Table of Contents
To begin, it should be noted that what is to follow is but the work of one extradimensional traveler and armchair social scientist. It is in no way intended to be an exhaustive guide or definitive study, and should not be taken as such. These are merely the observations of the imperfect author alone.
While a certain consideration shall always be given to the notions of cultural relativism, it must also be noted that the author shall not miss an opportunity to explode humbuggery through the application of sound reason and factual information. If this should happen to cause offense to the denizens of Aern, or any other realm, then the author can only suggest that such offended parties move on; reassured that they are, indeed, the more enlightened, superior being, in no way encumbered by any fault or incorrect opinion.
It should also be noted that, in order to facilitate comprehension, weights and measures will be transposed into whatever system is in use within the readers’ own realms. Readers should also take note that in realms where a shared language encompasses multiple jurisdictions utilizing different systems of weights and measures, the more scientific and comprehensible system shall be used. Those readers accustomed to archaic systems of weights and measures should avail themselves of whatever conversion measures they have at their disposal. Further, the author might also humbly suggest that they put aside any delusional sense of cultural superiority and take the opportunity to adjust themselves to more rational thought.
To put it another way: if science and reason threaten you, perhaps you should think about surrendering.
Finally, as to the structure and organization of this work in terms of its topics and entries, the author must beg the reader’s indulgence. This shall not be a cyclopedia, organized alphabetically, with equal consideration given to all topics. The author is, as the title of the broader host suggests, a vassal to his muse. Of course, every effort shall be given to explore topics that the author deems to be most relevant to those narratives ongoing elsewhere here. But, it must be said, the constraints of time and the author’s own interest will affect this work.
With all that being said, the author would like to take the opportunity, at the start of this new venture, to thank the reader for their gracious attention to his humble offerings. All civil comments and queries are, of course, welcome.
For those readers and extradimensional travelers used to realms of magic and other fantastical elements, the world of Aern will not seem unusual.
Geographically, Aern is a planet with vast oceans and at least one continent of the same name. The continent of Aern is immense: arctic in its northern reaches, and equatorial in its southern. The inhabitants of Aern might be forgiven the apparently self-centric naming of their landmass in that it has as yet remained unclear whether it is the only continent on the globe. The open seas are populated with gargantuan and terrible sea monsters who like nothing better than rising up from the deep to consume every single ship that dares trespass. As well, there are strong, atmospheric, anti-magic fields over the oceans, allowing no flight, teleportation, or surveillance by scrying. Whether this situation is the result of natural phenomena or some entity or entities’ designs is undetermined.
Aern has a very normal infestation of humans, along with the usual assortment of humanoid species. With the author being a human himself, the affairs of humans and their societies will inform the bulk of this work. However, a cursory catalogue of the other humanoids, monstrous and otherwise, is in order.
In the beginning, Aern was formed of the fundament by the various gods that are inevitable in these sorts of affairs. More on these gods later, should the goings-on of their various followers warrant it. Suffice it to say, these deities created the world and populated it with beings in their image.
These original inhabitants are: Elves, Giants, Dragons, Dwarves, Minotaurs, goblins, and humans.
As is usual in these kinds of worlds, the first, and most divinely informed of these creatures, were the Elves (although both Dragons and Giants would beg to differ on both points here – and when they do so, those imbued with any sense of self-preservation would do well to concede). The Elves: tall, statuesque, and prone to the most frightful abuses of poetry and song. These most blessed of creatures have, thankfully, mostly pushed-off from Aern; gone to wherever it is that Elves go when frolicking through forests and being haughtily above the affairs of the lesser species becomes unbearably tiresome for them. Since the average Elf lives for upwards of two thousand years, one has to wonder exactly how many generations it took for this to happen. (One could find out if they were so inclined, but that would require delving into Elven histories, which would involve reading their inevitable poetry. So, an unknowable mystery it is, then.) However many generations it took, it certainly cannot speak well to their society’s attention span as a whole. Finally, it may be worth noting that there are rumors of Wood Elves, the shorter and more interesting cousins of the High Elves, lurking about in the deeper of forests, but it is hard to say if this is true. Be that as it may, Aern is, for all practical purposes, a post-Elf world.
There is some debate, often vociferous, as to which of the original species were created next. Since this does not matter in the slightest, we may move on without involving ourselves in the quagmire.
The Dwarves are the stable foundation upon which most of the human civilizations in Aern rest. The Dwarves of Aern look and behave precisely as Dwarves always do: burrowing and mining their way through the bedrock in search of minerals and other treasures. They prefer to exert their influence on human affairs at a remove, but are not above coming to the surface to crack skulls when they feel it is necessary.
Giants, the natural and sworn enemies of the Dwarves, occupy the highest mountains of Aern. There are too many sub-species of Giants to go into here, but it should be noted that the taller the mountain is, the bigger and more sophisticated the Giants inhabiting it will be. At the highest reaches, the Storm Giants are not only the largest of the species, but also the most adept spell-casters. It might therefore come as no surprise that mountaineering is no man’s hobby in Aern.
Dragons are in Aern as dragons always are: best to be avoided. However, since the greater Giants hunt them for sport and the Dwarves will kill evil chromatic varieties whenever possible, dragons are not the problem one might expect them to be.
The Minotaurs of Aern are unique. Occupying an archipelago off the southeastern coasts of Aern, the Minotaurs mostly keep to themselves. Of humanoid form with a bovine head and humanoid hands and feet, Minotaurs are quite large. Males and females are typically over two meters tall and of muscular frame. The Minotaurs of Aern boast the highest level of material, magical, and artistic culture in the realms.
Goblins are, as could be expected, problematic. Generally regarded as the most dangerous of vermin by every other species, goblins are typically killed on sight. They are filthy, disgusting, vicious, sadistic little creatures that breed as fast as they can consume. They are not, however, stupid, and are crafty ambushers who work well together to execute their plans.
Finally, of course, there came the humans. The last to be created of the gods, humans were initially regarded by the other species as little better than goblins themselves. Time has shown, though, that humankind is capable of being much more dangerous and cruel than any goblin could dream of being. Occasionally, they also do some good. To what degree that good mitigates their evil remains a question for some debate.
Within Aern there are also many subspecies that have evolved from the original ones. The most notable of these is the orc.
Orcs are not, strictly speaking, a normal biological subspecies, in that they are the product of a god’s work. However, their creator god was late to the party and was unable to form a species in his own image as the other gods had. So, instead, he abducted a population of Elves that he then sent to a hell dimension of torture and combat. Being a hell dimension, time moved much slower than in Aern. In the two thousand years that was one Elven lifespan in Aern, the abducted Elves and their descendants were subjected to eons of torment that evolved them into orcs. Then the orc creator god reintroduced them to Aern. The ensuing family tension between the species informed much of the early wars of Aern.
The other subspecies of Aern are the more natural biproduct of mutation and natural selection. Broadly speaking, there are three groups of subspecies: Giantkin, Dwarvenkind, and the goblinoids.
Goblinoids are, as their name would suggest, those species that are descended of goblins. There are many, but the two main ones are known as hobgoblins and bugbears. Both subspecies are larger, stronger, and braver versions of their cousins.
Giantkin include such subspecies as trolls and ogres. These subspecies are barbaric and not recognized as relatives by the greater Giants, such as Storm or Cloud Giants. The lesser true Giants, such as Hill or Stone Giants, will associate with the subspecies when necessary, but will always bully and dominate them.
Finally, the Dwarvenkind subspecies are limited to Gnomes and Quillians. Gnomes are diminutive descendants of Dwarves and some manner of fey creatures (the exact sort of species has been lost to time – and the Dwarves will not discuss it – but fairies seem the most likely). Quillians are an offshoot of Gnome that likely mixed itself with human. Quillians are more commonly known as “halflings” by humans, but it must be noted that Quillians regard the term as a racial slur. Quillians are about a meter in height with very slight builds, and have normal feet for which they use footwear.
Of course, the realms of Aern are fully populated with various monsters, aberrations, and creatures. For adventurers (and the extradimensional beings that choose to follow their exploits), there is no shortage of things to be challenged and dismembered by. This may be, but this work is no bestiary or monster manual. Those readers looking for such can doubtless find many available lexicons elsewhere. Three point five is the author’s preferred version.
The Gods of Aern
When it comes to the gods of Aern there can be no real clarity. There are simply too many to keep accurate track of and, in the end, who really cares? However, it cannot hurt to make some effort to delineate things in very broad strokes.
First of all, a clear distinction must be drawn between those deities worshiped by humans as opposed to the other species. Elves can live for two thousand years. Dwarves live for roughly four hundred. Both of these species have direct historical continuity with their creation and creators. This makes the nature of their relationship with their gods rather different than that of species in realms with less tangibly active deities.
If a person were to say that they believe in the leader of their country, how would their fellow citizens take such a statement? Naturally, they would assume that the person supports the leader politically; that they trust the leader to make the right decisions. But if that person were then to clarify their statement to mean that they believe the leader exists as a tangible entity, then others would doubtless find this odd.
What do you mean you believe the Queen exists? Of course she does! What kind of fool would think she doesn’t? I mean, sure, average folk like us can’t interact directly with her, and certainly cannot see her in person often, and many might even question her legitimacy to rule us in the manner that she does. But none but a lunatic would question that she actually exists!
Understand, then, that it is just such a situation for the Dwarves, Elves, Dragons, and Giants of Aern. There can be no question that their gods exist. Their histories are not so ancient (to them), and reference extensive volumes of excellent primary source material.
Keeping in mind, too, that many individuals in Aern have actually met the gods. In fact, Aern is a world where, with the proper equipment, or under the right (or very wrong) circumstances, any person may have the chance to meet, and perhaps even be smitten by, a wide assortment of deities.
Think then what this reality would do to philosophy and metaphysics. Existential questions become a very different conversation; at times with the actual deities that created existence.
“Oh, Lord Altas! Why, in thine infinite wisdom, did you create us in your image? And why, if we are as you say, vessels of your divinity, why are we such faulty ones?”
“Oh… I dunno. I suppose we were getting bored up here, and everyone needs a hobby, right? It seemed like it might be fun. And without free will you’d all be more like action figures than pets, or whatever, so it seemed the way to go. Don’t take everything so serious! Try to have some fun! We had your genitals override your brains for a reason, you know.”
The species of Aern each have their own pantheons of deities to which they give praise and request boons. This means there are many gods, each with their own purview, with varying degrees of power dependent on the amount of worship they receive. It is this metaphysical phenomenon that makes the relationship between a worshiper and their god a crucial one, for both parties.
The gods may have created the species of the prime material plane, but in doing so they played a trick on themselves. For in giving their creations free will, they also gave them power. The belief, the heartfelt prayers, and the hopes and dreams of the species of Aern is what now gives the gods their power. And without the worship and attention of their followers, the gods themselves are nothing.
This may seem a curious truth to those reared to fear their gods. Why, the gods are all-powerful! How could our worship be that which gives them this power to crush us? To sweep aside our very civilizations like anthills if they so desire?
However, if one removes this concept from notions of metaphysics to, say, politics, it no longer should seem the slightest bit strange. Governments wield an almost god-like power to crush the individual. But how do these governments derive their power? From whence does it flow? In a practical and material sense, it flows from the taxes of its citizens and their ventures, of course. But in a wider sense, governments derive their power and legitimacy from their citizens’ belief that they have such. The very citizens that are subsequently crushed by the government they empower. Think of the prayers of the faithful as money paid to one’s government, and all shall be clear.
Now, why this phenomenon should exist in the first place is an opaquer question. Certainly, the gods would not have intentionally created this situation where their power is dependent on the attention of their worshipers. It would seem, then, that the gods themselves are bound by some great metaphysical forces or principles. Laws that they were unaware of when they bound themselves to the moral coil of their creation.
It has been posited that before the creation of the physical realm, the gods were as thoughts. In the ether of the heavens they existed and yet did not matter. For what is a thought if it is not expressed in words or put into action? For a thought to become an idea it must be applied in some way and communicated.
To put it simply: for the gods to matter, they needed someone to matter to.
With it being a truth that the nature and power of the gods is directly related to their connection with their worshipers, it should be obvious that the different species of Aern would affect their gods differently. Previously we have touched upon how the longevity of the stable societies of the Elves and Dwarves (and so forth) have created a more relaxed and stable relationship with their gods. They deliver the gods their worship and receive their boons, but there is no real fervor to it. Why would there be? When relationships get old they trade excitement and passion for routine and dependability.
However, humans are another matter. The number one positive characteristic of humans, which has allowed their successful and rapacious spread across all the realms where they exist, is their adaptability. This adaptability is born of a number of other characteristics. Humans have an innate drive to explore and question everything. They believe with fiery passion. With their extremely short lifespans of one hundred years, when an idea strikes their fancy, humans commit to it completely. For a time.
Human attention and passion is fickle. Humans move easily from one extreme to another, without any real concern for logical or ethical consistency. For themselves at least. They will happily call their opponents out for any little inconsistency, and delight in applying the label of “hypocrite” to others whenever possible. But when analyzing themselves, if they bother to, humans are quite content to let cognitive dissonance rein.
This means is that within the many and varied human pantheons of Aern, gods rise and fall like social media influencers. With their believers fervently praying every waking moment, or running about organizing whole genocides of human sacrifices, the human gods often shine like fireworks in the heavens before disappearing utterly. Conversely, it has been observed that to be an Elven or Dwarven deity is very much like holding a government job: it is reliable, stable work; rarely exciting, but the bills shall be paid. The human gods may have a wild, exciting ride while they are in fashion, but in the long run they have a much harder go of it.
In fact, in Aern the original human creator god is now unknown; lost in the fog of time, nameless to all but the most dedicated of Dwarven historians. Divine rumor has it that he was last spotted selling pencils on the streets near the Maroviquian docks. So it can go for those who rely on human attention for their subsistence.
Now some human readers might be taking exception to this characterization of human faith. It may seem to them that certain religions in their realms are venerable because they might be two, or three, or even four thousand years old. In counter to this, the author need only observe that this notion of venerability would certainly seem quaint to Elves or Dwarves. It must also be kept in mind that most of these so-called ancient religions have not been practiced in a consistent way throughout their history.
While it is true that there might be some orthodox forms of human faiths that remain unchanged for thousands of years, these are the exception. As well, they lack broad appeal and are often practiced only by culturally fossilized minorities that are generally deeply problematic for their wider communities. As with anything, for a human religion to remain popular and relevant to a broad population, it must adapt itself to cultural variances and change with the times. Just because a religion uses the same name and worships the same figures throughout its history does not mean that its dogma or practices will remain consistent.
This being said, there are some venerable human faiths in Aern. Notably, sun worship. The sun god, Altas, has enjoyed consistent worship from humans and most other species throughout Aern’s history. This should not be surprising. It is quite easy to believe in the sun, and to worship it, particularly in cold climates, is quite logical. The moon goddess, Lavastia, too, has always been a popular deity (particularly with women, in that prayers to her in her cycles will help regulate fertility and provide one-hundred percent effective birth control).
It should be noted, though, that the types and practices of this human worship are not consistent from culture to culture. All these humans might be praising the sun and the moon, but how they go about doing that can be very different, often involving completely distinct hierarchies. It is historical fact that Aern’s humans have had multiple holy wars in which the belligerents were worshiping the same deity. Such is human folly. For the god, however, this is no problem. The heat and fervor of the prayers and sacrifices they receive in such conflicts is unparalleled. Keep it coming!
With human civilizations rising and falling like waves beating upon the rocky shores of the Elven and Dwarven, it should be no wonder that their gods rise and fall in similar fashion. This leads us to a point that some more philosophically inclined readers may have already begun pondering. What happens when humans start to worship a god that does not exist?
The answer to this question is quite simple. The original gods may have created Aern and its inhabitants, but humans are unique in that they went on to create their own gods. When enough people believe in and pray to a deity, whether it previously existed or not, that energy will manifest itself into the object of their focus. And when a human leader tells their followers that they are, in fact, a god, they will often be elevated to such.
As with all things in human society, we tell stories to ourselves about what is, and then set about turning these stories into reality. In metaphysical terms, this is the unique gift of our dualistic natures: born of the earth in flesh, but imbued with the spirit of the heavens. We are conduits to transpose energy into consciousness and then reality.
As humans, this is our gift and our power. That we collectively choose to manifest that which we do is our shame. For we cannot blame our gods and devils for our misfortunes and evils; they are but agents of our own creation set to our deeper purpose.
The Humans of Aern
The human societies of Aern can broadly be categorized into cultural groups based on their languages. Of course, Aern is old enough for these groups of humans to have also developed unique racial characteristics. However, in discussing these humans, or relating their stories, the decision has been made by this author to avoid describing them with any specific racial terms or racially identifiable features. This, hopefully, will prevent readers from falsely associating the cultures and races in Aern with those within their own realm.
Further, the author invites his gracious readers to feel free to imagine the humans and other species in whatever manner they wish. The advantage of the written word is such that no author need dictate to their reader in specific terms how anything appears. If beauty is subjective, why attempt to define it? Simply say a face is beautiful and leave it up to the reader’s imagination to decide what that might mean. So too it goes with skin tones.
There are four main human language divisions in Aern, two of which recognize themselves and the other as civilized. These first two are the Alinorian and Alquinian, which share a linguistic ancestor that could arguably make them of one group, were it not for their stark political and cultural differences. The Alquinian world occupies roughly the southeastern quadrant of Aern, including the archipelagic empire of Alquinia. The Alinorian world occupies the northwestern quadrant, where the more benevolent Republic of Alinor exerts a paternalistic influence over the region.
The other two human language groups of Aern are the Gerant and Scythan, both of which are regarded as uncivilized, if not barbaric, by the Alinorians and Alquinians. The Gerant languages are used by a wide collection of tribes that occupy the central mountain ranges and great forests in the south-central area of the continent. The Scythan languages are those of the tribes of horselords that dominate the great plains running almost the whole length of Aern’s northern side.
The Alinorian World
The Republic of Alinor is a coastal country in the far north and west of Aern. Geographically, it is sub-artic, but it presently enjoys a temperate climate thanks to its warm ocean currents and three hundred and sixty-five days of sunshine a year. It is always sunny in Alinor. Those in search of weather and other strife, look elsewhere.
This ridiculous climate exists because the Alinorians do not shirk in their worship of Altas, the sun god. While officially claiming to be a republic, the country more properly would be categorized as a theocratic triumvirate, with a government formed of its three state religions: that of Altas, god of the sun, Lavastia, goddess of the moon, and Saint Cuthbert, god of law and justice. The High Council, of course, considers the will of the people, who seat a token representative from the democratically elected Parliament. Also with seats on the council are the Mage Guild, as well as the Dwarven Finance Guild. This might seem generous until one learns that the three state religions all have three seats each.
This political situation has existed for almost three hundred years, since the mighty Alinorian Empire collapsed at the end of the Great War with Alquinia. After a brief period of turmoil, and aided in large part by the Dwarves who emerged from their mountains to stabilize the region (whether the humans wanted them to or not), the Empire was restructured into the Alinorian Republic. The Alinorian world refers to this political change as the Alinorian Reformation. It is significant enough an event that it is used as the benchmark for counting the years in the north, which are represented as being PR (post reformation), or BR (before reformation).
Directly to the east of Alinor are the Dwarfholm mountains. The Alinorians, of course, defer to their neighbors, the Dwarves, in all important matters, but are generally grateful to run their daily local affairs as they see fit. More on the Dwarves later.
To the south of Alinor is the Twelve Kingdoms. Generally feudal in government and pugnacious in nature, the kingdoms therein are most certainly not a cohesive political entity. With many intersecting royal lineages spanning the Twelve Kingdoms, wars of succession are common. The human folk of the Twelve Kingdoms generally speak Alinori, in some form or another.
South of the Twelve Kingdoms is the city state of Haven, a wealthy, coastal trading metropolis with a deep-water port. Havenites also speak Alinori, but it should be noted that Haven is a very multiethnic city.
As stated previously, the Republic of Alinor maintains a paternalistic influence over the region. Its right to do so is often questioned by those it dominates. Alinor was previously an empire, and the areas it presently exerts control over once were its imperial conquests. So it should come as no surprise that the elites within the Alinorian sphere chafe at the meddling. However, there are several reasons why they are unable to do anything about it.
Most importantly, the Twelve Kingdoms and Haven cannot field an army remotely capable of challenging the Alinorian Legion. While it might be a shadow of its former self, the Legion is still formidable. Now, were it only the Legion to fight, the ruling class of mages in Haven might tip the scales if Haven and a majority of the Twelve Kingdoms were somehow able to coordinate a resistance. However, it is not just the Legion to be contended with: the mages of Haven are matched in number and power by their counterparts of the Alinorian Mage Guild. And if there is one thing mages do not like, it is fighting other mages.
Further, the Dwarves very much want Alinor in control of the region. They have no interest in dealing with another major human conflagration on their doorstep. Through their Dwarven Finance Guild (the DFG), the Dwarves make sure the ruling classes of the Alinorian world behave themselves.
Finally, if it might be thought to matter, the good smallfolk of the Alinorian world greatly appreciate Alinor’s involvement in their lives. This is pragmatic.
The Alinorians provide tangible services to those lower classes they oversee. The most important of these services is their system of roads. Well-maintained, with smooth grades, wide shoulders, clear markings, and fine cobbled or gravelled surfaces, Alinorian roads are a joy to travel. The elites might understand very well that the roads exist to allow the Alinorian Legion quick access to their domains, but the small folk appreciate their convenience. Further, Alinorian roads are actively patrolled, either by Legion squads or Alinorian bonded local militias. These agents have the right to arrest any who interfere with travel on the thoroughfares.
While empires typically do not bother justifying their interventionism beyond token platitudes, those powers that claim to embody the principles of democracy and republicanism cannot long dominate their neighbors without more potent bullshit. The contrivance that allows this for Alinor is the Alinorian Code of Law.
In order to enforce order upon its previous conquests, Alinor has unilaterally declared that its Code of Law has jurisdiction over the entire world and over all sentient beings. It is this arrogant proclamation that makes, for example, the patrol of their roads in ostensibly sovereign countries possible. Disruption of the right to free travel on Alinorian roads, with robbery or otherwise, is punishable by imprisonment or death.
As well, it is not only their roads that the Alinorians police. With the magical ability to alter their physical form to appear as anyone they wish, Alinorian Special Agents move through the Alinorian world investigating crimes. Generally, their investigations are used to further their government’s wider political agenda, but they also find the time to do the work of winning the hearts and minds of the smallfolk. For the Alinorians, outmoded rules and codes of feudalism are no defense for the crimes of assault, extortion, forcible confinement, rape, or murder.
In practical terms, when Alinorian agents make arrests, their suspects must be brought before an Alinorian Justice within a month. The accused is guaranteed legal counsel and has the right to remain silent during their detainment and trial. This right is important because, as priests of one of Alinor’s state religions, Justices can infallibly detect lies. Prison sentences are served in Alinorian correctional institutions, and death penalties are carried out by the Justices themselves no longer than one week after being passed.
Finally, it must be stressed that while Alinorian power and law is certainly imposed in a most arrogant manner, their hearts are in the right place. The Alinorian religious hierarchies of Altas and Lavastia are good aligned and tend to mitigate the harsh legalism of the church of Saint Cuthbert. The lofty mandate of the Alinorian agents is the protection and elevation of all humans, and they do effective work to this end within the Alinorian world. With all this in mind, it should be of no surprise that those powerful elites who would prefer to have slaves find their interventions odious.
The Alquinian World
Alquinia is the largest island in what now is known as the Alquinian Archipelago, so named when the Alquinians conquered their neighbors more than a thousand years ago. From this base, the Alquinian Empire moved on to conquer and dominate much of the human lands in the southeastern quadrant of Aern. Practically speaking, these days all natives of the Alquinian Archipelago are now regarded as naturalized Alquinians in terms of citizenship. Those residents of mainland conquests are afforded limited rights of citizenship that put them above the status of foreigners. This all, of course, assumes that they are not slaves.
The Alquinian Empire is ruled, as the name suggests, by an emperor in its magnificent capital of Andilar. The imperial house, and the ruling elite, practice polygamy on a grand scale, and harem politics tends to occupy much of their focus in governance. The ruling class in Alquinia are typically mages, but spellcasting priests of a wide pantheon of gods also wield power. Much of the governance of the empire is carried out by a bureaucracy of slave and freeman eunuchs drawn from the complicated harem structure of the elite’s private households. Paranoia, intrigue, patricide, and epic levels of fratricide are time of day in Alquinian political life.
With what we have learned of them so far, it should be obvious that the Alquinian Empire is a robust slave state. As a system, there are multiple paths to slavery (legal or otherwise), and the children of slaves are slaves in turn. While manumission is possible, it is not common. Since Alquinia is a magocracy (a society run by mages or other spellcasters), slaves are not required for their labor. Golems, or other magical automatons and forces, can do most work more safely and reliably than any humans, slave or otherwise. Slaves are therefore more often used for entertainment purposes. The waste of slaves in gladiatorial combat, or grand torture-death festivals, is a show of status for the elite.
Since much of the mundane labor within the empire is accomplished with magical means, and slaves fill in the niches where a human touch is really most desirable, the normal citizens of the empire have a lot of time on their hands. Historically, as conquests increased the number of slaves in their society past what a normal labor market could absorb, the rulers of Alquinia were faced with a problem of what to do with their newly unemployed citizens. Being clever mages, they soon figured it out.
The Alquinian mage lords realized that while their small folk might be agitating about the loss of farm, construction, or manufacturing jobs, this was a surface complaint. It was not the work they were missing; it was the living. Provide free room and board, along with just enough funds for inebriation and other entertainment, and it was probable that the great hordes of rubes beginning to clamor in the streets would shut up. This turned out to be so.
Fully subsidized housing, a food dole, and cheap alcohol and narcotics all but completely numbed the revolutionary spirit of the Alquinian citizenry. Regular grand entertainments finished the job. There is some small concern in Alquinian society that in relying on orgies of spectacle to pacify their populace, the elite have created a cycle requiring ever more impressive and extreme events. Some question at what scale and depths of depravity it must finally end. Others respond that finding this out shall be more than half the fun of it. Further, should the audience ever get truly out of control, it shall not be anything that a concentrated sweep of cloudkill spells through the cities will not solve.
Of course, it must be said that the mage lords of Alquinia regard the extermination of the lower classes as an absolute last resort. After all, what is the fun of being an elite if there are no lesser people to exploit and terrorize? And, strictly speaking, would one even remain an elite in such a case? A man who kills all his slaves is no one’s master.
The Great War
Now, it would be impossible to discuss the Alquinians and Alinorians in a historical contest without getting into the Great War between them. Since the Alquinians use the reigns of their emperors as their measure of years, and have a tendency to go through Emperors rather quickly, the use of their reckoning of time will not be at all useful for we lowly foreigners. However, with the Alinorians marking time in relation to the foundation of their republic at the end of the Great War, their system of chronology shall be more suitable to our purposes.
At the time of this writing, the year in the realms of Aern is 300 PR (Post Alinorian Reformation). The Great War between the empires of Alinor and Alquinia began in 42 BR (Before Alinorian Reformation) and ended in 1 BR. At the time of the war, the Alinorians were quite similar to their enemy, with mages in control and slaves aplenty.
It is not just in terms of governance that the two were similar. Of the same racial type, with languages of the same family, and utilizing the same system of writing, there is no doubt that the Great War was a family affair. The cause for the fighting, beyond the general competitiveness and belligerence that empires inevitably have with each other, was access to the Jittan trade route.
The Jittan archipelago is located in the middle of the Western Ocean off the west coast of Aern. It is the only known landmass on the globe other than Aern and its islands. As mentioned earlier, the oceans surrounding Aern are populated by gargantuan sea monsters that sink all ships that dare encroach, and storms of anti-magic fields prevent magical means of exploration. The sea route to Jittan is the one exception to this. Within about a one-hundred-kilometer-wide corridor directly between Haven, the closest deep-water port in Aern, and Jittan’s easternmost island, the sea monsters interfere with none. It would seem that the lords of Jittan value their trade with Aern enough to somehow arrange free passage with the monsters of the deep. The Jittanese trade with any who can get to them and tolerate no conflict within their sea trading corridor. The sea monsters enforce their will on this.
Being the most accomplished seafarers, the Minotaurs of Aern do the bulk of the trade for the Alquinians and themselves, mostly through the use of private merchant fleets. As well, the free city of Haven is home to a large number of private ships and trading companies, many of which represent Alinorian and Dwarven business interests.
As to what is traded between and Aern and Jittan, the answer is: everything of value. Jittan supplies: silk, spices, tea, opium and other narcotics, and components for spells and magic items. As payment for these commodities, the Jittanese will accept: gold, silver, platinum, Dwarven steel, gemstones, coffee, magical research, and books of any kind.
In the years before the Great War, the empires of Alinor and Alquinia jockeyed for access to Jittan. With the protected sea corridor beginning near Haven, the Alinorians had a natural geographical advantage. In 43 BR the Alinorian fleet successfully blockaded access to the sea corridor to all but their own traders. Now, if there is one thing that an empire run by paranoid mages cannot tolerate, it is being cut off from their supply of magical components. And so the Great War began.
After four decades of bloody attrition with no tangible gains to either side, the Alquinians finally flipped over the game table. In the year 2 BR, Alquinian special agents, with the use of a powerful artifact, opened a stable portal to hell in the city of Haven. In the ensuing chaos, a coordinated Alquinian military offensive pushed the Alinorians out of all of their eastern conquests. Following this, Alquinian diplomats were soon able to negotiate a punitive peace.
With literal devils roaming their lands and a devastating end to the war, the Alinorian empire collapsed. It was at this time that the Dwarves decided that remaining aloof from human affairs was no longer a prudent course. In the autumn of 1BR, the Dwarves invaded Alinor and executed every member of the imperial line and government that they could hunt down for crimes against humanity. Then they supported and empowered those religions that seemed to be best managing the crises. Together, these human churches and their Dwarven partners exterminated the devils, contained the hell portal in Haven, and restored some semblance of order over the northern Alinorian lands. The country of Alinor was reformed into its present state as a nominal republic several months later.
While the Dwarves were the architects of the political change in Alinor, it must be said that everyday humans were very much behind the societal shift that it fostered. Their empire of greed had brought on a terrible war resulting in an apocalyptic hellscape, and it was felt that, just perhaps, it was time to try to be good. With their Dwarven headmasters hovering nearby, ready to smack their knuckles with a ruler if they got unruly again, the Alinorians and their wards have indeed come a long way since those dark days.
The Gerant World
It must be stated at the outset, that in what is known as the Gerant world there is no cohesion, political or otherwise. Any notions of it as an entity are an academic construct by external observers based on a broad language group and general similarities of culture.
The Gerant peoples occupy the south-central regions of Aern between the Alinorian and Alquinian worlds. Theirs is a warrior culture, dominated by patriarchal warlords and their kin. They worship nature, animal totems, gods of iron smithing and combat, and their cocks. In terms of material culture, they are highly skilled metalworkers with little or no focus on literacy or art. Bards pass down the culture’s legends through oral tradition, as they create new warrior epics about the heroic fighters of their own day.
As for spellcasting and magic in the Gerant world: bards and sorcerers are not uncommon. Mages are unheard of. Druids are common, as are priests and priestesses of their various gods. With the masculine focus on physical combat being the most important thing, spellcasting tends to be the domain of Gerant women.
It should be noted that while Gerant culture tends to be patriarchal, it is surprisingly egalitarian in terms of gender. Women have the right to marry who they wish, divorce when they want, hold property, own slaves, and fight and lead men in combat (which they regularly do).
As stated earlier, in terms of cohesive political structures within the Gerant world, there are none. The Gerant tribes are an agricultural based society, who usually dwell in fortified towns and villages. There are no Gerant cities. The folk farm in spring, summer, and fall, and raid their neighbors in winter. Typically, each town is controlled by the strongest warrior and his family. That said, these tribes are able to band together under particularly strong leaders to engage in larger raids or even full-scale warfare.
In raiding and warfare, Gerant fighters value individual skill and valor more than unit cohesion. A man’s worth is judged by the amount of iron and steel he has taken in battle, but to die well in battle is the greatest honor a warrior can achieve. In terms of equipment and tactics, warriors favor roundshields and spears for warfare, with battleaxes also being common. Swords are a status item of leaders and greatly valued. In the Gerant world, horses are, at most, used for warriors to ride to combat before dismounting to fight on foot. Bows and crossbows are considered hunting tools. Their use in battle is cowardice.
Those Gerant tribes living in coastal regions are also accomplished sea raiders, using their sailed galley dragon boats to raid far and wide. These tribes are greatly feared.
Finally, it should be noted that in southeast Aern, bordering the Alquinian Empire, there are the Stronian Kingdoms and occupied territories. They are Gerant in language and base culture, but have developed in quite a different way than their more barbarous cousins. More on them later.
The Scythan World
To the north of the great forests and hills of the Gerant tribes are the Great Plains. Running through them is the Great Mother River, from the Dwarfholm Mountains bordering Alinor in the north, to the great city of Marrovique in the Alquinian Empire in the south. The Scythan horselords dominate the plain.
Like the Gerant tribes, the Scythans have homogeneity without any sort of cohesive unity. However, unlike the Gerant tribes, the great Scythan tribes are much more prone to joining each other to form larger groups for the purposes of raiding and warfare. It has thankfully been roughly three hundred years since they all joined forces into a great horde under a deified leader. However, it is only a matter of time until they do so again.
Nomadic in nature, the Scythan tribes roam the Great Plain. The center of their society is the horse. They might worship the wind, the sun, and the moon, but none of these gods receive the frequency or fervency of prayer from the Scythan as do their horses. The great warhorses of the deified pan-Scythan leaders are deified themselves, elevated as gods to continue to serve their masters in the afterlife.
In terms of material culture, it should come as no surprise that the important Scythan contributions to Aern are equine in nature. The most significant of these is the Scythan saddle.
It is the worst of chauvinistic humbuggery that, inexplicably, much of the academic world in Alinor and Alquinia cling to the notion that proper mounted combat required the invention of the stirrup in order to progress. This in the face of Scythan horse archers who have no match on open ground. The stirrupless Scythan warsaddle is what allows this dominance. With two large leather-bound hooks per side, the Scythan can secure his legs and feet into a wide variety of positions to anchor himself for all manner of combat action. Stirrups, to the Scythans, are a joke.
The other major Scythan contribution to the world is that of their warbow. These are compound bows made from laminated layers of wood, antler, and bone. Just under a meter in length when strung, the bows are compact enough to be shot from horseback, and have the power to penetrate chainmail armor at range. Scythan warbows are valued weapons throughout the realms of Aern.
Finally, like the Gerant entry before this, a note must be issued here. While the Scythan of the Great Plains are as described, around the fringes of their domain different types of societies do exist. Many folk with similar ethnicity and language to the Scythans of the Great Plain have settled into towns and cities to do agriculture and trade. Most of these communities are along the Great Mother River and in the hilly regions to the north of the Alquinian Empire, along the northern coast of Aern near the Minotaur home archipelago of Minothos. These folk are not spared the raids and atrocities of their nomadic cousins. Indeed, they tend to be the most frequent victims of them.
When contemplating what it means to be a Dwarf, it might be helpful to meditate upon the sky and all that it represents.
For humans and other surface-dwelling creatures, the importance of the sky cannot be overstated. Sunshine and rain work in tandem to provide for us. Temperamental weather takes back that which has been given. The moon in her cycles gave us the notion of time, and a means of reckoning it. The stars gave us wonder. Without the sky, what would we be?
Dwarves, is what. For the first Dwarves, forged out of metal and gems by Moradin, their creator god, they looked up into the heavens and said:
“Nah. Not for us.”
To be a Dwarf is to distrust the sky and its unpredictability. “Out of the clear blue sky,” might well be the beginning of a Dwarven horror story. Stable, structured, and reliable is the environment the Dwarf values. So into the stone they went.
Far in the north of Aern is the Dwarven homeland within the coincidentally named Dwarfholm Mountains. It was here that those original Dwarves first burrowed into the bedrock to carve out the stability they sought. It was here that they first discovered those metals and minerals that they immediately loved so deeply. And so they burrowed more, seeking those treasures, and expanded to fill the spaces they created within the mountains.
Millennia later, and the Dwarfholm Mountains have been completely developed. With not a giant to be found on their surface, the mountains have all been tunneled and mined. Great Dwarven cities hide within the stone roots of those old mountains, accessible only to the Dwarves and those few that they trust enough to invite in.
The Dwarven cities feature huge, vaulted chambers with residences, businesses, services, and factories dug into their walls and columns. As well, contrary to human myths on the topic, these grand spaces are well lit by magical lightglobes providing full-spectrum light for ample greenery and agriculture.
While it is true that Dwarves can see in complete darkness, they are only able to do so within about twenty meters, and they cannot read in darkness. It therefore makes no sense that they would keep their subterranean spaces dark. As well, the notion that Dwarves do not value plants or nature is utter nonsense. Just because they live underground does not mean Dwarves are darkness-loving troglodytes who don’t appreciate a nice salad. With ample space, ground water, geothermal heating, and unlimited magical light, the Dwarves are able to provide themselves all the vegetation they need or want.
When it comes to agriculture, the Dwarves are completely self-sufficient if they stick to a vegetarian diet, which they generally do. Many Dwarves do enjoy eating meat, but as a society it was found the logistics of large-scale subterranean animal raising were problematic. Meat is therefore an expensive commodity the Dwarves trade for with humans at the surface. However, their use of a wide variety of fungi, many of which have meat-like texture, make up for this lack in their cuisine.
Another common human misconception about Dwarves is that they go about their work days with pickaxes and shovels, mining and digging as though some kind of human slaves that have been ordered to whistle. When it comes to burrowing stone, this is not the way Dwarves operate.
Dwarven stone engineers and builders are spell-casting priests who dig out and shape stone with magical means. With Transmute Rock to Mud and Stone Shape spells, they can form the bedrock as they wish. Golems and other magical automatons do the labor. There are times when Dwarven stonemasons do the finishing work with hand tools, but surely this is not the scene humans envision when they think of Dwarves at work.
What is true is that Dwarven stonemasons are masters at quarrying and working with stone. In fact, within Dwarven cities, many of their freestanding structures are made from quarried and set stone. This may be due to aesthetic or practical reasons. When building their own structures on the surface, Dwarves will always use stone and tend towards grandiose in scale and fortification in style. Beyond the security this provides, it also serves as good advertisement for Dwarven stonework. Stone contracting for human powers is a major pillar of Dwarven enterprise on the surface.
As for Dwarven culture and society, it is advanced. Governments are democratically elected, with the Dwarven Code of Law applying to all. Corruption is not tolerated. There is a robust social safety net, with all Dwarves being guaranteed free education, healthcare, food, and housing. Top-heavy societies with great inequality are inherently unstable. The Dwarves understand this.
With that being said, Dwarven society is not entirely the socialist paradise that many humans might assume based on the previous paragraph. The Dwarves have no tolerance for criminality, which is strictly punished by fine, death, or, even worse, banishment to the surface. Resources are not wasted on incarceration. Those Dwarves banished from society have their crimes magically tattooed on their faces, and their banishment is for life.
It should be of no surprise that with their love of precious metals and gemstones, the Dwarves are staunch capitalists. Now, some readers from backwards societies may have been brainwashed into believing that capitalism is incompatible with socialism. This is not so. Anyone saying otherwise is, at best, playing a fool to serve their predatory agenda. Engage in free enterprise, strive to provide the best product and service, and get rich doing so! This is fine. Just follow the law and pay your fucking taxes to take care of your society. It is not complicated.
Another misconception that many humans have about Dwarves and their society is that they have an inherent distrust of arcane magic, or are incapable of using it. This is not so. Dwarven society has full magical integration.
It is true that Dwarves are inherently resistant to the effects of arcane magic, as they are to poison. This does not mean they will not use magic. Mages are valuable and respected members of Dwarven society (as they are in any society that they choose to grace with their presence). As well, they do quite well for themselves by supplementing their teaching income with magic item creation or spellcasting for hire.
One human notion that is not incorrect about Dwarves is that of their alcohol and its effects on humans. As stated previously, Dwarves are inherently resistant to poisons. With alcohol being, essentially, a poison, this means that Dwarves cannot get properly drunk on basic human alcohol. Or, at least, to do so requires a disagreeable volume of distilled liquor.
In order to have alcohol affect them in the same manner that it does humans, Dwarves brew and distil theirs with infusions of fungi. There may be different combinations and blends of subterranean mushrooms and molds depending on the type of alcohol being enhanced, but the end result is the same. The fungi knock down the Dwarves’ immunity to poison so that the alcohol can do its job. It works quite well for them and allows them to get as drunk as they wish (or even more so, as these things go).
For humans, however (and most other beings), Dwarven alcohol is a potent hallucinogen. One standard drink is sufficient to set off on an eight-hour trip. Two drinks is widely considered a courageous dose. Predictably, this makes Dwarven alcohol a commodity in human societies that have a penchant for the psychedelic (so, all of them, really). Religions have been foundationed on its use.
It must be noted here that the Dwarves did not intend for their alcohol to have this effect on humans, and have absolutely no interest in exploiting it for profit. In fact, the Dwarves go out of their way to limit human access to their alcohols. After all, if they wanted to be drug dealers they could just sell the fungal blend directly. As we shall learn, the focused and systematic strategy of Dwarven industry and finance on the surface does not tolerate anything that makes humans more unpredictable.
The Human Problem
So far we have spent much of our time putting right certain human misconceptions about Dwarves and their society. This is natural, as the focus of this work and that which it supplements is, after all, human. These are human stories by a human for a human audience. So everything here shall be reflected through that lens.
However, for the Dwarves themselves, they are not actors in a human story. Quite the opposite. Any notions that humans are the most important species in Aern is laughable. So to proceed we must now examine how humans are perceived by Dwarves. It is not flattering.
Generally speaking, Dwarves consider humans to be as some kind of particularly dangerous ape. For most of Dwarven history they were content to leave the humans alone. They were useful enough to trade with for staples such as meat and grain, but beyond that the Dwarves had no interest in them or their affairs. This all changed with the Great War between Alquinia and Alinor.
With the war culminating in a secure portal to hell being opened right at their doorstep, the Dwarves realized that the humans needed to be managed. The apes had discovered fire, and their delight in burning everything had become problematic. Within Dwarven society this was conceptualized as what was broadly referred to as, “the human problem.”
It was clear that the humans of Aern needed to be brought under some measure of control. University symposiums, private sector think tanks, and government committees were formed to come together and figure it out. With a lifespan of roughly four hundred years and a deep love of stability and tradition, Dwarves do have a tendency to take their time with things, but with the human problem they moved quickly.
The first step was, of course, to assemble a military task force to exterminate both the devils roaming the land as well as all those humans they could get their hands on who had been responsible for starting the war. This was a relatively simple matter. However, what to do next was a thornier problem.
With the Great War resolved, the Alquinian Empire had settled down in their half of Aern, leaving the Alinorian world in utter chaos. So it was decided to table dealing with the Alquinians for the time being and focus on bringing the Alinorians to heel. They were, after all, the humans that the Dwarves had generally been dealing with.
It was understood that if the Dwarves were to cultivate any lasting human stability, they could not simply dominate their civilizations as overlords. As with raising children, tyranny is only useful if you want to raise potential tyrants. Better to create a situation in which the children want to be good. Make being good objectively better than being bad.
The Dwarven strategy for achieving this was through economic manipulation. So the Dwarven Finance Guild (the DFG) was born. With a mandate to control and civilize the humans of Aern as much as possible, the DFG opened its first guild hall in the city of Alinor in the year 2 PR of the new Alinorian calendar. The first legislation of the newly formed, “independent” High Council of Alinor was to license the DFG to issue currency on behalf of the republic.
One of the many problems that the Alinorian Empire had faced near its end was that of hyperinflation. It had long been the policy of the empire to issue coins with the face of the current emperor on it. What this meant is that when a new emperor was crowned, as much existing coinage as possible would be gathered to be melted down and restruck with his portrait. Then, with the Great War grinding on and the expense of it becoming unmanageable, a clever solution was found. Why not mix in some baser metals and strike even more coins while you are at it? Genius! How this led to inflation was something the human thinkers of the day could not wrap their heads around.
By the time the Alinorian Empire collapsed, their currency was utter garbage. This was the crack that the DFG exploited. Their coins were the wedge.
The golem-struck DFG coins were a revelation for the Alinorians. All perfectly minted and of pure metallic content, the DFG coins were issued with Alinorian iconography to appeal to human delusions of sovereignty. Gold, silver, and copper coins were issued. Ten silver coins to one gold, and one hundred copper coins to one silver.
One feature of the new coinage that was quite important was the coins’ reeded edges: the milled texture along the sides that helped identify coin shaving: the practice of cutting metal off the edges of coins to use as illicit bullion. When the DFG issued their coins, they proclaimed that possession of defaced coins was punishable by death. Of course, humans being human, this was disregarded. The DFG death squads that began patrolling the streets to perform on-the-spot coin inspections and summary executions could not be so easily ignored, however.
The real lesson in this regard came when several of the kings in the newly independent Twelve Kingdoms took it upon themselves to try the old Alinorian emperors’ trick to fiscal management. They gathered up as many of the new DFG coins as they could, melted them down, mixed in some baser metals, and issued their very own coins.
This turned out to be an even worse idea for the kings than it had been for the Alinorian emperors. The DFG squads put no more stock in the kings’ notions of divine right and absolute power than they had in the protestations of the shitheels that had been shaving coins one at a time. They all died just the same.
(It might be of no surprise that the coins with these kings’ portraits on them are a popular collector’s item in Dwarven society.)
The message was clear: do things the way the DFG says and we’ll all get along just fine. Do contrary and die, regardless of who you think you are. To a Dwarf blade, after all, a human king is still just a human.
Those with a military or shady mind might be wondering at this point just how potent the death-dealers the DFG dispatched were. The kings of the Twelve Kingdoms might only be human client kings of a recently collapsed empire, but they were still kings. Surely, the DFG goons could not have dispatched these human leaders so easily, could they?
The answer is: yes they could. And they did. The DFG spares no expense when it comes to hiring their death technicians, and the Dwarves have a deep pool of talent in this regard. Keeping their mountaintops clear of giants is not the only duty of the Dwarven military. The deep is chock full of its own horrors, not least of all, the orc. Orcs spawn in terrifying numbers and fight the Dwarves tooth and nail everywhere they can. This gives Dwarven warriors plenty of practice in dealing with aggressive humanoids.
Having managed the human dullards that thought they could outsmart them, the DFG then set about working with those humans that were more agreeable and forward thinking in their greed. The DFG founded banks to be run according to Dwarven financial regulations by properly trained humans under close Dwarven supervision. These banks offered good, low-interest loans to get the Alinorian economy back on its feet.
With the Alinorians back on stable ground with good government responsible to the Dwarves, the DFG expanded its operations to include all of the Alinorian world. Since most humans within it already preferred using DFG coins, this was not difficult. The elites within these communities had beheld the fantastic wealth that the DFG support of the Alinorian economy had brought, and they wanted in.
Now that the folk of the Alinorian world were happily compliant, the DFG initiated its next phase: getting as much of their precious metals out of the humans’ grubby paws as possible. Of course, providing coins with pure gold and silver content had been absolutely necessary. Having been through a devastating economic collapse brought on by hyperinflation, the humans of the region were not going to be fooled in this regard. The device the DFG used to take back many of their coins was the issuance of DFG trade bars.
The problem with being rich in an economy that uses pure metals as currency is managing the sheer weight and volume of the metal. Not to mention the question of security (although I just did). Of course, as DFG backed banks continued their work earning the trust of people, many coins were able to be brought back through the use of savings accounts and investment portfolios. However, cash is king and humans are duplicitous creatures. A further solution was required.
Simply put, DFG trade bars are promissory notes issued by the DFG. Take a trade bar to any DFG guildhouse or financial institution and they will begrudgingly give you its stated value in gold coins. (Once all of the necessary paperwork has been filled out in triplicate and filed correctly, of course.) What makes the DFG trade bars unique among promissory notes is their material: steel.
All DFG trade bars are made from high-carbon, weapon-grade steel. About the size of a standard playing card with rounded edges, they are one millimeter thick and intricately engraved with a beautiful blend of human and Dwarven iconography and decorations. Standard denominations are: ten, fifty, one hundred, one thousand, and ten thousand gold pieces.
To put all this into some economic perspective: in the city of Alinor, the north’s biggest and most sophisticated metropolis, a fine townhouse in a good neighborhood can typically be purchased for ten thousand gold. In Alinor city, a family of four can live comfortably enough without any luxuries on one hundred gold pieces a year. (Country folk, of course, get by on a fraction of this, and rely on barter to do so.)
It should be noted that while humans are capable of producing and working steel, their metallurgy and workmanship are nowhere near the level of the Dwarves. There is absolutely no way that any humans outside of the Alquinian state itself would be capable of counterfeiting DFG trade bars. Further, every bar has a serial number and meticulous records are kept on when, where, and to whom the bars are issued.
It may also be worth noting that while the Dwarves are certainly capable of producing stainless steel, they do not make their trade bars of it. The steel used is certainly resistant to corrosion from atmospheric moisture and handling by humans’ grubby, greedy paws, but it will rust. Why the Dwarves chose to do things this way is really anyone’s guess. In a completely unrelated note, trade bars with illegible serial numbers are invalid DFG currency.
Be all this as it may, DFG trade bars were precisely what the newly booming Alinorian economy needed and immediately became wildly popular. Their use and display were the ultimate status symbol. (Particularily vulgar humans took to hanging them around their necks as jewelery.) They also were an excellent showcase of Dwarven metalworking skill, which served as advertisement for another important Dwarven industry on the surface: weapon and armor sales.
And so, the Dwarven takeover of the Alinorian world was well in hand. With a now stabilized human society as their upstairs neighbor, the Dwarves could get busy making some real money with them as they quietly set their sights on their next target: the Alquinian Empire.
As was mentioned in the section devoted to the humans of Aern, in the southeast of the continent there is a Gerant cultural subgroup known as the Stronians. These peoples speak a variant of the Gerant language and share some cultural similarities with the proper Gerant tribes to their west. However, as noted previously, the Stronians have developed into a very different society. There are two main reasons for this: their religion, and their having been conquered by the Alquinian Empire.
In the centuries leading into the Great War with the Alinorians, the Alquinian Empire invaded the eastern lands of the Gerant people in a long series of campaigns. At the mouth of the Great Mother River, the Alquinian metropolis of Marrovique was founded upon the smoking ruins of the stronghold of a Gerant King whose name has been expunged from history. They moved inland from there, as well as east to the Islands of Galea.
The primary purpose of these invasions was procuring slaves. The Gerant folk were exotic, big, and superb warriors with a noble fighting spirit. They could easily be made to fight each other in captivity, and breaking them was an endlessly entertaining activity. Slaves bred into captivity might have been useful for labor and other even less savory forms of exploitation, but their upbringing in captivity naturally made them obsequious and cowardly. These traits were unsuitable for the slave dismantling entertainments that were becoming fashionable in Alquinia.
By the year 170BR, the Alquinians had firm control of all the Gerant lands east of the Great Mother River up to the Olga River. North of the Olga, they had established a number of Gerant client kingdoms that served as a buffer with the Scythans of the Great Plains. With this domination came Alquinian investment and stability, of a sort. A segment of the subjugated Gerant folk became Alquinianized, to a degree, and they adapted the Alquinian system of writing to their own language.
When the Great War with the Alinorian Empire began in 42BR, the settled Gerant lands of the Alquinian Empire were a superb source of warriors to serve as fodder. These acquisitions had never seemed more useful. Then, in the year 27BR, they became a soft target for another newly risen power. That year, a Great Horde of Scythans unified under Jingkast Khan invaded from the Great Plains without any warning. They swept south through the Gerant client kingdoms and the Alquinianized Gerant lands to sack and occupy Marrovique in the year 24BR.
With hardly a worthy target left to conquer in the southeast quadrant of the world, Jingkast Khan set about building a great fleet to next invade the Islands of Galea. With the long bloody war in the west grinding on and their mainland empire now in Scythan hands, the Alquinians were in quite a pickle. As luck would have it, though, Jingkast Khan died in 22BR at the age of forty-four after drunkenly falling from his horse (or so the Alquinian histories tell it).
Whatever the truth of the great Khan’s demise (and subsequent deification), his nascent empire fell to pieces as his generals set to fighting each other almost immediately. As they did, the Alquinian client kingdoms north of the Olga declared independence from all foreign conquerors and formed themselves into an alliance they named the Holy Stronian United Kingdoms, commonly known as the United Kingdoms.
The armies of the United Kingdoms purged their lands of the Scythan invaders and invaded the south in 17BR in a holy war now known by them as the First Crusade. By the year 12BR, the Crusaders had liberated all of the Gerant lands previously occupied by the Alquinian Empire, and proclaimed the Crusade fulfilled as they took Marrovique in the same year.
In the ten years that followed, several new kingdoms were formed in the lands between Marrovique and the Olga River, based upon old Gerant noble bloodlines and their historical claims. During this time, the metropolis of Marrovique, which was largely Alquinian in culture, resisted the Stronian occupation and revolted numerous times, leading to harsh crackdowns and many slaughters. Declaring the most brutal suppression of the city as the Second Crusade in the year 6BR did little to lend credibility to the Stronian religion as an institution capable of managing a peacetime multicultural Empire with any degree of finesse or sensitivity.
Thankfully for the Stronian Church, then, in the year 1BR, with the Great War finished, the Alquinians invaded the Stronian lands with the very best of their battle-hardened legions. Within a month, these legions marched through the streets of Marrovique, celebrated by its citizens as liberators. The city was reconstituted as the regional capital of the Alquinians’ soon to be recaptured Gerant provinces.
In the Holy Stronian United Kingdoms, the fight against this Alquinian invasion was dubbed the Third Crusade. Now fervently unified under a fanatical religion, the region put up a much better show against the Alquinians than it had under the fractious Gerant warlords. The Third Crusade was able to hold the Alquinian invasion at the natural barriers of the Ironsand Hills and Redstone River, roughly one hundred kilometers south of the previous northern border of the Alquinian Empire at the Olga River.
At the time of this writing, the year in the realms of Aern, by the Alinorian reckoning, is 300PR. In the last three hundred years since the Third Crusade, the border between the Alquinian Empire and the United Kingdoms has remained remarkably static. Skirmishes are nearly constant, with larger scale engagements being common, but all of it has done little to pester the cartographers.
With this brief history of the Holy Stronian United Kingdoms, it should be obvious that woven throughout its tapestry is the thread of the Stronian religion. As human religions go, Stronianism really is the worst.
While it would be true to say that Stronianism is a religion born of war, this would be a gross oversimplification. It was not just born of war; it exists to create it. In its very essence, the religion is philosophically exclusionary and institutionally violent. In fact, it has been observed that the tenets of the faith specifically exist to create conflict with all other philosophies and justify war against any or all that deny its patently ludicrous dogma.
The central philosophy behind Stronianism, the delusional foundation upon which all of its other bricks of insanity rest, is that of monotheism. In a realm where a multitude of gods can be personally interacted with, and in which mortals themselves can become deities, the Stronians proclaim that there is but one God, and He is Altas.
It may be of interest to note that the deity of Altas is, in fact, the sun god in the realm of Aern, and one of the original pantheon that created the place. He is worshiped, by various names, by almost all sentient creatures in the realms, to some degree or another. As was noted earlier, it is practical and useful to worship the sun. It does not take much philosophical depth to understand that the sun is important, and that too much of his attention is unhealthy for mere mortals. It is hard to be more godlike than a star.
The belligerence of appropriating a universally worshiped god as their own exclusive property shall not seem surprising as we learn more of the Stronians.
Surprisingly, the underpinnings of the Stronians’ monotheism are actually rooted in an older and much more sophisticated philosophy: that of Tahlouism. In the Dragonhorn Mountains bordering the Great Plains, an ethnically Scythan folk took to scratching out an existence among the giants and dragons that infest the place. Their absurdly difficult life led them to observe that life itself was an absurd difficulty. Perhaps driven by a lack of oxygen to the brain, rather than move elsewhere, they went on to ponder the deeper mysteries of life and the universe. What they settled on was a notion of reincarnation, in which souls die and are reborn to repeat the lessons they missed on their last go around. Death is but an illusion and life is but a dream.
In something that was meant more a philosophical exercise than a notion to foundation a religion upon, in the year 1230BR, Tahlou, a monk of some renowned wisdom, posited that the gods themselves were but illusions. He suggested that being beings not constricted to adhering to the dimension of time, the gods could, theoretically, all be an expression of one even greater entity being reborn in different forms simultaneously. This suggested that all of existence and thought was, in fact, created of a greater energetic being experiencing itself subjectively through the dimension of time upon the prime material plane of existence.
This philosophical notion of Tahlou caught on and spread, in various forms, until it loosely could be called a religion whose central notion can be summarized basically as: “we are all one being, and what you think is important is really just an illusion.” However, by the time the philosophy became fashionable with the Gerant aristocracy, it had been reinterpreted into something more along the lines of: “there is only one God. He is the sun. And if you don’t worship Him in exactly the way I say, I am going to burn you alive.”
So it goes with humans.
It should be noted that the Gerant application of Tahlou’s philosophies to religious chauvinism was not exclusive to Altas, the sun god. With their penchant for killing each other over the least little thing, the Gerant tribes of the region were soon happily engaged in a spirited societal debate over which of their many, many gods was indeed the one, true God.
It is important to remember that none of this was a religion yet. What the Gerant tribes were up to was certainly not Tahlouism and it was not yet Stronianism. It was really more a devoted adherence to being as unpleasant as possible about whatever religious beliefs one already had. Given that Gerant Druidism was rife with human sacrifices by burning, flaying, or any number of other horrible methods, they were being quite unpleasant indeed.
Even so, if the Gerant tribes had been left alone, their stupendously wrongheaded misinterpretation of Tahloust philosophy would have probably run its course without creating anything long term. However, they were not left alone. The Alquinian Empire invaded them.
It is important to recollect the precise nature of the Alquinian invasion of the Gerant lands. It was not simply to conquer their land and resources. The Gerant people themselves were the primary target, to be literally turned into slaves to feed an imperial machine of almost unspeakable cruelty. It is no exaggeration to say, then, that the invasion was a cultural apocalypse for the Gerant people.
It may also be helpful to note that the Alquinians were not (and are not) just polytheistic. To the Gerant monotheists the Alquinians were egregiously polytheistic. Already deeply invested in the stupefying benefits of narcotics and grand entertainments to keep their lower classes settled, the Alquinians regarded religion as just another facet of this policy. They deified their emperors and worshiped an ever-expanding pantheon of often ludicrous gods whose popularity would shift with the whims of fashion.
By this time the Gerant people of the region had largely settled on Altas, the sun god, as their One True God. As stated earlier, this should not be too surprising, given that the sun is a rather easy object of worship. When the Alquinians invaded, this faith could credibly be described as a monotheistic sun cult. What the invasion did was provide the cult with an easily identified enemy and a clear apocalyptic vision of the future.
As the Alquinian dominated lands became settled and nominally Alquinianized, the sun worshipers were given another important tool for the creation of their religion: a system of writing. Of course the Tahloust monks utilized a variant of Draconic (the language of Dragons and magic) to transcribe their sutras and philosophies, but this had never caught on among the Gerant folk. However, once those slaves the Alquinians required to be literate were taught the Alquinian system of writing, they were able to put it to other uses. In this way, the Alquinian written language was adapted to the Gerant language.
With the cult of Altas, the One True God, spreading among the Gerant slaves of the Alquinian empire, they began to write their religious notions down. This culminated in the Books of the Holy Possession. This is a series of extensive writings by an unnamed author (or authors) who declared that he was possessed by the Archangel Promelius, the first and most beloved of Altas’ angelic company. The first volume is largely a childish retelling of the basic Tahloust philosophies, “clarified” of any heretical interpretations. The subsequent volumes ramble into a wide variety of injunctions and prophecies. The final volume degenerates into what charitably could be called freeform poetry describing wild hallucinations that largely contradicts much of what had been established earlier.
It has been observed by neutral parties that the Holy Possession might have taken the physical manifestation of a terminal brain tumor or some form of degenerating mental illness. Be that as it may, Altas, the One True God, does work in mysterious ways, so anything is possible.
Most importantly for the development of the Stronian religion, the Books of the Holy Possession detail a number of prophecies concerning the coming human children of Altas. There are meant to be seven sons of Altas, to be sent to Aern to guide the faithful. The first of these children was Stron.
Stron appeared on the shores of the Great Mother River on the winter solstice in the year 100BR (about seventy years after the Alquinian invasion) in the Alquinian occupied territory that would later become Bitana. He crossed the treacherous ice flows of the river from the barbarous Gerant wilds to address a small group of faithful who awaited him.
Stron was a giant of a warrior: handsome, charismatic, and every bit as psychopathically violent as the faithful could have hoped for. Together with his followers, he waged a guerilla war against the Alquinian occupation and their client kingdoms to the north. It was in one of these kingdoms, Veretothoq, that he was finally captured and martyred as a traitor: broken on the wheel of pain as a common criminal in the year 92BR.
This horrific method of execution was far more common than might be imagined: the condemned is tied down upon a large wagon wheel to have their limbs broken with hammers or iron bars, to then be woven through the wheel’s spokes. The wheel is then often hoisted up on a pole to display the agony of the victim, who could survive for a good while with birds pecking at their eyes and wounds. Stron survived on the wheel for three days before Altas mercifully allowed him home.
Executed as the lowliest of criminals, Stron’s martyrdom gave the sun cult precisely what it needed to become a proper religion. And so Stronianism was born. Several of Stron’s captains (or monks in their entourage) went on to write of Stron’s words and deeds in what would become the Books of Stron. The new Stronians fought on ever harder, first against the Alquinians, and then against the Scythan horselords that replaced them. They established the Holy Stronian United Kingdoms from the smoldering ruins of the previous Alquinian client kingdoms and fought the First Crusade to “liberate” Marrovique. Much of the booty from that campaign was used to found the faith’s holy city, Ban Altas (literally meaning, “the city of Altas” in Gerant), at the site of Stron’s martyrdom in Veretothoq’s capital city, Verat.
As was noted earlier, the religion of Stronianism is uniquely suited to the task of waging war. What it is not suitable for is peaceful administration of the faithful. Thankfully, with the appearance and subsequent worship of Stron, the monotheistic faith was now provided a convenient dualism. Those folk who enjoyed the unyielding violence of Stron could pursue this within his worship in the militant arms of the faith. These Stronians worship Stron with a holy symbol representing the Wheel of Pain.
However, such extremism is not for everyone, and rather unsuitable for maintaining a peaceful and prosperous society. So for those folk who like their religion as they like their tea (warm, comforting, and only the faintest hint of spice), there remains the worship of Altas. These folk and priests use a holy symbol of the sun. In the years since the expulsion of all foreign invaders, these Stronian worshipers of Altas have adopted more relaxed philosophies than their strict Stronian fellows.
If it seems as though this arrangement would be bound to create internal tension, particularly for a faith that claims to be monotheistic, you would be correct. But coexistence has not proved an impossibility.
In the four hundred or so years since the founding of Ban Altas, the Stronian Church has settled into a number of systems and conventions that allow its duality to function and prosper. Within the individual kingdoms exist distinct hierarchies underneath the kingdoms’ Bishops. The Bishops are largely free to oversee their domains as they see fit. This has allowed the tenets of Stronianism to be tailored, within reason, to the regional tastes of the faithful.
Overseeing the faith as a whole is the Archbishop, seated as though a king himself upon his golden throne in Ban Altas. So long as the Bishops render unto him the due share of their tithes and stay within the strict boundaries of the central Church’s dogma, the kingdoms’ diocese remain largely independent. However, should they get too out of line, it is always easy enough to declare them heretics and proceed accordingly with another crusade.
As a general rule, the bishops and their followers are worshipers of Altas, the One True God. There are, of course, various orders and movements based on philosophical interpretations of the Scripture. The clerical domains of Altas, the One True God, are: Good, Healing, Strength, and Sun.
Within these dioceses, and quite independent from them, are the militant Stronian orders. With a special mandate to protect the faith and faithful from enemies without and within, these orders answer to the Archbishop alone. Of course, the adherents of these orders worship Stron the son, whose clerical domains are: Fire, Law, and War. These orders cultivate and recruit the finest warriors, and maintain sizable military forces.
The hierarchy in Ban Altas is about half Altas worshiping and half Stron. Among the Cardinals, those senior Ban Altas clergymen that elect the Arch Bishop, usually eighty percent are worshipers of Stron. All of the Arch Bishops have worshiped Stron above his father, Altas.
Given that the vast majority of the faithful primarily worship Altas, it might seem odd that his son is so overrepresented in the senior hierarchy. In this, it would seem that the son has eclipsed the father. Within the senior hierarchy this is rationalized with an analogy likening the Church to a family. With the flock as children, the clergy of Altas functions as a mother, nurturing with love and support. The clergy of Stron, then, is as a father, offering protection from the dangers of the world, and the stability of strict rules enforced with a stern hand.
It might be observed that whoever originally developed this analogy must have had a very terrifying father indeed. In maintaining order and orthodoxy within the flock, it is routine for the inquisitors of the militant orders to extract confessions through torture. The heretics and witches they uncover are burned alive. The inquisitors in no way regard this as a human sacrifice to their god of fire. We can rest assured of that (or else). That the druids of old used to burn their human sacrifices is irrelevant. There are no scratchings of such deeper cultural itches at work here!
Interestingly, the primary focus of these inquisitors is suppressing, if not exterminating, the remnants of the older Gerant druidic faiths. How successful they are in any given area is largely down to how free a hand they have to act within the local jurisdictions. Stronger, powerful kingdoms with able kings are capable of supporting likewise effective and more independent bishops. The degree to which the central Church can exert its will in these jurisdictions is an ever-shifting landscape of influence, hard and soft power, and politics. Be all that as it may, it is a truth that those heretics in the fringes of the weaker kingdoms are far more likely to be set alight than their affluent counterparts in the fashionable cities.
At this point, it may be helpful to remind those readers from realms in which gods take a more hands-off approach to the affairs of mortals, that in Aern the worship of gods brings tangible results. For example: the women of the realm who wish to regulate their fertility need only pray to the moon once a month to receive the boon of infallible birth control. The inquisitors of Stron need only ask their god to tell them who is lying and His angels shall happily inform them.
The previous two examples were not chosen at random. Within the Stronian hierarchy there is no moon. Her worshipers were knocked out of the fight in the early rounds of monotheistic squabbling. According to the Stronian Church, the moon is a foul she-devil temptress; a floating peril in the sky seeking to draw the gaze of the faithful into a night of sin and depravity. What more example of this does one need than the fact that any female might, all on her own without the intercession of a male family member or clergyman, take to her knees and pray to the great slut in the sky to prevent the birth of more good, Stronian children?
To the Stronians, women are chattel that exist to provide more soldiers for the faith. There can be no worse sin, then, than the willful feeding of one’s unborn children to the demon in the sky.
It has been observed (by those well outside the reach of Stron’s inquisitors) that this is a diabolically effective way to exert control over society. By criminalizing women’s control of their own reproduction, the Church has assured that, at very least, those women who disregard the injunction do so at their extreme peril. Women who have sex (whether they want to or not) are by necessity tethered to men to legitimize and support the resulting children. Those women who procreate without a mate are then a disposable object, useful as cautionary examples and, usually, sex workers (of one variety or another) who must inevitably turn to the witchcraft of moon worship to avoid the difficulties of more children.
In this way, the natural and healthy expression of a basic human need becomes sinful in all but the most narrow of situations. This allows the Church to intercede, in the most basic and fundamental way, in the lives of its flock.
Further to this, in practical terms, it may be wondered why the Church’s inquisitors rely on torture to extract confessions when they have a god who can tell them who the sinners are. The simple answer is, in the opinion of this author, that deep down inside the inquisitors and priests just like hurting people. Women in particular. However, they do have their rationalizations.
Basically, they say, it comes down to free will. Their god(s) is (are) no tyrant(s). In order to run afoul of divine law and be righteously punished for it, people must be shown to have chosen to do so. The inquisitor must hear, from the accused’s own lips, what it is they have done. If the accused speaks lies, the inquisitor can certainly know it; informed by Stron’s very angels of the deception. But what of a subject that refuses to speak? Well, in this case, they must be compelled to do so.
Now, it may seem to some readers that the Church could not possibly be of any benefit to those it claims to serve. In its defense (and however loath the author is to defend it), it should be remembered that its so-called flock face very real perils in a very dangerous part of the world.
The Alquinian Empire has not gone away, for one. Neither have the Scythans. Both would like nothing better than to reclaim what was once theirs. As well, there are literal demons and devils that eagerly consume the innocent in all variety of ways (both literal and figurative). There are giants, dragons, orcs, and goblins. Aern is an intensely perilous world. And the Stronians fight to protect their flock. They fight hard and effectively wherever they are needed. For as long as is needed. At whatever cost is required. This, at least, is no hollow platitude they offer. They do the work.
Thanks to the Stronian Church, where there once was only chaos, slavery, and war, there is now the stable and relatively prosperous human enclave of the Holy Stronian United Kingdoms. The good Stronian folk there live simple, if not free, lives.
It could also be noted that the evil druids that often dominate religious life in traditional Gerant society are arguably worse, in terms of atrocities, if not actual body count.
Whether all this justifies the Stronian faith as a whole is not something this author feels qualified to decide for anyone.