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The Gymondan Empire

No sooner had the caravan arrived than it was necessary to pull it off the road and wait before approaching the inn. A unit of pikemen were marching down the road in the other direction. Their uniforms gleamed white, edged with gold that glittered in the Summer sun. Every one of them wore a fine helm and held a new pike from which a small red pennant hung. They were well trained and marched in step, their chins high and eyes fixed on the horizon.

We found the inn to be in similarly fine condition. The pewter tankards were polished to a shine as was the wooden bar. The staff there were friendly and all smiles for our crew, who were plied with fine food and ales for a price that would not have been dear for far simpler fare. We took four rooms and found the beds to be clean and soft. I had expected the men to grumble that there was no nocturnal company to be found in exchange for their fresh-paid bonuses, but they were content to sing songs, play at cards and enjoy the company of the establishment’s plump cat.

My good mood at all this was soured when I spoke to the barkeeper. He was genial enough, but when I asked of the pikes he cautioned me to keep away from such business. The mayor of the adjacent town had displeased the Emperor, it was said. An example was being made and it would not go well for the folk there. We were advised to change our route in the morning and to cut further East and, upon our arrival, to say nothing of such matters. I thanked him for his confidence, gave him a spare coin I had about my person, then went to speak to my roadsman. I did not sleep well that night and the following morning as we left early upon the road I fancied I could smell smoke on the Westerly wind.

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Of all the many nations which rose and fell during the age of wars, the Gymondan Empire was both the largest and the wealthiest. Its origins lay in the Peace of Gymonda, a treaty signed between warring mercantile groups at a small town that lay on either side of an important bridge across one of the many small rivers that divided what was then the Plain of Weeds. This treaty enabled the merchants of the land to begin concentrating their efforts towards making trade safer for all rather than fighting one another. Better roads were built, many villages near to the roads became thriving market towns and over time the fertile plains became farmlands.

All of this might have ended a few decades later as the two kingdoms upon whose borders these lands lay began to prepare for war with one another. However, a plague swept the land and both were hit hard. With neither any longer having much appetite for war, a marriage was arranged to seal an alliance between their two ruling houses. The daughter of the king of Seromeer was surprised to discover that the young king of Haelnost was far from the incapable and sickly prince of whom she had heard tell. He did not share his late father’s taste of war and spent as much time as he could talking with the elders on matters of philosophy and with the merchants concerning trade. The two of them quickly made plans to merge their two nations without need for war. Key figures on both sides were bribed or persuaded behind the scenes. Neither kingdom was dissolved. Rather, they were both subsumed into a new nation named the Gymondan Empire, which the two young monarchs jointly ruled. When their first child was born, they declared that at her coming of age she would become the first Empress.




Travel in the Gymondan Empire was easier and safer than almost anywhere else in the world for most of its history. A network of both roads and rivers spanned the Empire, well patrolled by the mercenary guard of the trading houses, subsidised by the Emperor’s gold. This kept trade revenues high, which more than paid back the Emperor’s investment.

The fall of the Empire when it came was not to invasion, but to its own internal troubles. It spanned such a large territory - from Skasport in the Southwest to Guenkhan in the North - that regional rulers and even city mayors wielded a great deal of power. Many of these territories were under hereditary rule. Over time their ruling class changed from practical-minded warriors and traders to voluptuaries concerned with little more than their own entertainment. The Empire kept them secure and their holdings and trade interests kept them wealthy. This situation led to a great deal of plotting and intrigue from lesser nobility of a more predatory disposition seeing opportunities.

Following the fall of Guenkhan to the consequences of their own experiments in demonology the Emperor made the mistake of imposing a new set of laws upon all Imperial territories, to be centrally enforced by his courts and - if necessary - his armies. Civil war quickly followed as ambitious local rulers seized this as a pretext for a coup. However, the new regime never achieved stability and the land dissolved into distinct warring nations before the beginning of the age of exploration.

The Wood

As I ran I saw the child disappear between the trees, his dark hair merging with the shadows. I stopped then at the edge and a great sadness came over me. If I had recalled his name, perhaps he would have turned at my call. Or maybe if I shouted louder or ran faster. Now I knew there was little chance I would see him again and perhaps it would fall to me to tell his mother what became of him. And then perhaps for the rest of the Summer I would see her standing at the edge of the trees.

I myself stood at the edge of the trees thinking the same thing that she would: dare I go in? I knew it was foolishness. I would be lost too and all for nothing. Perhaps I would find the boy or perhaps not, but we would neither of us emerge. Many nights I had dreamed of being snared by brambles, chased by boars or dragged down into mud. And sometimes when a sickness was upon me or I had drunk too greedily the nightmares would come to me and I would see glimpses of the other denizens of the wood, hunched and wet. Quick knives and curved claws would make short work of me before I woke suddenly to the safety of my cottage.

As I stood there lost in melancholy daydreams the child emerged. Seeing me standing there he ran to me and declared me to be the warden of the West field, which I am. Astonished to see him returned I asked him why he had gone into the trees, surely against his mother’s advice. Yes, he said, and his father’s too. But he explained to me that he had been harvesting in the orchard and had found a perfect apple. It was so perfect that he decided it must be given as a gift to The Wood. And so he took it at once and delivered it himself.

Was he not afraid, I asked? To which he replied that it was because he was afraid that he gave the gift. Who taught him this way of things? Nobody did, for not all knowings are teachings, replied the boy. And indeed, it is so.

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In the far Northwest of Urthauld stands a deep forest. Its Eastern edge is visible from Owl’s Crossing, it marks the boundary of Urthauld to the West and it stretches along almost a third of the border North to South. The people of Owl’s Crossing call it simply “The Wood”, but by this they mean more than the forest. The Wood is an ancient king attended by a court of trees. The Wood is a beast with a cloak of leaves. The Wood watches, always. The Wood snares those who stray too close and they are never seen again. Or perhaps they emerge, crowned with a blessing older than humankind. The seasons are its breathing.

Images live in and around the woods, but it is not one of them. It is one of the true great powers of the world. It did not travel here, but was here almost from the beginning. It will not die until almost the end.

The Wood does not speak directly to mortals, but instead sends its emissary, a spindly being of branches that stands three times the height of a man. It will come to collect tributes offered to The Wood. Occasionally it will listen to petitions for aid from those who show devotion to The Wood, but such aid is never offered in charity, only to assist against shared enemies.




Within the miles of tangled trees, many other beings and creatures inhabit the forest. For all its dangers, The Wood represents a sanctuary of sorts, since demons, sorcerors and predators fear to walk within its domain.

The nature of The Wood is not widely known outside the Seats of Urthauld, but in Owl’s Crossing and Eyestone Hill it is never forgotten. Indeed, there are many who fear it, wondering if a day will come when the trees and bracken extend across the land, swallowing all human towns. Perhaps the roots of The Wood already extend further than the eye can perceive? Certainly its followers walk the roads of the wider world, more like seeds than pilgrims, always looking for a chance to spread the old ways to new disciples.

The White Sun Tribe

Ariphal Lem was far from home. Her dog Koe walked at her side, but he too was tired from the heat and moved to stand in her shadow whenever they stopped. She gave him a little more water and looked around for shelter; they would have to stop until the sun was lower once more.

They made their way to another of the curious groups of sandstone boulders that dotted the wild lands. These were unpleasant places to rest, since the many plants that grew in the shade attracted insects, lizards, spiders and scorpions. Ariphal had been told there were goats in this part of the plain, but she had yet to see one.

As her strength returned, Ariphal noticed that Koe had stood up and was digging. She unhooked her trowel and helped him. Soon, a curve of dry bone was visible and then the entire skull. Was this a grave, or had this person died from the heat, perhaps unable to find water?

Praying for the dead as she did so, Ariphal excavated more, until she spotted a curious shape in the dust. Quickly she brushed it off. It was a coin made from baked clay with a crescent moon design pressed into it. It looked like nothing of consequence, but she cried with joy for she knew it for what it was. An ancient coin of the White Sun tribe - worth more than anything she had found in her last ten expeditions!

“My friend,” she said to Koe, “on our return you shall eat well!”

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During the mythic epoch the wild lands to the East of the Six Castles were home to nomadic groups of both humans and Lethleinein. Amongst the former, the White Sun tribe were by far the most significant, since many aspects of their knowledge and culture were important to the later peoples who travelled West and settled in the Six Castles and Llaewar.

The White Sun tribe were less superstitious than many of their contemporaries. They studied the world around themselves with keen eyes and survived by being respectful of the great powers with whom they shared the land. They learned how to survive the dry years and had a deep knowledge of the water and food sources of the wild lands. They were skilled at hunting with dogs and hawks and they made careful deals with the desert images to cure illnesses and remove curses.

The tribe’s eventual downfall arrived through the very ingenuity which had previously served them well. They saw six stars fall from the sky in a single night. They calculated where they had fallen to the best of their ability and then travelled through the night to find the site. There they found six clear crystals which glowed with a faint inner light. These crystals - named the White Sun crystals by later scholars after their first guardians - were the single greatest power to survive the mythic epoch and far too dangerous for mortals to wield.




No records survive of the end of the White Sun Tribe, but it seems likely that the whispered warnings of the terrible powers of the crystals were the final legacy they chose to leave. Perhaps, then, it was the crystals which destroyed them.

Knowledge of the White Sun tribe is greatly prized by those sorcerors and explorers who seek to learn of the mythic epoch. Although the White Sun tribe kept oral histories, they had a written language and occasionally fragments of script are found on stones in the wild lands.

Pelit Porava

With the end of the great rain, the coracles were sent out onto the lake to gather fish for the feast. This was a coming of age ceremony for those newly granted their hunting spears and each year an informal competition arose between them to see who would capture the most fish. Memdal was determined to acquit himself well and had spoken to a few of the older hunters to ask for tips as well as meditating each morning to place himself in the correct frame of mind. He had no expectation of winning, though. If he did well he might come second to Imele and in doing so perhaps earn her respect.

As Memdal worked to set up the awnings he glanced repeatedly across at Imele. She stood very straight, staring out across the lake. Memdal’s thoughts were interrupted by a hand on his shoulder.

“You did well today,” said his father, “but do not get ideas into your head about Eir Imele Kolan. She is a fire carrier, born of an ancient family and she is not for you.”

“But father, I had heard it said that fire carriers may choose whom they wish to marry. Anyone in the whole town?”

“It is so. But why would she choose you? If you try to court her you will embarrass your family. You may one day be a very fine hunter Memdal, but even the best hunters must learn humility.”

He nodded to his father then and turned away in sadness. Soon, however, the counts were read out. Imele was victorious, but seemed to pay little attention. Memdal’s total was not so far from hers and he easily claimed second place. She walked over to him then and he lowered his eyes, remembering his father’s lesson.

“I think perhaps your father has told you not to approach me, am I right? Well then, I must approach you instead. I wished to congratulate you on your fine hunting. Had you been given the sharpest spear as I was I believe the highest total would have been yours.”

“Thankyou,” Memdal did not raise his gaze, “and I wish to congratulate you too. Your victory required no fine spear. And also I wish to thank you for your kindness in coming to speak with me. In every generation the fire carriers lead us with strength, but I believe you will also lead us with compassion and wisdom.”

Imele inclined her head then and left him.

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It is often recorded in the histories of humankind that the Seats of Urthauld were the first human communities to be established after the passing of the mythic epoch. This is true if one considers buildings and written records, but there were people living in the jungles of Porava more than a century earlier whose culture and knowledge were largely preserved until well into the age of exploration.

In those times a group of hunters encountered in the deep jungle an ancient being of fire. It was greatly weakened and fading from the world. Even in this state they could not have defeated it, but they did not seek to. They carried the being on a wooden frame to a place of safety near their camp. There, they build a shelter for it, since the rains would soon come. In the months the followed the being’s body died, but it remained with those who had cared for it, sleeping within them and within their children.

A time came when the people of Porava decided they would wander the jungles no longer. They made a village amongst the trees next to a small lake and on the side furthest from the lake they build a shrine to the ancient fire. The named the place Pelit Porava, which means “the heart of the land”.




The descendants of those who aided the ancient being are known as fire carriers and stand above the other citizens of Pelit Porava. For the most part they are genuinely respected and they in turn devote their lives to the loyal service of their people. There is also resentment and even occasional unrest caused by the inflexible and permanent nature of the fire carriers’ gift.

As a nation, Pelit Porava is in the unusual position of having no border with another nation. On three sides it is bordered by deep jungle through which no roads run and to the South the land is a desert in which the only landmarks are ruined buildings from the mythic epoch and occasional rocks.

Perhaps because of this isolation, the people of Pelit Porava are distrustful of foreigners and contemptuous of their cultures and achievements. Towards the end of the age of exploration tensions grew within the community between those who believed greater contact with the world beyond the jungles was urgently needed and those who held that reaching outwards would bring ruin and destruction. Civil war was only narrowly avoided.

Apophian Soulless

The villagers saw in the boggy ground to the side of the well a slow shifting of the shadows. Something wet and shiny caught the light. The night was overcast, so fearing armed vagrants or raiders from a distant village they moved forward with torches raised. The ground unfolded to meet them with a hiss. Serpent scales of black and red glittered in the torchlight and their opponent rose up, twice the height of any amongst them. The terror’s upper body might have been mistaken for that of a human woman but for the flickering red slits of its eyes. Below, its form was that of a great snake, which moved to coil about the villagers and trip them as they fled.

The thing did not pursue. It watched as the torches scattered in the night and disappeared into the huts and barns along the edge of the grasslands. Then slowly it turned and in a swift motion dived into the well. Down there in the cool darkness of the water it coiled tight about its treasure. A metal rod lay half buried in the mud of the riverbed. It pulsed softly with a cursed light as red as blood.

From its lair the soulless one reached out to feel the slow flow of life from the river, from the fields and from the villagers. It flowed downwards into the well and into the rod. And as the rod grew stronger, so too did the horror. In time the curse would consume all of this. When it did, the soulless one would need to find new sustenance, but for now it could sleep.

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The Apophian soulless are creatures which mainly live in the Fault Realms, the strange jumble of fragmented worlds between the lands of humans and the wind kingdom of Aeros. They are unable to survive by eating food and are sustained only by the proximity of curses and other secrets connected with decay and misfortune.

During the locking of the Fault Realms undertaken to trap the society of assassins whose base of operations was located there one of the expeditionary forces from the Six Castles encountered the wound from which the soulless had emerged and sealed it. Consequently the numbers of soulless surviving in the world has been declining since the end of the age of wars.




Although Apophian soulless prefer to hide and sleep, if hunted down they are fierce fighters and will sometimes attack preemptively if they perceive a threat. In combat they are fierce opponents, both fast and fearsomely strong. Worse still, they wield a secret which tears at the fabric of souls in their vicinity. All living creatures nearby suffer distortion to their senses, may see strange flickering visions and will have trouble making use of any secret which relies on either senses or the channeling of energies external to the wielder.

If an Apophian soulless is not thoroughly destroyed it may be returned to life by any cursed energies nearby. This process is slow and takes anything from days to weeks, but can only be prevented by removing or destroying the source of the curse or by annihilating the body of the dead soulless.

Bylignion

I noticed a young man pass flowers to his lover. He stood tall and proud, his jacket well brushed and his hair smoothed with scented oil. I could not tell you why this particular memory stayed with me, but it is as well that it did for the next day I saw him again. And not only did I see him again but he stood upon that same spot and his lady friend smiled at him in the same way and he at her and the flowers were passed in the same manner. It seemed a little extravagant for a daily ritual, so I noted it.

It was only upon returning for a third day that I began to notice other things. There was a cart always parked in the same place and upon it sat the same two men, conversing. There was an old lady in a wide, hooped dress who waved to a friend across the square. As you may imagine I found all this quite unsettling and at once set aside my business in the city in order to devote more time to its study.

On the fourth day I accosted the young man just a moment earlier and begged his pardon before asking whether he knew at what time the market closed that day. He answered politely enough and proceeded about his daily ritual, but I noticed that when he bade the woman good day he strode off at an accelerated pace.

I was a month in the city of Bylignion and by the time I took my leave and had learned enough that I feared to learn more. The city’s every inhabitant moved to the beat of a hidden drum that I could not hear. It was not, as I had first supposed, the same every day. Rather, it made endless variations upon its own patterns, like bell ringers ringing their changes.

It was only after I departed that I began to wonder: was I myself and my various experiments merely the catalyst for some new variation? The more I thought on this the less I slept and it has troubled me ever since. And yet I must content myself never to know, for should I return to Byligion once more I greatly fear what more I might learn.

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Whilst nominally ruled from Stonehargh, in reality Bylignion was more like an independent city-state. Although its officials were often seen busily attending to their duties there was never any outward sign as to from where their orders originated. So it was that the rulers of the city came to be called the Unseen Masters of Bylignion.

The activities of the Unseen Masters extended to a great deal more than the running of the city. Across two generations of careful study a detailed ritual had been drawn up in which every building, object and resident of the city was a moving part. The purpose of this giant human mechanism was to generate arcane energies, which the Unseen Masters directed to various ends in defence of the city and in pursuit of their own goals.




First and foremost the Unseen Masters use their power to control the actions of those in and near the city. From the moment a traveller draws near they become part of the endless dance.

Second, the Unseen Masters use the power of the ritual to accelerate their own thoughts. In this way they achieve as much scholarship and philosophy in a single lifetime as would normally require half a dozen.

Finally, the power of the city is used to dampen the effects of other secrets which might otherwise harm Bylignion. Although the protection of the Imperiarch has meant that no direct attack on the city ever took place, the Unseen Masters know something of what monsters stalk the world and have armed themselves against as many such threats as possible.

Oyishu Han Taig

They say there is a man who can walk in your dreams. He has a mirror, through which he can reach into the future and pluck the fruits that grow there. He knows the hidden roads to any place and can walk there only slowly and arrive sooner than the fastest horse. He carries keys which can open your mind and into it he will place neatly folded thoughts and you will think them your own. This man can become a dog and when he does he looks out through the eyes of other dogs and sees you.

They say there is a man who can walk in your dreams. He died once and will not do so again. He carries a coin made from silver and brass which can pay for anything he wants on the earth or in the heavens. He has a flask of golden liquid which was poured from the beak of a fire serpent in the deep desert. Anyone who drinks from it can never be cold. He sees the patterns written in the stars and in the leaves. He keeps his soul in his pocket, as hard as stone and as red as blood.

They say there is a man who can walk in your dreams. If you meet him, turn away, for the secrets he shares with you will destroy you.

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Oyishu Han Taig was for almost two centuries the master of the Wraithweb Palace. He is one of the very few mortals every to have obtained immortality without it being granted to them by a higher being.

As a mortal child he was an orphan and by good fortune became apprentice to the royal scribe of Gobal Palace. He was paid only in board and lodging, but the work afforded him the opportunity to become literate at a young age and to read many scrolls and tomes which would normally be forbidden even to princes. When the scribe died, Oyishu Han Taig left Llaewar and travelled West across the sea. On his journey he met a man who had been attacked by robbers and left to die. He carried the man to Eyestone Hill, where he was an elder of some importance. For this act of kindness he was rewarded by the Ruvach with a glimpse into the Eyestone, which showed him the path to an extraordinary future.

Oyishu Han Taig devoted himself to the study of the secrets, first learning moon sorcery from the images before travelling South to the Lossanbrant to study alchemy. Finally he made the journey to the elemental kingdom of Aeros, where he studied the secret of winds under the guidance of Suradijn, the lord of winds himself.

To achieve his destiny he had to seek out and defeat four demon masters, wielders of terrible, ancient secrets who had walked the earth since the mythic epoch. The first he killed with fire, the second he trapped in a cage and sunk beneath the waves and the third he defeated by hiring mercenary knights and luring it into an ambush. The fourth presented a problem, for the Eyestone had shown that it would slay him. So it was that he learned the secret of cheating death. He fought a sorcerous duel with the demon master and was defeated, but in the process wounded it with moon poison and it was cast into a sleep from which it never awoke.




As he became extremely ancient, Oyishu Han Taig found his body increasingly burdensome. Although he could stop it from perishing, he could not retain his strength and speed and he found his slow, hunched form ill suited to travel. For a while he lived in a tower in the wilderness on the edge of what would later become the Gymondan Empire. However, his continued researches were hampered by lack of contact with other scholars.

Finally, word reached him of a flying palace. His informant did not believe as others did that the place was apocryphal. Oyishu Han Taig devoted himself to finding it and, upon doing so, was able to persuade its keepers to let him live there.

Within the Wraithweb palace he learned an astonishing amount and later, as master of the place, brought together many scholars of the secrets. Then one day a vision was shared with him of a great fire. So it was he learned of the coming of the White Sun Crystals and determined that he would be unwise to stand against their power. In the end he abandoned his mortal body and ascended to a higher level of the stairway, never to return.

Ezun Daga

The Palace Keeper leaned against a pillar and closed his eyes for a moment. Around him he could hear the roar of war and smell dust and flames. The Ezun horde had come and after only a short battle had defeated both the militia and the palace guard. After months of fear it had been an anticlimactic end to the conflict. Indeed, only a few minutes previously the ragged skirmishers had run through this very room bearing torches and scimitars. He had thought his end at hand and it was curious to be spared. Of course, it was only temporary. He supposed a worse fate awaited him. Public execution, perhaps? Might they torture him?

Through the swirling dust, he saw another of the horde enter the palace. This man did not even have his weapon out, so the battle must truly be over. He seemed to notice the Palace Keeper and then, after a pause, walked to where he stood. He hardly seemed much of a warrior. In late middle age and warmly wrapped despite the mild weather, he wore feather and fur and had big, sad eyes with which he quietly regarded the Keeper for some time. Eventually, the Keeper could stand the silent scrutiny no longer and spoke to the man.

“You look more like a priest than a warrior.”

“I am no warrior. An accountant, perhaps. At best a philosopher. Shall we take tea?”

“Do you not know me? I am the Palace Keeper. When Ezun Daga arrives he will have me put to death!”

“I do know you, but you clearly do not know me. I am Ezun Daga and you are not my enemy unless you choose to be. I came here to destroy the Etiki. That you stood in their defence cost you many lives, but our purpose is now fulfilled and no more need die. We must talk of the future and of rebuilding this land. While we do so, I will take tea. You may join me or not as you prefer.”

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Ezun Daga was a scholar and revolutionary who devoted his life to opposing the rule of the Etiki. Unlike Dornade, who came several generations later, Ezun Daga was not a hunter or an assassin but a general. In his time, the Etiki openly ruled kingdoms and to stand against their supreme power was at one time unthinkable.

For the first three decades of his life, Ezun Daga lived in the city of Altekal under Etiki rule. There he studied as a botanist and zoologist, living a relatively privileged life as the eldest son of a clerk of the khan. However, as time passed he became less inclined to see the Etiki as wise rulers. He began to seek out forbidden texts which recorded theories about the Etiki and their ways. Eventually he was discovered and exiled to the wilderness West of the Ronunskei desert.

During his exile, Ezun Daga constantly plotted his return. He learned forbidden history from the desert nomads and in turn shared with them the knowledge of Altekal. Over time he encountered other exiles and travellers from other lands. He began to gather a band of followers who shared his distaste for Etiki rule. At first this was for the purpose of discussion and study, but gradually they formed the intention of raising an army and storming the Etiki strongholds.

Almost two decades of recruitment, spying and careful preparation followed. When the Ezun horde finally marched, they proved unstoppable. This was in part because some of the stronger Etiki were forewarned of the attack, but chose to use this forewarning not to better defend but instead to escape.




Ezun Daga had no appetite for running an empire and quickly stepped aside in favour of those amongst his allies who did. This was ultimately not good for the former kingdoms of the Etiki. Where Ezun Daga himself had been wise and cautious, many of his allies were arrogant and reckless. A century of poverty and unrest followed.

As for Ezun Daga himself, he returned to scholarship in his later years. He was always resentful of the short duration of mortal life and his failing eyesight left him unable to complete much of his research. Nonetheless his journals proved a useful resource for later naturalists and his unusual travels meant that he produced one of the most extensive botanical references of the age of exploration.

Oracles of Soris

Two broad attendants with shaven heads stood to either side of the path. When the hour came, a gong was sounded and between them they lifted the unsecured middle section of the fence and carried it to the side. The petitioners were then admitted in single file, each stared at as they passed to assess what threat they might pose.

The petitioners were very poor. Many wore the traditional clothes of the Northern farmers, but patched and darned from a dozen years of wear. Others seemed to be soldiers from the wars whose wounds had left them too weak or lame to be of use in the field. There were no children amongst them, but neither were many of them old, for people such as these seldom lived to see old age.

Raised on her palanquin, the oracle spoke to each individually and her judgements varied enormously with a pattern none could discern. To some she gave small coins, or oranges, or carved wooden tokens. To most she gave advice of one kind or another. One man was told he was to serve on a ship fifty miles to the West and must set out at once. Another woman was told she must drink a half cup of vinegar every week to keep the demon within her at bay.

The last petitioner of the day was a very young man with sunken eyes, carrying a bucket. The oracle beckoned him closer and whispered to him, then her attendant bestowed upon the man six silver half suns and a red cloak of good quality. He lifted his head and a dignity came over him as he walked from that place. All looked upon him as he passed and they called to him to say what words the oracle had whispered, but he would not.

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As the cult of Soris spread through the six castles during the Age of Wars it quickly passed outside the control of Soris itself and even of the priesthood. Although the first oracles of Soris were chosen and blessed by the priesthood, rural communities quickly realised two things. First, that no oracle would ever be established by the priesthood anywhere far from the cities. Second, that the credentials of oracles were never challenged or verified, so there was really no need to involve the priesthood at all.

The earliest oracles were those established by the priesthood. Later oracles were devout worshippers of Soris who believed themselves able to channel its wisdom for the benefit of all. After a few years had passed, most oracles were charlatans, manipulators or even politicians with no connection to Soris or the priesthood at all.

Confusingly for historians, these later oracles were collectively so influential that by the end of the Age of Wars the majority of written records of the cult of Soris were those recorded by the false oracles.




Although the early oracles of Soris truly did provide its guidance, this was seldom in the interests of anyone but Soris. They were a tool of control, aimed particularly at the wealthy and influential warrior lords who ruled those cities ostensibly in the name of the monarch.

The false oracles sought much the same thing and in the process created a period of moderately enlightened governance since the people of the islands were effectively manipulating their rulers into doing things which needed doing.

The Stairway

Holding the page of the book open with one hand, Dulsane began carefully to copy the design onto the flagstones. The weather had been dry for the last month and her oilstick made dark, sticky marks on the pale stone. She had seen her captor construct this same pattern a dozen times, but watching was not the same as performing; one error could mean disaster.

With the quicksilver poured into the last of the bowls a hissing sound began to fill the air. It ended with a crack like a whip and a dark hole opened between the oilstick lines from which rose a spiral stairway of ancient stone. It was icy cold and a fine mist condensed in the air around it.

Gathering her courage, Dulsane prepared to run up it. Whether to freedom or to her death she could not say. She was stopped short by a shadowy hulk emerging from the mist. Its spined carapace and the gauzy membranes hanging from it left her in no doubt that this was the beast which served her captor. She was caught!

“Do not be afraid mortal girl. Why would I harm the one who has opened the way to me? Your master’s chains do not bind me this time and, thus freed, I am keen to speak with him once more.”

So saying, the beast moved past her and broke the door with a single sweep of its claw. Dulsane looked at the mossy stone of the steps and at the door beyond which her captor was the only obstacle to her returning home. The choice was easily made.

The beast turned right at the lower hall, so Dulsane turned left and by so doing did not meet the sorceror on her way out. She heard him, though. She heard the sound he made when the beast found him. As she ran away across the moor, she was glad indeed that she had not chosen to ascend the stairway.

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At the height of the prosperity of the land of Ronunskei, its sages delved deep into the mysteries of the world. One of the fundamental principles they arrived at is that not all of the beings who walk the earth originated there. Similarly, hundreds of miles away and more than a century later the Lords of Narthul reached similar conclusions via very different paths of study.

The truth which both civilisations had uncovered was the structure known as the stairway. Seen as metaphorical by some and yet explored as a seemingly real place by others, the stairway connects many worlds in a way that permits passage between them. Insofar as it is a metaphor it is to some extent an ill-chosen one, since the stairway branches as it ascends. Its full extent is not known even to the great powers spoken to by the most accomplished sages.

Higher levels of the stairway are different in nature and these differences become more pronounced the further one ascends. Some secrets are stronger there. The energies of those worlds are more intense and more volatile. The beings found there have strange qualities and some wield extraordinary powers. Travel far enough and the principles of natural philosophy themselves begin to break down.




Beings from higher levels of the stairway can be contacted by means of certain secrets and even called into the world. Such a process is risky even for a well-informed and well-equipped summoner, since even if the being intended is called and is not hostile, other creatures may seize the opportunity represented by the open passage.

Records of the Order of Cartographer Adepts also tell of a world further down the stairway. This place is extremely difficult to reach, but is even harder to return from since no secrets work there. Indeed, the histories of Stonehargh tell that the Veshar Verlaine descended the stairway never to return.

Some philosophers have occasionally speculated that all gods, monsters and great powers of the world originate from higher levels of the stairway. In reality this is very far from true. Indeed, for natives of the higher levels to remain for extended periods of time is difficult and uncomfortable for them and they would seldom seek to do so.