Somewhere, in tracts of emptiness, a world floats alone. Its skies are lightless and its land is covered with deadly drifts of Cold. At least, that’s what the legends say — and none of the inhabitants dare to look outside the safety of their Great Barrier.
Inside the Great Barrier’s dome of reflective magic essence, life thrives. The high gods, Bright and Dark, cast their warm energies through the Great Gem. This enormous skybound gemstone stays fixed over the central land, providing golden day and violet night. As well, the gods of fire, water, flora and electricity walk the earth, ensuring that the land has plenty of elemental energies.
Following the gods’ example, the people of this land live harmoniously, helping one another against uncaring natural forces. Teamwork is key to everyone’s well-being. The land doesn’t have a name, but if the folk named their home, it might be called Aligare. (based on the Latin alligare, meaning “bind together”).
The peoplekinds of Aligare
Folk come in three kinds: korvi, aemets and ferrin. To them, people are people — no matter which form the body happens to take. From their species origins in volcanos, glades and treetops, the three kinds came to live in a patchwork of mixed-race villages and towns. Each peoplekind brings their own skills, values and customs to the community.
A dragonkind people formed in the halfway point between lizard and bird. Korvi are the largest race, typically a head taller than their aemet neighbours, although korvi are lighter than they appear due to their hollow bones. They stand on two legs and a braced tail, with two arms separate from the feathered wings on their backs. They have S-shaped horns and crocodile-like faces. Feathers grow on a korvi’s head, neck and back — sleek flight feathers as well as a crest of looser mane feathers. The arms, legs, chest and belly have no feathers, only leathery skin. Korvi skin and feathers match within a few shades of each other, and are always warm colours, ranging from yellow and orange to deep red or burgundy. Natural korvi lifespan is two hundred years, often more. They are a generally hardy race thanks to their reptilian tendency to heal well.
Meant for the skies, korvi have sharp eyesight and they prefer spacious places. The average korvi will panic if they find themselves in a narrow tunnel or a dense forest. Those who overcome this instinctive fear are respected for their nerve. Elemental magic is more crucial to dragonkind than to most other beings: chest-centered firecasting allows korvi to heat and energize their cool-blooded bodies. Without fire, they would not have the needed energy for work or flight. When not used to heat the korvi’s body, firecasting is dispelled through the mouth in the form of spat fire or smoke.
With flight comes freedom, and korvi are a generally free people. The aggressive energy of predatory origins has mellowed into mere directness, a tendancy to live their own lives in energetic confidence. Few korvi identify as hunters anymore, preferring commerce and artistic pursuits to killing living creatures. But they are considered the go-to race for protection from wild animals and other potentially violent tasks. Korvi are also the best-suited race for mine conditions, despite the way mine tunnels affect the children of the sky.
Korvi customs allow the formation and dissolution of nearly any family or relationship imaginable, as long as the people involved are happy. Monogamy and childbearing are options, not obligations. Houses (a more structured family between mated, childhatching korvi) are customarily led by men, and the father’s surname is usually passed down to his children. But a woman can lead a house or name the children if desired. Korvi society has few taboos — only a general attention to pride and comfort.
The korvi language is spoken in korvi-majority communities. To a human’s ear, korvitongue has similarities to the Romance languages. Ferrin are also able to speak the language, but an aemet’s shorter tongue and palette can’t accurately reproduce some of korvitongue’s rolled sounds. Because of this, the aemet language has long since been adopted as standard and it is now called commontongue. Korvitongue is never a korvi’s only language: considering everything aemetkind provides society, it is considered only polite to accommodate them.
Pronounced EM-ett. A betweenkind people, formed in the halfway point between insect and mammal. They stand on two legs and have two arms, with the forgotten vestiges of two more arms buried within their bodies. Aemets are shorter than korvi and less muscular, built for running speed instead of brute strength. A shallow dome of shell segments covers an aemet’s back, acting in place of a spine. They have rounded faces faintly reminiscent of ants, two mammalian eyes, and two backward-sweeping antennae growing from their foreheads. Their skin and hair have a more chitinous texture than full mammals, and come in varying shades of green, with deep green camouflage speckles in early childhood and encroaching brown colouring in old age. Other than their visible insectoid features and their lukewarm body temperature, aemets function essentially the same as mammals do. Natural aemet lifespan is approximately fifty years.
Insects are said to have a sense for weather, and aemets share this ability. Their sensitive antennae let them detect air currents, temperature and humidity around them, with very accurate perception within twenty feet of their bodies. This ability — called airsense — makes aemets keenly aware of their environment, in more detail than either sight or touch could provide. Aemets perceieve the air around them as a physical presence, not just a lack of objects. Aemets also have innate plantcasting, giving their kind an advantage in medicine and agriculture. They can neutralize poisons and allergens with relative ease, as well as encouraging greater yield and faster growth in the plants they tend. Aemet casting is centred in the hands, flowing outward through their palms when summoned.
Like leafcutter ants honouring a queen, aemets tend to have a very conscious belief in their plant goddess Verdana. Diligent work is considered the most valuable contribution one a person make to their community, however humble the task. In aemet society, women are default leaders, although a competent male can serve Verdana’s cause just as well. Unlike ants, however, aemets have very little combative instinct. Their response to fear is a powerful urge to flee, or a decision to ignore problems and hope for luck. Safety is a matter of vigilance, and aemets subscribe to the theory of safety in numbers; many aemets become nervous when they can’t sense other people close by.
Generally modest and conservative, aemets are traditionally monogamous. If their partner dies, most aemets will not remarry. Family and bloodline identity are held as precious, with the mother’s surname and skills passed on to her children. Aemets accept that others may have different beliefs — although they might cover up uncomfortable ideas with denial, such as a belief that all firewood is gathered from fallen branches (instead of acknowledging that Verdana’s trees can be cut down). When their structured worlds are shaken, aemets often find it difficult to cope.
A weaselkind people, smaller and more social than the land’s other mustelid creatures. The average ferrin is approximately 3 feet long from nose to tail, and slender in build, a size that lets them sit comfortably on a korvi friend’s shoulder. They walk on either two or four feet as the situation requires, using their hands and teeth to manipulate objects. Ferrin do have thumbs, if small and poorly developed compared to other races’ hands. They have long, pointed ears, which are a major element of communication and expression — ferrin body language in general is very expressive. Ferrin fur is white, black or any shade of grey in between, with different-toned tips on their ears and tails. A ferrin’s tail ends with a fluffy brush of fur, making their tails resemble a paintbrush dipped into monochrome paint. Natural ferrin lifespan is approximately twenty years.
Ferrin have excellent hearing and a keen sense of smell, although their vision is mildly nearsighted. Whiskers and a long tail allow them good balance, and their claws enable them to climb trees. Ferrin electricasting is centred in the chest and dispersed through the ferrin’s body, along the skin and fur. When frightened or anxious, a ferrin’s fur charges with defensive electricity. This is meant to protect small ferrin from predatory animals, but it’s a simple reflex for a town-dwelling ferrin to suppress.
When living wild, ferrin live in hollow trees or burrows, and they forage for nuts, fruit, and insects. Living in family groups, they communicate with gestures and expressions. A wild-born ferrin will bark and call, but they only truly speak to say their names, a single given name that is the only real possession they have. However, the typical ferrin has a child-like affinity for learning that is retained all their lives. They can easily learn a spoken language or a new culture at any point in their lives. It’s not unusual for a wild ferrin to join town society, or for a town-raised ferrin to return to the forest. As a race, ferrin have little culture of their own, instead taking interest in everything else the land has to show them.
When a ferrin spends time around aemets and/or korvi, they tend to absorb their cultural surroundings and find ways to assist with daily life. They are often considered “helpers” because of how quick they are to take support roles. Most town ferrin also adopt the custom of giving their children two names. But as short-lived and adaptable as they are, ferrin don’t take or create family names. Family lineage is usually a minor point of interest, not a guiding principle. When a young town-raised ferrin comes of age, they pick which of their given names they prefer to be addressed by. They then specify their choice whenever they introduce themselves (e.g. “Tillian Sri, call me Tillian”, “Siriana Breeli, call me Breeli”).
The land has its fair share of troubles, most of which are called demons. Many demons manifest as health problems: to humans, these problems might be seen as bacteria, viruses, genetic conditions and chemical imbalances. But to the people of the land, their troubles are caused by invisible, untraceable demons that attack the peoplekinds. Some demons can be cured away with casting and medicinal herbs; others can only be defeated by the victim’s resilience and will. The most feared demons are the aggressive plague demons (such as gripthia, an illness that scatters aemet villages to the wind) and the all-threatening Cold. Even small troubles might be considered a demon, though — everything from bad luck, to clumsiness, to unfavourable wind.
Menacing though demons are, they are considered living creatures. After all, they show different personalities, they can often be weakened by mortal efforts, and they seem to kill or menace as a way of feeding themselves. They are as predictable and unpredictable as any person or beast. Surely, people tell themselves, the judgement hound Barghest would remove demons from the land if they were sinful creatures …
Despite lacking a germ theory, many mages and leaders quarantine their sickness victims. It’s thought that some demons will attack a person, then follow the victim like a shadow until health is fully recovered. If someone has a contagious illness, samekind people who approach them are only tempting the demon with new prey.
The Legend Creatures
The land is said to be guarded by twelve Legend Creatures. They are enigmatic, always talked about and never seen, the subjects of folk tales and lucky statues. Each Legend Creature has one thirty-day month named after it.
Phoenix: A huge orange bird with spectacularly long tail feathers. Once every hundred years or so, she burns herself away until she is only a blazing soul, to renew herself and cast away old worries and hurts. The eruptions of Hotrock Volcano are said to be from the Phoenix throwing herself into the magma for her renewal ritual.
Tortuga: A stocky, tough-skinned lizard with a shell of crystal points, similar to an Earth turtle. He is small enough to pick up, but completely impervious to harm. When someone achieves a state of determination where they aren’t bothered by pain or difficulty, they’re said to have a Tortuga shell.
Faerie: A winged biped, similar to either a korvi or an aemet depending on who is telling the story. Regardless of form, he is always covered in shimmering powder like that of a butterfly’s wings. He is a trickster known to move belongings around and borrow them without asking, although he is just as likely to leave folk small gifts if he is in the right mood.
Seasu: An eel-like fish with a fan-shaped tail. She protects the eggs of aquatic creatures and is said to have a compassionate heart. If a person or animal escapes drowning, the Seasu is thought to have stirred waves to help them to shore.
Griffin: A creature half falcon and half furkind. She is the mightiest of forest creatures, and a talented enough hunter to pluck any being from its hiding place. If a person wants luck in their hunting or foraging, it’s said that they should leave a shard of polished metal in the forest. Griffin likes her own reflection and she looks kindly on these gifts.
Mulvarp: A mole the length of a mountain, with powerful foreclaws like broad shovels. He is always digging new passageways underground, providing the gods with more paths for their wandering. It’s said that if a mortal person wanders long enough, the Mulvarp might pop from the ground and show them a new path. But the second time the person tries to walk that path, it will be filled in or grown over — as if it never existed at all.
Hydra: A three-headed snake. Each head — Cheer, Reason and Doubt — is a distinct personality. They discuss all possible choices, making the Hydra very wise. If a person makes a decision but then rethinks their choice, they are said to have “talked to their other heads” as Hydra does.
Barghest: A great hound who stands tall enough to loom over all people. He is a creature of justice who watches folk, sometimes glimpsed as glowing eyes in the shadows. When someone knowingly sins against others, the Barghest is said to stalk that person and pass judgement. If their acts were too selfish or cruel, the person will vanish, never to be seen again. The Barghest represents the difference between right and wrong, and he is the most frequently invoked of any Legend Creature.
Cicada: A glowing grasshopper. The incarnation of creativity, Cicada hops around the land leaving sparks to inspire folk. When a person is particularly good at creating things or solving problems, it’s thought that Cicada left a spark on their egg (for korvi) or that person’s sleeping, pregnant mother (for aemets and ferrin).
Sphingo: A patchwork creature with deer legs, a salamander tail, leather-webbed wings and a person’s face — aemet, korvi or ferrin depending on who is telling the story. The Sphingo was born from lingering traces of life essence. He watches over people’s graves and cremation sites. If a living person needs to disturb a suspected grave for any reason, they must speak their motivation aloud to the Sphingo. If he isn’t given a good reason not to, he will whisper an unanswerable riddle in the person’s ear to plague them for the rest of their life.
Mandragora: A bipedal plant with a ring of colourful petals around a toothy mouth. It travels the land, floating on the wind like a dandelion seed. Unable to speak, the Mandragora loves listening to stories — it’s said that telling a happy story to the Mandragora will increase the storyteller’s joy fourfold. Wild mandrake plants are thought to be the Mandragora’s children, able to absorb and neutralize sadness.
Indrick: A horse with two horns on his forehead. He lives on riverbanks, using his razor-sharp hooves to carve stones. Indrick is a moody creature who dislikes company; he will flee if approached, but if he is allowed to work in peace, he will leave perfectly smooth stones in the river for folk to find.
The korvi, aemet and ferrin people have no code of letters to record information with. They leave drawings, patterns and sculptures behind them, and then pass their life knowledge forward through spoken legends. A legend can be anything from a bard’s improvised performance to a mentor’s life wisdom.
The following are staple legends. Details may change in retelling, but the main points are known to every person who grew up speaking a language. Not knowing these stories would be like not knowing one’s parents, or not knowing what one’s race was called.
Before all things, there was no land and no sky, not enough light to see by and no waft of air to sense with. All things churned together. It was silent, like a held breath. And then, life came to that place. It crashed through all things, more brilliant than lightning and more fluid than water, to strike one mote of soil and one mote of air. From that burned spot, the Greatbloom crept out. It was a tiny vine, pale white but as alive as any person. Without so much as a seed hull to protect it, the Greatbloom rooted itself on the life-struck earth and breathed in the life-struck air — and it grew and grew.
After forty-eight years had passed, the Greatbloom was soon a towering plant casting an endless shadow over the land. And then, it opened a magnificent flower, so it had a face to turn toward everything around it. The earth was bare and dusty. The air was devoid, stirred by no wind. Sensing how badly the land wanted for life, the Greatbloom gathered its strength into seeds of every type and element. Once its seeds were scattered, the Greatbloom wilted and died. Over the forty-eight years its stalk took to break down, its elemental seeds blossomed and filled the land richly with life.
The gods arrived to watch those seeds send out first roots. They saw what that lone Greatbloom plant had done, and they gathered around its dry, brown stem. They had never seen such potential in all the empty tracts they had crossed. Great Bright and Dark, with Verdana, Fyrian, Ambri and Okeos beside them, agreed to tend to these things the Greatbloom brought to life. And with all life adopted by god guardians, it was nurtured, and it has been thriving ever since.
When the gods chose their children
Long ago, when the Greatbloom had withered only a few breaths ago, the gods first called the land their home. They looked at the vast tracts of sky and earth, and they wandered through the whole of everything. They were surprised and glad to find so much potential. But there were all types of living things in this land, all living together on top of and between each other, with no one chosen to guide them. In the very center of the land, where the winds all crossed paths, the six gods met. For the first time, they smiled at one another. They were pleased to see friendly faces, after so long spent alone.
Great Dark pointed, with her colour-rich self, toward the land around them. They would have to sort this out, she said. They could turn their attentions toward as many living things as they chose, but it would be best if each of them minded a family more closely.
Very wise, great Bright said. If they all cast their energies too broadly, then even mighty gods could weaken and fade away.
But, Fyrian asked the High Ones, how would they choose?
The other high ones murmured, and agreed.
It was a very sticky question. And so the six gods sat on the most plush of wind currents, and they talked. They heard sounds that needed no ears, and knew the purest truths of things they had never laid eyes on. After four days, the gods were full of hope and ready to nurture. They only needed to find their elements, the sorts of life and energy that felt truest matched to their own spirits.
Verdana knew her place quickest of all. She had always been green-coloured, and always had long, broad leaves waving along the edges of her essence. She nodded her farewell to the other gods, and walked straight into the nearest forest grove as though it had called her name. She followed the land downward, and downward, until it became a hill so steep nothing could cling to it. Finally, where river water lapped at a peat-ragged bank, Verdana found a frail willow sapling clinging to life. She laid a hand on that tree and it grew instantly strong, growing as fast as its bark could spread, spilling over with joy so that its branches turned back toward the faithful earth. That place was where Verdana stayed for a lifetime, or maybe more. She grew as rich and wise as old wood, and smiled upon the crawling insects around her. She was plantcasting, and she was sure.
Fyrian didn’t know where to begin, but he was eager to search. With a wave and a smile, he coiled his snake-stout essence and bounced into the air, flapping toward the radiating heat in the west. He circled through clouds and smoke, and swooped over cliffside and craig. He finally landed near a flow of volcanic firebrick, and he sat for a while to admire the the liquid fire. It seemed more potent than any creature could handle. He then noticed a speckled snake laying as close to the fire as it could stand, enjoying the firerock’s glowing heat. Fyrian laughed at the sight, and said that any creature so bold was a creature of his. He laid a hand on that snake, and it was instantly glossier of scale and brighter-spotted with colour, full of the reptile strength that would let it live long, healthy years. Fyrian didn’t like to stay in one place, but he visited the volcano often to mind his cool-blooded children. His essence took on the red luminescence of firerock, and the shine of bright, sliding coils. He was firecasting, and he was sure.
The remaining four gods, Bright and Dark, Ambri and Okeos, sat in their calm winds a while longer, commenting on the lively sky and the delightful insect songs. And after that, Okeos rose. He was finished talking, he said. He would be around, and if they needed anything, then he might choose help. Okeos drifted about the land wherever his paws took him, and finally found a lake deep and cool enough to please him. He sank gratefully to the bottom — his essence speading into sharp-pointed fins — and the only creature there with him in the dense mud was a pikefish, calmly watching. It seemed as fine a creature as any. Okeos touched it and it grew longer, leaner, sharper of tooth and unable to make a sound except a mighty splash. Okeos rested at the bottom of that lake, feeling the streams and rainclouds carrying cool lifeblood throughout the land as sure as his own watercasting essence flowed. He cast off his paws and stretched leaner, growing fins as sharp as hooks. He was water, and he was sure.
So, Ambri commented to the high gods, it was clearly her time to choose. But she couldn’t imagine going out into the land and picking one type of life only. It all seemed fascinating.
She should still try, Bright said.
She might find an element that felt oddly, marvellously right, Dark added.
And so Ambri went to the clouds first, leaping from raindrop to raindrop, looking down on all life. She followed the rain down into the earth, watching creatures burrow near the deep band of electricstone. When she had seen everything, Ambri perched in a tree and shook the dust from her long, fine feathers. A swallow perched beside her, exhausted from the effort of flight, and Ambri smiled kindly at it. There was so much to see, she told the swallow, that she hoped never to get tired of it. She laid a hand on the swallow and it filled up with strength, its wings lengthening so that it could fly forever if it wished to. Ambri visited the trees often, talking to the birds and squirrels and the grandparents of ferrin. But she never stayed in one place, full of energy as she was. Her feathers turned so glossy that she looked like light itself. Ambri was electricasting, and she was sure.
Bright and Dark had only each other for company, then. They agreed that they would watch everything else, the light and the darkness and the air between everything. They built a home in the sky, and they were sure. So the land has been ever since.
The Cold’s answer
When life first settled the land, it came in every form thought could produce. Creatures of every shape and size and colour roamed the soil and air. Some changed as they saw fit. Some stayed as they had been born. In a flurry that lasted four elders, life settled into its chosen shapes.
And in this new calm, there were demons. They chose unseeable, untouchable forms and preyed on all creatures, running free across the land. The gods were perplexed by such reckless beings, and unsure whether they had a place in the land. Such viciousness had never been seen before.
The gods combed the land, visiting every windy peak and damp marsh, asking the demons for explanation. Each demon answered honest, from the sleepiest bunion to the fiercest cancer, from the lurking chill capping mountains to the restless gales and tricks of light. All of these demons had creatures they felt a hunger for, just as wolves hungered for deer and deer hungered for green stems. The demons merely wanted to live.
The gods gathered in the centre of the land, and discussed long and careful what was their right to do. They all agreed that demons had needs and desires and life, as much as any living thing. They decreed that the Barghest was not to punish demonkind for their very nature, and the Barghest, watching from the shadows, reshaped his definition of sin. Then the gods gave their mortal children precious gifts, the abilities of flight and casting technique and medicines, the means to escape demons’ claws. Life, they were sure, needed to make its own choices.
But as Verdana gifted her plantcasting methods to aemetkind, the gods all sensed death crawling across the land, turning animals and plants to stone, covering the land with mounds of nothingness. Bright and Dark went together to confront the demon, and they found it was the mountaintop chill — but it was no longer content to stay on mountaintops.
Why do this, Bright and Dark asked it? Was one or two kinds of mortal not enough?
No, the Cold said, smiling with its wicked teeth. It had told the truth before; it only wished to sate its hunger. But it was not like the other demons. It hungered for everything.
Bright and Dark discussed, their minds turned toward one another. The Cold was a living thing, they worried, and it had as much purpose living as anything. But if this demon was allowed life within the land, there may be nothing to stop it. There may be nothing it was unwilling to eat.
Once they agreed on what was right, Bright left and Dark spoke alone to the Cold demon. It could live, Dark said, and it could eat. But not among the other beings of the land. Such an arrangement could plainly not work, and for that, the gods were sorry.
And as the Cold reached for more prey, Dark snatched the demon up in her shining grasp and carried it away. Bright filled the gods’ sky home, the Great Gem, with casting energy. He used some from every element, and poured it outward in an all-coloured dome. This magic was as large as the life within it, and stronger than the Cold could ever break. This great barrier would divide life and protect it from itself.
Dark dropped the Cold outside the Great Barrier, leaving it with all the plain land and air it could ever wish to eat. Some say that Dark left a mote of herself, too, so there would be colour in that Cold-gripped land. Some say that outside the Great Barrier, there is nothing but consumption and death. But regardless, life inside the Barrier lived on, and the High Ones maintain the casting barrier to this day.
Bright and Dark’s feud
At the beginning of all things, there was neverending skylight. It fell from the Greatbloom’s stamens and landed in glowing piles, towering over the other creations. Bright and Dark, as the high gods, were the only ones who could hope to hold all the skylight up where it belonged, and so they divided the light between them. They gathered their light into two spheres — one golden-bright and the other night-shimmering — and they found the biggest quartz crystal in the land to store their lights inside. The crystal made a beautiful addition to their sky home. Bright and Dark took turns wielding the Great Gem, pouring light over the growing land, maintaining a shining beacon for all to see.
But as the eons passed and all creatures flourished, it grew clear that the light hadn’t been divided evenly. Darkcasting covered the land for a scant eight hours before brightcasting came piercing through it. Dark thought it unfair, and Bright thought her vain. They argued in louder and louder voices. In their anger, they lashed at each other in great flashes, fit to blind any mortal. Dark took the brunt of that terrible violence. While she was weak, Bright took her below the earth and sealed her into the electricstone.
There Dark stayed for four thousand years, Bright wielded the Great Gem alone. And during those four thousand years, the high gods wondered what had become of each other, whether Dark or Bright or both had a wicked heart, and why things had gone so wrong.
They stewed in their own thoughts until Dark gathered her strength and broke free of the electricstone, to face Bright and finish their quarrel. They struck at each other with crackling bright and darkness, striking their opposing castings together until they were weak as mortals.
Then, Bright and Dark looked at what they were fighting over. The land cowered at the sight of their High Ones fighting, every person and beast and plant shivering as one. Daylight had dimmed to a tiniest spark in the sky, and Cold pressed claws in through the fading Great Barrier. And below the Great Gem, the other gods stood watching, holding what life they could in their arms, ready to protect.
Bright saw then what their fighting had done, all their pain and worry spilled over the land like blood. He talked with Dark for four days. They spoke deeper than mortals could ever understand, and they filled with regret. There would be no more fighting among gods, they promised. They went to the Great Gem together, poured out all the light in one flash and divided it evenly, down to the last spark. They returned to minding the Great Barrier, and life carried on, at peace.