crusades began; he even claims to have been a pupil of Sikanda, the First Exarch.
Lying between the Low Countries to the North-Moonward, Gurth to the North-Sunward, Zoth to the South-Moonward, and Fennimore to the South-Sunward, is Nobody Land. Although it is fertile and has a good climate, there are no underground caverns or tunnels in Nobody Land, nowhere to hide when Winter comes, and so nobody lives there.
South of Gurth, on a rocky peninsula jutting out into the Gulf of Fog that separates it from Fennimore, is the small realm of Peχavn. The Exarch of Peχavn, who has no name she cares to divulge, is without rival the most powerful wizard of the past thousand years. Off the coast of Peχavn is the legendary Wizards' Isle, of which everything is believed and nothing is known.
The Wizard of Peχavn has never been defeated, neither in wizarding duel nor on field of battle nor in political maneuvering. It is said she permits plots against her to proceed only so long as they amuse her; but as she has survived dozens of them, few meet her standards of novelty. She appears to have a soft spot for conspiracies to destroy her Immortality Machine, however. The most recent such attempt was even allowed to succeed—of course, she had a second Machine waiting in the wings.
The Wizard is said to keep a flock of phoenixes on the Wizards' Isle whose continual burning keeps it in a perpetual Summer. Several centuries ago she mounted an expedition to reach the bottom of the Chasm. She alone returned; whether she succeeded or failed is known only to her. When the Immortal Gengusra, one of the original Nine Immortals who arrived on the Arhist Ark, visited her court to attempt to convert her, he returned having himself become a Seeker of the Way. He was promptly slain by the Arhists, who consider him a martyr.
Among students at the University of Roke, the question of whether the Wizard of Peχavn could steal a Dwarven Secret and survive is roughly equivalent to the Earther dilemma regarding what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.
6.1.1 The spelling of “Peχavn”
"Peχavn" is strangely spelled, I realize. But it is the best rendering I can give of the name of her realm. It is pronounced "pe-CHAV-un", with "ch" sounding as in the Scottish "loch". I use the Greek letter Chi (χ) rather than "ch" or "x" to indicate that the name Peχavn as rendered in our writing contains a glyph not found in the Sikandan abugida, which is the common script of central Forthyr. This glyph is similar but not identical to one in our script, as Greek "χ" is to the Latin "x".
One may wonder why we use this glyph at all, if it occurs in only one name and has a ready substitute. We do not simply write "Pexavn" because there is, according to superstition, a curse on the name Peχavn that descends upon those who inscribe it incorrectly. This superstition is backed up by numerous tales of the fate of those who violated it, some of them quite recent. The reputed effects of the curse vary wildly. One recipient vomited up feces, then choked to death on them. Another found that wherever he travelled, the monsoons failed to fall; he was eventually hung by angry villagers. Another became irresistibly attractive to fungus hogs for the rest of his life.
If at this point you find yourself objecting, if you find this landscape an unreasonable amalgamation of the alien and the familiar, you are not alone: your world seems much the same to me. If your objection is couched in the language of natural science, of physics and mathematics—perhaps you wonder what force holds us to the inside of our ball, as gravity holds you to the outside of yours—then forgive me, but I do not know. If you object to Forthyrian geography, well, I have been there and seen it with my own eyes. If your objection is sociological, I regret that I have neither time nor space to fully explain our history and politics; but really we are not so different from you Earthers, save that we exist in a radically different environment.
Or perhaps you simply want answers, scientific or no, to the obvious questions: What is outside the "ball" that we are on the inside of? What are the Sun and the Moon made of? Why do they brighten and dim at regular intervals? What causes our seasons? Our tides? Our continents' movements? Who were the Ancients, and why are they gone? Why do the Dwarves keep secrets? Why do the Traders trade? Is there any truth to our religions, or to our belief in reincarnation? How did our world come to be? How did we come to be? And why are we both human?
I too seek answers to these questions. I have none, or else they would be found in this document. We do of course have myths and legends, as you once did, to explain our world, to demystify it and bring it down to a human scale. Before I came here, I even believed some of them myself. But if you must have an explanation, call it "magic"; for magic is a very real thing in our world—but that is a subject for another time.
A Timeline of Historical Events
There is no single standard calendar used in Central Forthyr, which makes dating historical events tedious and imprecise. The following is my attempt at reconstructing a history of Forthyr. I have arbitrarily chosen the "zero year" of my dating system to be the year of the first Ecumenical Council, which marks the end of the Reformation.
|c. −3000 to −2000||Sikandan Empire. The known world is united under the First Exarch, Sikanda. These dates are extremely speculative, and the existence of this period is semi-mythical.|
|c. −2000 to −1000||Lesser Empire. Ruled by several Exarchs in succession, with occasional schisms. Eventually disintegrates completely.|
|−253||The incident of the Exarch's Mother-in-Law incites widespread revolts against Exarchs in Church-influenced territories.|
|−251||The First Crusade is declared.|
|−137||Worm City falls to the Exarchs. The tide of the Crusades turns.|
|c. −130||The Crusades are over, the Exarchs victorious. The Reformation begins.|
|−8||Plumes of fire are seen rising from the Wizards' Isle.|
|−7||The Gulf of Fog acquires its name as an enchanted fog spreads over it, making it unnavigable. Zangma, Exarch of Gurth, grants the peninsula of Peχavn to a then-unknown wizard.|
|0||The Cult of Joe convenes the first Ecumenical Council.|
|c. 50||The first Travellers migrate into the Heartlands from the Northern Wastes.|
|182||The Library at Roke is unearthed, sparking the short-lived Monsoon War. Roke University is founded.|
|333||Otaumo suffers enlightenment and begins preaching the Seeking of the Way.|
|348||The Wizard of Peχavn meets Otaumo and converts to his new religion.|
|370||The Pentad is completed.|
|c. 510||The Arhist Ark lands on the Desolate Isle.|
|530||The Low Country King Hwathlõ converts to Arhism, beginning Arhism's rise to power.|
|c. 570–580||Goblins slowly disappear. Legend claims a priest named Martin laid a curse that exterminated them. Martin is Sainted and named "the Goblinslayer".|
|606–616||The Arhists invade and conquer Sunward Himlas.|
|615||The last Torvil heir disappears. The Torvil Dynasty is now the Torvil Regency.|
|740||The Arhist Elder Yezu becomes "undead" in an Immortality Machine accident.|
|743||Yezu and his followers, shunned by Arhist orthodoxy, leave Himlas and colonize the Nightmare Coast.|