History, as written in the ancient Holy Book of Valverus…
At the end of the last galactic cycle, as all matter and energy converged upon itself, twelve beings of infinite power cast themselves outside of the rapidly imploding universe. They then watched on as all that they had previously known became a fierce ball of light merely a mile across, all the matter condensed into a small ball of energy. They examined this ball for several millennia, then as one they caused the sphere of pure, glowing energy to explode and so begin the universal cycle once again.
These beings observed for several billion years as galaxies were gradually formed, and within these galaxies, new solar systems. Then they spent several more millennia searching through the multitude of star systems, finally selecting a single solar system consisting of six planets orbiting a single sun. They then picked the second planet from those six as it most perfectly fulfilled the parameters they had established.
Instigating the creation of a single celled life-form into the sea, these powerful beings patiently waited as evolution gradually worked its simple miracle. However once vertebrate life forms appeared, they again intervened. Once, so long ago that even time had no meaning, they had been mammals: bipedal, bilaterally symmetrical…humanoid. They allowed the other classes--the fish, the amphibians, the reptiles and the birds--to develop as they would, but they encouraged the development of mammals, shaping creation in their own image. For 200,000,000 years they patiently coaxed evolutionary change until the organism they wanted emerged.
On a single continent that two million years later would be known as Tamaranth, bipedal, erect, tribal beasts with opposable thumbs and large brains that had the capacity for theoretical thought evolved. This prototype suited the deities and they encouraged and enhanced development along that line. Ignoring the myriad possibilities of other life forms, they focussed their attentions on the humanoids, increasing their intelligence and ability to manipulate their environment, reducing their reliance on instinct. However, as this occurred, and these proto-humanoids gained a rudimentary ability to judge and understand causation and consequences, they began to differentiate between each of the great beings and they separated them by how they perceived them into three groups: the Good, the Evil and the Neutral.
However, one of these twelve great beings, Valverus, could not come to terms with this distinction between himself and the others, and so fled out into the universe, leaving the others to this world of theirs. The humanoids in response to their awareness separated into three groups in line with their new perceptions, and began worshipping those beings (now known as Gods by these worshippers) that they wished to follow. In response, the Gods of each faction led their followers to a different part of the continent and began to mould them into the fashion that each group of beings deemed right.
Yeron, Araul, Venall and Urth, the four beings that were considered Good, fashioned their neo-humanoids into one race only, that of the humans. To these newly formed humans they gave a greater understanding of the difference between good and evil so that they could choose their own actions. Thus they gave the human race free will, to be good or evil.
Ghorail, Shalniel and Miroch, the three beings that were perceived as being Neutral, also fashioned a single race that they then divided into elves, gnomes and dwarves based on the physical attributes they wished to enhance.
These new humanoids also had their definitions of good and evil enhanced, but the gods also instilled an intense awareness of why their own neutrality existed. The first hint that there might be problems with the overweening divine edict occurred here, for the highly intelligent gnomes had appeared to take the lesson of neutrality literally and pulled away from their creators, seeing in the blatant manipulations of the Gods the greatest threat to the balance. They began to do things that were to their own advantage or benefit, without regard to whether it interfered with the Divine schemes or not.
Ylwain, Fellbane, Gye and Kirmmaw, the faction of Evil, did things differently. Turning away from the focus on strictly humanoid followers, they shaped many assorted creatures: Orcs, Goblins and Hobgoblins were evolved from the original racial matrix, but they then experimented with integrating genes from mammalian and reptilian creatures, producing Gnolls, Dragons and various other beings. They did not alter these beings' ability to perceive the difference between good and evil, but allowed them to continue operating on instinct and by the harsh lessons of survival. "Good" was whatever kept their bellies full and secured desirable mates. The autonomic nervous system was enhanced instead of the neocortex.
To command this multitude, the group of Evil deities created a strange and frightening race known as the Alcanti, a group of beings of enormous intellect and terrible magic.
Soon after the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to more permanent agrarian encampments, the humanoids discovered they needed some way to count and describe property, whether it be parcels of land, animals or measures of grain. Thus was writing born. The first calendar was started soon after the advent of writing to give them a way of tracking the seasons, the times of planing and harvest, the paths of the moons and planets, and to record events as they occurred.
These Beings, or Gods as they were now thought of, did not fully realise the change that had taken place over themselves, whereas before each had been glad to co-operate with the other in all that they did. Now, the two groups of Good and Evil vied for dominance over this world, while the Neutrals tried to keep the status quo between the two.
Also, these two factions had, without necessarily realising it, created the forces they would use to seek control with. This was to lead into a series of wars, which neither would win.
The trouble began in 2978 AC (After Calendar). Several hundred of the humans began to drift over to the side of evil, and shortly after which in 2981 AC, a faction of the elves split away from the Neutral group to side with the Evil one.
The side of Good began to realise that if too many deserted then the Evil faction would have all but total control, and so instigated the first of the Great Wars in 2984 AC. The war was fierce and bloody, neither side really gaining any advantage. In 3153 AC, the war ended with both sides too depleted too carry on.
The elves and the dwarves of the Neutral faction then stepped in and offered to aid both sides in recovering their knowledge and homes. The Evil faction refused, but the humans accepted gladly. The elves also tried to teach the humans the idea of neutrality, but only very few listened.
By 3421 AC, things were almost back to normal, when the Alcanti led the Evil faction on into the second Great War. This lasted until 3811 AC, when the result was the same as before, neither side winning, but both sides losing millions in it. The elves and dwarves again stepped in to aid those who asked for it.
This pattern repeated itself again in 4375 AC to 4691 AC, and 5026 AC to 5531 AC. However, at the end of this fourth Great War , the missing twelfth Being reappeared. He had watched the wars in horror, and how his peers had misused their powers. Valverus had known this was what would happen, and now he set about doing something about it.
Though it cost him his existence, Valverus erected a metaphysical barrier between the Gods and the world. The Gods would only now be able to let the merest presence of themselves through to guide their followers. All the eleven remaining Gods were angry at this, but there appeared to be little they could do about it.
The barrier was formed in 5537 AC, or the year 1 AB (After Barrier). This was the start of the second age of Tamaranth. This barrier had the most profound effect on most of the races due to the fact that the impetus for their warring had virtually disappeared, and while it was in place it was claimed that this world would never again see wars of the size which had previously nearly destroyed it.
Those creatures which had been evil remained evil, but without strong external guidance compelling cohesion and obedience they began to break up and fight amongst themselves. Those Alcanti that remained appeared to separate, each forming a tower in different parts of the world. As the centuries passed, the peoples of the world assumed that the Alcanti merely died out.
|1514 AB||Amanesh, the former camp of the whole human race splits into five separate nations; Nacada, Canterus, Tacera, Stihmar and Arcimea, each is ruled by a King.|
|1573 AB||King Aberus of Arcimea declares that he is the true King over all Amanesh and invades Stihmar.|
|1575 AB||The Arcimeans are driven back.|
|1576 AB||A peace is agreed by all five countries that no war shall be waged between them.|
|1578 AB||The church of Amanesh, worshippers of the four Good Gods, after declaring Amanesh should be one again, begins to recruit large armies.|
|1601 AB||The church declares war on all the five nations and the Amanesh Wars are begun.|
|1614 AB||The church's armies are finally defeated and the head of the church agrees to the peace terms.|
|1627 AB||Due to the expansion of the humans, two new kingdoms are formed, Linbar and Cyskos.|
|1650 AB|| A miraculous event happens: nine new Gods are born. Like stolen from a plant runner, these beings bud from the Barrier, formed from the essence of Valverus when he made himself into the Barrier, and nourished by the dweomer poured into it by the attempts of the Original Gods to break through. These nine avatars at first are weak, vulnerable, and in need of constant protection and nurturing. Nonetheless they each have all the memories and knowledge of their parent. They are not clones of Valverus or of each other, but each represents a different facet of the Sacrificial God. Mages and mystics soon discover the nature of the disturbance in the Weave and announce the existence of:|
Tinus: God of War
Bmdera: God of Magic
Aquira: Goddess of Love
Filtol: God of Thievery and Assassins
Aspira: Goddess of Fate
Yelane: Goddess of Luck
Kyris Jelazel: God of Death
Kilorin: God of Time
Maruthra: Goddess of Nature
|1655 AB||New churches spring up to worship these new Gods.|
|1663 AB||The second church war begins as the Amanesh church tries to cast down these new religions.|
|1671 AB||The Amanesh church is once again defeated, in part by the budding power of the nascent Gods. The iron control of the old church is dealt a telling blow.|
|1684 AB||New countries are formed as the humans continue to expand, these being Kethron, Tesulia and Qaicyn. Also, the Shattered Isle declares its independence from Canterus.|
|1731 AB||A way is wrought through the D'Scari range and brings these travellers in contact with dwarves.|
|1745 AB|| War between the humans and the dwarves begins. |
The dwarves discover to their abject horror that the humans present no military targets. They would raid and then retreat to their farmsteads and villages, surrounded by their women and children. If attacked the human non-combatant losses are higher than the military casualties. Dwarven marines and militias, trained for hundreds of years to protect clan and hearth, are sickened and many refuse to fight. The phrase, Besser Unrecht leiden als Unrecht tun (Better suffer injustice than commit injustice) becomes the rallying cry of a vocal and passionate peace movement.
|1747 AB||Although the mountain boundaries remain disputed, the dwarves concede the plains and an uneasy and grudging peace is forged. The plainsdwarves are dispossessed and driven from their ancestral homes in a bleak and angry dispersal that the dwarves call the Diaspora.|
The humans named their conquered territories P'Lar and Rsyvin.
The elves of Assel-Vesdra, learning from the misfortunes of their dwarven brethren, forbade any human from ever owning real property in Assel-Vesdra, not land nor lot nor livestock, a law that was also enacted too late in the truncated remnants of Tanalok. Human traders were permitted. Human settlers were not. The children of the neutral gods would not lose any more of their domain to the tyranny of fecundity.
|1781 AB||The humans of P'Lar and Rsyvin, intent on continuing their policies of infiltration, conquest and annexation that had been so effective against the dwarves, instigate the first war between themselves and the Axis of Evil, which they found to the south of them. They discover tactics that worked against dwarves had the opposite effect against the orcs, goblins, hobgoblins and ogres who had no compunction about killing women and children and, in fact, considered it sound policy to prevent the incursion of human forces.|
|1798 AB||The humans are defeated, and a great wall is created that winds its way around the borders of the Evil held lands, and those of the humans and the elves. This wall has P'lar, Rsyvin and Assel-Vesdra on one side, and Nepth, Xerant, Marinmor and Derantia on the other.|
|1831 AB||The humans try again to defeat the Evil forces, who are now commanded by the break away elves of Assel-Praeth.|
|1845 AB||Nepth is soon taken by the humans after the wall between Rsyvin and Nepth is breached by the gnomes. In retaliation for breaching the wall a virulent plague is unleashed by the Assel-Praetheans that nearly wipes out the gnomes: fulminant necrotizing infectious turbinatitis or nose rot.|
|1846 AB||A brush war begins in Nepth as the two sides vie for control.|
|1885 AB||The humans are driven back and the wall is rebuilt. War devolves into constant border skirmishing and the occasional more ambitious raid on either side.|
|1939 AB||This time with the dwarves and the elves, the humans begin a third war.|
|1941 AB||Nepth is taken, as is Xerant, in a fast moving attack.|
|1945 AB||The humans, elves and dwarves are driven back to their own borders. The Great Wall is rebuilt for a second time, but this time it is made stronger and imbued with a magical defence, making it impregnable to available technology and magicks.|
|1993 AB||Present day.|
"It is most logical to begin at the beginning. Most of the history you believe to be true is a delusion foisted upon you by Valverus a mere two thousand years ago. Most serious students of history already know it for the lie it is, but only our Alcanti understand more than a fraction of the truth. Moira, please cast Dictation, that you all may have a complete and accurate account."
As soon as the venerable mage was ready the gods began, "First, we were never the grandiose 'twelve beings of infinite power' that Valverus claimed we were. Rather, at the end of the last galactic cycle, as all matter and energy converged upon itself, we--twelve once-mortal beings of insatiable curiosity, driven to find out 'what happens next'--devised a method we hoped would allow us to step outside our rapidly imploding universe. Together we formed a force cage, a dodecahedron able to resist gravity, entropy, and the ravages of time itself. We were each responsible for one face of the structure, and if one facet failed, they all would fail, sending us plummeting into the tiny ball of darkness more intense than the brightest light had ever been. We held on grimly, though the battle taxed us, each and all, to the limits of our strength and endurance, millennia after relentless millennia, until the stresses within the black hole singularity triggered an explosion, and the outward expansion of the universe began again. We had absolutely nothing to do with the process, but we now know for certain that Big Bang follows Big Crunch like day follows night.
"We jubilantly told ourselves we were the luckiest people who had ever lived as we rode the stupendous, indescribable wave of power outward. It was easy to convert our force cage into a craft that protected us from the rushing, surging energy and dweomer, surrounded by the indescribable beauty of the birth of stars...and of gods. We watched in fascination as the universe matured, and suns and solar systems formed. We discovered that main-sequence stars between 5000 and 6200 K in temperature and around two nonillion kilograms in weight almost always form a crystal sphere outside their most distant planets; we were amazed to see that it was much like the wall of an ovum, controlling the turbulent, and--in excess--destructive, flood of dweomer, and allowing embryonic gods to develop. It looked like so much fun we decided to try our hands at being gods ourselves, and set off in search of a star that fit the parameters for life as we had once known it, but that lacked a crystal sphere and the developing gods such a structure signalled. It was then that Valverus first showed signs of the illness that would later claim him. He jovially thanked us for our 'help' in creating and sustaining the dodecahedron, taking for himself credit for an enterprise that was, by its very nature, wholly cooperative, and spoke with keen anticipation of founding a pantheon. We were troubled, but took no action beyond correcting his conceit, and Valverus seemed to let the matter drop.
"Eventually we found a solar system that fit our criteria and built our own crystal sphere around it, an artificial construct but identical in all particulars to the natural formation, and then began settling into our new home. The planets and moons had already formed, although accretion and changes in composition were still going on due to heavy bombardment from remaining debris. We nudged the planet that would eventually be known as Tamaranth more securely into the zone of habitability...and again ran square into Valverus, who decreed that the number of moons should be one, and only one. The vote for multiple moons ran ten to two, with Shalniel calmly and reasonably offering cogent arguments in favour of one...and we came to very satisfactory agreement, acknowledging and incorporating the points that Shalniel had raised, balancing the two largest moons so that, in the fullness of time, the length of a day and other rotational effects would be stabilised, and edging the others out far enough that their gravitational pulls were minimal.
"Everyone was happy with the accommodation...except Valverus, who was enraged by our 'defiance.' All twelve of us have slightly different strengths and weaknesses, but in power we are very close to balanced. We would not accept Valverus' arbitrary and self-proclaimed superiority, and made it unequivocally clear to him that we were a cooperative, not a dictatorship. If we disagreed, we would seek to resolve the issue through discussion and compromise, but the majority would rule. Valverus tested us, lashing out with all his strength to smite us...and, to his shock and horror, was neutralised and easily contained. Thus he began a long period of sullen brooding.
"Like all known planets, Tamaranth was originally molten, due to extreme volcanism and frequent collisions with other celestial bodies, but quite quickly (in geologic terms) it cooled enough that rocks and continental plates began to form. Outgassing and volcanic activity produced the first atmosphere; condensing water vapour, augmented by ice delivered from comets, formed the oceans; and life, that ubiquitous and quotidian miracle, began. As we learned more about building a planet, we worked with the natural forces to establish a magnetic field to prevent the planet's atmosphere from being stripped away by the solar winds, and watched as cyclic orogenic continent building and destruction began, along with periods of heating and cooling.
"It was then that we found--or were given--the Templates. In simple, prosaic terms these were planting instructions and seedcorn; adherence would result in a creation that would fit comfortably within a galactic matrix, one very familiar to us, for once we had been part of just such ecosystems. Rejection would limit the eventual beings of Tamaranth to their own, possibly unique, planetary environmental conditions. There was no pressure, no 'right' choice, just options, and thus began another of our Great Deific Debates. For a million years we discussed the matter, looking at implications, weighing alternatives, until we--at least, the eleven of us--reached harmonious consensus, and with a small pang for the paths that would not be taken and a far greater sense of excitement and anticipation, introduced photosynthetic cyanobacteria. Free oxygen started to accumulate in the atmosphere, setting off the mass extinction of obligate anaerobic organisms, laying down iron deposits, and oxidising atmospheric methane to carbon dioxide, triggering glaciation. The increased oxygen concentrations provided a new opportunity for biological diversification. Until oxygen became widely available, life had remained energetically limited, but such a radical breakthrough in metabolic evolution greatly increased the free energy supply to living organisms all over the world.
"Again Valverus unilaterally opposed the general agreement. This time he did not confront us directly, instead attempting by more subtle means to destroy the cyanobacteria and undo the Third Intervention. He was stopped before he could cause damage, and his anger and hatred knew no bounds.
"For the most part we were content to watch the incredible miracle of evolution, doing little more than encouraging a favourable mutation here and there, as prokaryotes were joined by eukaryotes then multicellular organisms. These simple creatures evolved into differentiated plants and animals, then, about 500 million years ago (or some 4 billion years after the world formed) began the conquest of the land. The first vertebrate land animals appeared 380 million years ago. Once again we debated intervention, but this time decided to let phylogeny take its course, and waited patiently for the emergence of mammals 180 million years later. We were intrigued by the diversity that developed, so varied from world to world, even though arising from the same templates and genetic materials. Tamaranth developed insects and arachnids of unprecedented size and complexity, which spurred and altered the evolution of reptiles and hastened the emergence of advanced avian and crocodilian forms; it also meant that virtually every carnivorous or omnivorous species that followed was at least somewhat insectivorous. That is a phenomenon unique to Tamaranth! We watched and marvelled.
"However, at last true primates came forth, and it was time to intervene again if we wanted a world that was compatible with the ones emerging under the guidance of other gods in different spheres. Again Valverus demanded we cease and desist; again the vote was eleven to one in favour of intervention, and Valverus seethed in impotent rage. The pace of change accelerated; 20 million years ago the first proto-hominoids were born, over the next few million years diverging into a number of genera and families that included the great apes, and steadily increasing in intellectual capacity including language, an understanding of culture beyond the family, and such intangibles as empathy and curiosity. At last, a mere 200,000 years ago, the first men, men in all particulars, walked the earth--Homo sapiens Tamaranthi originalis.
"We decided to divide into cooperative teams, the better to encourage the further development of this species, so full of potential, so amazingly close to their brethren, born on worlds that orbited far-distant suns...so achingly close to the beings we once were...billions of years ago. Yeron, Araul, Venall and Urth focussed on the basic phenotype, making very few changes beyond an enhanced adaptability. Ghorail, Shalniel and Miroch divided the species into elves, gnomes and dwarves, breeds that are slightly closer genetically to each other than to humans despite their apparent differences in physiology, and Ylwain, Fellbane, Gye and Kirmmaw shaped orcs, goblins and hobgoblins from the original racial matrix; they were the ones who also, just for fun, experimented with magically integrating genes from mammalian and reptilian creatures...and thus dragons were born.
"Valverus could no longer stand the frustration, our indifference to his increasingly irrational and arbitrary demands, and--most of all--our success and the pleasure we took in these creatures made in our image. He fled out into the universe, declaring that he was done with us and would create his own world, his own universe. In all honesty, we must admit, we were glad and relieved to see him go.
"The various races of men matured; the population increased slowly, faster amongst the relatively short-lived humans--and a stable breeding stock was our most compelling reason for leaving the strain almost untouched--more slowly for the longer-lived elven, dwarven, and gnomish races, moderately for the short-lived but more aggressive goblinoid races--you see, we were scientifically trying to perfect a balance between desirable mutability, physicality, cultural stability, and intellect. It was a fascinating, always delightful, project. The appearance of the comet was the first serious threat that the beautiful world we'd helped shape had faced, and we vowed to do whatever was necessary to protect it and the beings we now thought of as our children."
The gods paused for emphasis, making sure that everyone realised the importance of what they were about to say, "Several of you already know that whilst the tales of 'Great Wars' are utter fabrication, Tamaranth has been subjected to cataclysmic disasters every twenty-five hundred years. Twenty-five hundred and ten years, to be precise. You have all seen or read about the ancient texts, carved into the walls of the Halle der Könige in Tanalok and the Themais Uir in Assel-Vesdra, into remnants found in ruined Shenuth, in other ancient monuments you do not yet know. Places separated by over two thousand miles, but recording the same event in almost the same words. 'And lo, a vast Shadow fell upon the whole world, ravening and foul, and whatever it touched, it devoured, every creature that walks or crawls, that swims or flies, and every plant that grows upon the land or in the waters, sparing not a single blade of grass, and the very earth was scorched and barren, so that afterward seed fell on it and withered as if fallen upon stone...' Written seventy-five hundred years ago. The Burning Times. Der Hunger. Goeol Delos. There are fresh accounts every twenty-five hundred years...and it will return in Quartus, 1995."
"How can a comet do all that?" Ludi asked, deeply troubled and equally confused.
"It's not the comet itself, Ludi," Urth said compassionately, her hand extended toward the dwarven boy. Had she been able to reach out and touch him, comfort him, she would have done so. Reassurance, however, was not hers to give. "The danger, the destruction, comes from the race that lives on it..."
The Chorus explained, "At the same time organic life was evolving on Tamaranth, far out in the Everflowing, in Deep Space, in the roughly spherical cloud of icy planetesimals that surround our solar system nearly a light-year from the Sun, another, far different, ecology was developing. The dwarf planet that would become the comet was a giant in that region of space; it had drawn all its neighbours to itself, accreting so much mass that it reached hydrostatic equilibrium, forming a sphere nearly 250 miles in diameter. On this world, ice around a core of rock and metal, bathed and bombarded by raw dweomer, life began. From simple, minute creatures they progressed to colonies, and then into complex organisms, capable of metabolism, growth, and true reproduction. More aeons passed, and they became increasingly responsive to stimuli. In the fierce competition of their resource poor environment, some creatures developed motility. Step by step, mutation after mutation, the apex of that peculiar genesis acquired intelligence, but in structure they were little changed from their remote ancestors. They were black in all spectra, to soak up every possible scintilla of energy--dweometric, electromagnetic, chemical, thermal, gravitational, and nuclear--and they were nearly two dimensional, sometimes covering very large areas, but infinitesimally flat, presenting the greatest possible surface area for energy absorption. There was no food chain--each individual absorbed energy from any and all available sources and drew the nutrients for metabolism from the dirty snowball that was their home--with the result that every successful adaptation supplanted its progenitor, each in turn spreading out across the surface of their world.
"This stable existence changed when a star passed through that region of space; too far away to draw the world into its orbit, but close enough to cause gravitational perturbations that sent it plummeting toward distant Tamar. At first the inhabitants, sapient but extremely primitive, were unaware of what had befallen them. Generations passed in the same fierce competition for energy and resources they had always known...until they travelled through the Crystal Sphere, some 40 AUs from the star, and the Everflowing, their primary food source, was abruptly and radically curtailed. So far out the solar radiance was woefully insufficient to compensate, as were the gravitational forces of the outer planets, yet worse was to come. Solar radiation caused the volatile materials that comprised the bulk of the comet's mass to vaporize and stream out of the nucleus, carrying dust away with them, in a coma that, at closest approach, stretched out from the sun past rocky Marnin and beyond, and in that first pass it lost nearly 10% of its total mass, most of it in the form of precious, life-sustaining water, carbon dioxide, methane and ammonia ice. In the year and a half that the comet remained in the solar system, 90% of the population died off, but the few individuals that survived were the fittest, the most adaptable, and the most ruthless ever seen since their peculiar form of life had evolved.
"We were surprised to discern that intelligent life existed in so unlikely a place, but saw no reason to intervene--species evolve, mature, and become extinct regularly in the universe. Even then we knew this particular form was inimical to all life on Tamaranth, but we didn't believe any action was necessary at that time. Instead we watched, and pondered possible outcomes. We were overconfident idiots! We couldn't have been more wrong.
"Anyway, by the second pass the Shadow had become a single entity, the culmination of ruthless self-preservation. It still appeared to be composed of individuals, but they were all linked in a vast hive mind. It had learned to look outward, sending its senses ranging far and wide, and discovered the planets, huge spheres in stable, almost circular orbits around a reliable food source. The gas giants were not to its taste: dweomer and solar poor, with a gravity that made them dangerous even to Shadow. Marnin, far larger than its home, with a comfortable gravity, rich in essential ice, and bathed in light from a star a mere two AUs away, was highly appealing...until it passed Tamaranth. Soaked in solar radiance and rich in dweomer--coming from us, although it didn't know that--with oceans of volatiles, it thought it had found paradise! It looked no further, but right then began planning to conquer this perfect new world. That it teemed with life already was considered an advantage, facilitating the assimilation of valuable nutrients. Evolution on the comet had never rewarded the concepts of cooperation, compromise, or community; by this point such ideas were literally unthinkable, as meaningless as music to a species without organs of hearing.
"By the third pass, the Shadow was ready to make its move. It sent out appendages to cross the space between the comet and Tamaranth--and met our force blocking it. We were not then resolved to destroy the Shadow--and bitterly have we come to regret our forbearance--but we gave it no purchase on Tamaranth, driving it back onto its own planet. The Shadow was enraged; in its estimation, it was the summit of creation. How dare any entity stand in its way?! Howling vengeance and continued resolve, it continued trying until it passed out of range, travelling back from whence it came. By this time the comet was 15% smaller than when it had first formed.
"The Shadow spent the intervening years perfecting it magics, and planning its next attack. It devised a way to (it believed) absorb the powerful dweomer-fuelled barrier that had blocked it before, and go forth and conquer just that much stronger. It was partially successful. On the next pass, its fourth, it cut a wide swath of destruction across the face of Tamaranth before it was turned back, and those remnants that made planetfall caused further havoc before they could be destroyed, for direct, physical manifestations of our power on a planetary surface is fraught with danger to the ecological balance, even to the structure of the world itself, and our living, vibrant world was the very thing we were striving to preserve. Worse, we realised that it was no longer within our power to destroy it outright; we'd missed our chance.
"We needed help, but although the races of men, and other sapient creatures, had fully evolved into their present forms by then, they were still very primitive; civilisation was in its infancy. It would be many years before there would be priests with the wisdom, knowledge, and experience to channel our grace, so to fill that gap we made representatives that were both greater and lesser than the organic races, with powers both enormous and limited--enormous, to effectively fight against the increasingly powerful Shadow; limited, to prevent them from setting themselves against us or subjugating mortals. The Alcanti were created between 12,543 and 12,533 years ago, starting five years after the comet's fourth return. Part of their mission was to police, guide, teach, and act as mediators between the organic races--humans, dwarves, elves, gnomes, orcs, goblins, hobgoblins, gnolls, dragons, and so forth--but their primary purpose, the Divine Trust that was central to their being, was to stand between and protect mortals from the Shadow. It is the one single area over which no Alcanti has free will. As long as they live, they will stand and protect.
"Although the Shadow was stronger, more devious, and more determined than ever, both we and the Alcanti were ready for the comet's fifth transit. It was repulsed with minimal loss of life on Tamaranth; we too had been perfecting our strategies and were able to destroy or turn back most of every wave. The depleted vanguard that attempted to establish a presence on the planet were met by the Alcanti and handily defeated. Moreover this orbit had resulted in the vaporisation of a further 5% of the cometary volatiles, and fracture lines were beginning to form. We know that most long period comets live for only a short time, making no more than half a dozen orbits before breaking up or encountering gravitational stresses that fling them into hyperbolic orbits and out of the solar system, never to return. The Shadow comet was much larger than average, but still subject to those same pressures. We deduced that it could not survive for more than another 12,550 years--five orbits--at most, possibly as few as 7,530 years--three orbits. We were cautiously confident that all would be well.
"Contributing to that optimism was the inadvertent capture of a fragment of Shadow. It was not organised enough to retain the horrific sentience of the whole, but it was sufficient for experimentation--in effect, it was a tissue sample. From it we and the Alcanti who were conducting the tests learned that it drew no nourishment from certain types of stone, that a force cage would contain it, and that it was vulnerable to the direct application of fire, provided it was hot enough. With each pass the Shadow had grown more intelligent, more organised, more determined, and more powerful. It seemed poor strategy to allow it 2500 years between passes to refine and perfect its assaults against Tamaranth.
"From these seeds a plan was born. With our full approval and under our direction, the Alcanti tasked with guarding the southern hemisphere cleared an island near the south pole, far from all living things, of all volatiles--anything consumable--and prepared a barrier. They were to channel our power to form a pen to contain the Shadow, and there incinerate it, destroying it forever. Those involved in that enormous project called themselves the Free Men, for--as we said--the one area where Alcanti have no free will is in the battle against the Shadow. Our practical dreamers stepped out on faith, believing that the day was coming when the threat of Shadow would be ended forever." They smiled lovingly, apologetically, at Boand, Uduak, and broken, dismembered Tilador.
While listening, Theo continued to pet the pups. "So...the Alcanti are--the 'good guys'..."
"Indeed they are, Theo," Ghorail, Shalniel and Miroch replied, warmly approving of "their" dwarf.
"Hardly all of them," Tassarion sneered, eyeing Tilador with eyes cold and hard as granite.
"All, Tassarion. Including Tilador. He was playing a dangerous double game, trying to use the Shadow's tools against it, but his heart was always loyal to Tamaranth and the Divine Trust. You, not knowing what was really going on, reacted to what you perceived as traitorous betrayal, whilst he underestimated both your strength and that of the Shadow."
The gods sighed bitterly. "So have we all, time and again, underestimated the Shadow."
"By the time the killing field was ready in all particulars and every detail worked out, most of a turn had passed and nearly half the Alcanti had participated in the colossal effort. We stopped them from telling all their brethren, a decision that proved to be a mistake second only to our failure to destroy the Shadow when we had the chance. The Free Men were wholly focussed on the plan, on what they were calling 'The Final Confrontation'. We fully expected to succeed, but feared that, given their utter confidence, vigilance would be diminished in the event that some significant portion of Shadow escaped our trap. By their nature, Alcanti are constant, a necessary trait for beings that have to remain concentred on one task for millennia. In exchange, they are not flexible or easily swayed. We wanted a significant number unaffected by the anticipation, the almost euphoric expectation, that coloured the Free Men's perceptions...we hedged our bets."
For a perceptible moment the gods paused, mulling grievous memories, before continuing, "Twenty years before the next pass was due the comet moved into range of our senses. We were first shocked, then horrified, even frightened, by what we saw; the Shadow was a full order of magnitude stronger than it had been during its previous transit. There was no possible way our carefully laid plan would work.
"We informed the Free Men immediately; they were dumbstruck and disbelieving...and why wouldn't they be? We were shaken to the core ourselves. They heard us, but could not understand. It was too sudden, too radical a change. They asked us and themselves what they had done wrong, or what task they had failed to do, and couldn't grasp that they were not at fault. They tried to convince themselves that it was all a misunderstanding or correctable error, but it was no mistake, and their confusion became anger and defiance...rebelliousness. We ached for them; they'd worked so hard and so long, the prize had seemed almost within their grasp...and it was yanked away. They felt hurt and betrayed, believed we had judged them inadequate to our purpose, and were determined to prove us wrong."
They looked solemnly at Fenrir, George, and Yngvi, making certain that the Loyalists were listening. "They planned disobedience and voiced their frustration. They sought our approval, tried to make us see that they were fit and ready for the challenge, tried to regain our support. They never, at any time, turned against us or Tamaranth."
Now the gods turned their intent, demanding gaze on Boand and Uduak. "All Alcanti were cruelly betrayed by Rincar, the red dragon now known as Gambit. He had been part of the Plan almost from the beginning, and the Free Men had trusted him unquestioningly. At first he feared consequences, so to save himself from any accusations of complicity he decided to go to those Alcanti who were unaware of what had been happening. However, that rapacious and duplicitous worm soon saw in strife opportunities for personal gain, and gave himself over to malice and greed. The Loyalists were not easy to convince, but Rincar, aided by his sons, divulged the Free Men's hasty and ill-considered words in the most damning ways possible, embellished with lies and lurid impossibilities. Even with feelings inflamed and suspicions raised sky high, the intention of the delegation of Loyalists that approached the Free Men was to talk, to investigate, to learn the truth. This did not suit Rincar's plans. For 7,543 years the Loyalists have claimed the Free Men attacked, whilst the Free Men blamed the Loyalists; in truth, it was neither. Both delegations were ambushed and slain by Rincar and his sons, Moshon, Trymornal, and Rayr. The evildoers won; all the witnesses were dead, and thus the time for talk, for common ground, even for agreeing to disagree and stay out of each other's way, passed before it could begin. Overnight brothers became bitter enemies, and for fifteen brutal years they fought each other in an escalating spiral of destruction, hatred begetting hatred, vengeance begetting vengeance. Even mortals were drawn into the fray, some as combatants, fighting desperately for home and family, more as collateral damage...and then the Shadow returned, unleashing inconceivable horror and havoc.
"A full twenty percent of the Shadow assault broke through our barriers, and only then, when they were fighting the Shadow on the ground, did full understanding come to the Free Men, and with it, shame and penitence...and our full forgiveness." The gods locked eyes with all their Alcanti, their expectation clear. Forgive, as you have been forgiven.
Their gazes held for a long moment before they continued, "The casualties--animal, plant, even the earth itself--mounted to appalling levels, and the battle continued for nearly fifty years before all vestiges of the Shadow had been destroyed. The Burning Times had indelibly scarred--and justifiably terrified--the sapient races, but at the same time science, technology and innovation had taken enormous leaps forward. In some cases with aid from us or from the Alcanti, but more often independently, they made discovery after discovery, particularly in the areas of astronomy, mathematics, medicine, and metallurgy. They mapped the night sky, and created a calendar to track the comet and predict its next coming; to treat the injured, medicine advanced from shamanism to empirical science–not perfect, or perfectly understood, by any means, but the foundations were solidly laid--and weapons changed from wood and stone to well-forged bronze seemingly overnight. They also made great progress in mastering the mental discipline necessary to channel our grace and to understand the nature of arcane spellcasting.
"However, consequent to the civil war, conflated as it was with the unspeakable destruction wrought by the Shadow, all of the surviving Alcanti completely lost their effectiveness in their role as judges and arbiters between the organic races, and even as teachers their influence was tragically reduced. Often mortals fled at the very sight of them. Moreover, and worse, the war between the Free Men and the Loyalists continued with no diminution of hatred and implacability. Of the original 5,000 Alcanti, 4,893 had been alive at the start of the civil war. By the time the last appendage of Shadow had been eradicated from the face of Tamaranth, only 2,350 Alcanti survived. Of the 2,543 who died, 840 fell in internecine warfare, whilst fully 1700 died fighting Shadow, but each faction blamed the other for the high mortality rate instead of their common foe.
"Despite the risks, a few Alcanti continued their work--Boand who taught the first druids how to restore the barren land, Mut to attend pregnant and birthing women and their children, Tilador who helped men rebuild their shattered homes, a handful of others with similarly vital skills--but most withdrew into their individual lairs, hardening their defences, and perfecting their strategies for the next cometary pass. The two factions still tried to kill each other off at every opportunity, but over the years they became increasingly wily and elusive; casualties were low, whilst actual fatalities were mostly a matter of luck on the part of the assailant and carelessness, or overconfidence, by the victim. To the mortal races they became the stuff of myth and legend."
Boand closed his eyes for a moment, took a deep breath, and slowly walked over to Fenrir, hands open and extended in greeting, yet with a certain wariness in his demeanour as well, unsure how his overture would be received.
Fenrir had listened. The betrayal that was, was not. The truth as he knew it did not exist. It was a moment of terror that became anger. His eyes were wide with rage when Boand approached, and still...
He lowered his head. turned to face the Alcanti and knelt down in front of Boand.
Alcanti hands don't shake. By design they can't shake. Nonetheless, Boand's hands were shaking as he placed them on Fenrir's shoulders and tried to draw him back to his feet. Perhaps it was the quiver of hyper-alert reflexes, ready to snatch them back before they could be lopped off. "I'm sorry," he murmured, and winced as he heard the inadequacy of his own words.
Fenrir stood slowly, looking Boand in the eyes. "I will kill him. For Mut. For Diarmuid. For all of us." By saying the "freeman" Mut's name first, Fenrir made sure Boand knew Rincar, and the Shadow were no longer a divided issue. It has become as it once was, an Alcanti issue.
"We will kill him," Boand corrected, with murderous solidarity.
"But we have tasks you must perform that can not wait," the Chorus interrupted, gently but firmly, understanding their rage. "Moreover, Rincar has not yet suffered the full measure of our wrath. We cursed him, forever stripped him of his draconic shape and powers, barred him from the practice of all magic, and condemned him to suffer as any mortal the scourge of the Shadow, and all the vicissitudes of daily life. We changed his luck; chance never favours him, and wealth eludes him, slipping through his fingers like water through a sieve. Finally, no matter how grievously he is injured, what agonies he endures, he can not die. His life is bound to the Comet; it will end with its destruction."
They paused then and turned to Daala, faces compassionate. "No children he sires have the power to assume the shape that should be their birthright; that was not meant as punishment, but to protect them. Moshon, Trymornal, and Rayr were used and manipulated by their father who incited their avarice and blunted their consciences. When the Shadow came they realised the enormity of the evil they had done, and atoned for their crimes with their life's blood, fighting in the van as only a red dragon can. Rincar always treated his offspring as pawns to use and abuse for his own ends. When he realised his children were, in all respects, merely human, he stopped breeding until Valverus returned. That changed his strategy...but we will talk more later, if we have time. The pressure on Davy right now is tremendous, and we are still limited in how much strength we can give him."
The druidess sadly shook her head in disbelief, "I can now understand your intent in taking the measures that you have. But it still feels like a punishment.
"I am good person, and yet because of the actions of my father, a piece of my identity, one that is freely available to others of my kind, cannot be mine. The suggestion seems that I am only a good person, because I was not allowed my birthright, but I think this is wrong."
She turned her concerned gaze toward Davy before turning back to the Gods that had addressed her "Nevertheless, you have more to share, and I would very much like to hear the rest of your message."
"Daala, you are a good person now because you were raised with unconditional love, consistent, appropriate discipline, and solid moral guidance, far from your sire's destructive machinations. No infant is innately good or evil. Ponder that whilst we proceed," the gods replied, and moved on.
"Since its first attempt to conquer Tamaranth, the Shadow had been unable to venture far from land. The oceans, with their tides and currents, were too unstable for it to gain purchase. However, by the sixth pass it had learned how to spread out upon the waters, and confidently expected to feed there unopposed. It was wrong. One of the few bright spots during those bleak and tragic days was the gallant actions of the Leviathan and sperm whales. Just as the Shadow can not withstand the gravitational pull of the outer planets, so the pressure on the sea floor is lethal to it. The whales would grab an arm of Shadow and dive to abyssalpelagic depths, destroying it utterly. At no point was the Shadow allowed to move into waters deeper than 100 yards. Still, the actions took a harsh toll on those courageous people; in the aftermath we determined to reinforce their efforts, and created the Osprem, to patrol and protect the waters as the Alcanti guard the land. Unfortunately, and despite our repeated, fervent entreaties to end their conflict, both Free Men and Loyalists remained blinded by savage, implacable hatred, and we could not replenish their numbers.
"Tensions built in the two years leading up to the pass of -3025. Closest approach would be on the outward leg of the orbit. We, the Alcanti, both Free Men and Loyalists, the Osprem, and all the peoples of the world waited in tense anticipation. However, as the comet was circling around the sun, a pocket of volatiles deep within the core vaporised and exploded outward, cutting a deep gouge through the body of the planetoid and carrying with it not only the precious, life-sustaining ices but fully one-third of the Shadow itself. Badly weakened yet as desperate as a cornered animal, it frantically threw itself at Tamaranth in wave after wave, but it lacked the science and strategy of its sixth attempt at conquest. Too much of its "brain" had been boiled away, and its organisational structure had been shattered. We destroyed over ninety-eight percent, and the remnant that got through was so fragmented and dispersed it quickly succumbed to mortal spells, both divine and arcane, to the Osprem, and to the Free Men, still the primary protectors of the sparsely populated southern continents and islands. The Loyalists were ready and vigilant, but most of the time the threat had been eliminated by the time they arrived. There was more damage than there had been on the fifth transit, but nothing compared to what the world had suffered during the Burning Times. The people of Tamaranth rejoiced, the Shadow whimpered as it was carried back to the endless night…and we waited and prepared our defences.
"Before the comet's sixth passage most people had been semi-nomadic, following the wild herds during clement weather, hunting and gathering, and staying in winter encampments throughout the cold seasons; agriculture was in its infancy, for on generous Tamaranth, the intensive cultivation of food wasn't necessary. The Burning Times changed these ancient practices forever. Vast swathes of forest and grassland–hundreds of miles in all directions–had been reduced to scorched earth, as sterile as if baked in a kiln, and all the myriad creatures the vegetation had supported were gone, destroyed or scattered. The lands would be long recovering, and suddenly it became a challenge to secure enough nourishment to survive. Moreover, during the fearsome days when Shadow stalked the earth, many of the small bands of herders and hunters had formed alliances, for together a few might survive an assault, but if attacked singly, each group in turn would perish; in this harshest of all schools, they learned the advantages of community. Once the threat of Shadow had been eliminated (for a while), these remnants formed permanent settlements, and agriculture became the primary occupation. Uduak was central to the great strides that were made in the production of crops and the domestication of animals, sufficient to feed an ever-growing population. Increasing numbers led to the need for laws and judges, lawmakers, administrators, and enforcers, and thus was politics born.
"The casualties and destruction of the seventh cometary passage, the second recorded by mortals, were minor enough that they did not threaten these advances, and the civilisations of men flourished over the next twenty-five hundred years, the Golden Age of Tamaranth. The towns began to grow into cities, many of great size and beauty, becoming centres of commerce and scholarship. Knowledge was in full flower. From the simple concepts of number, magnitude, and form that had sufficed before the Burning Times, they developed sophisticated mathematics, including an advanced understanding of algebra, geometry, metrology, and analysis, and all the sciences that derived from applied mathematics: probability and statistics, surveying, optics, architecture, navigation, mechanics...and, as always, astronomy. Metallurgy progressed from bronze to the creation of high-carbon steel alloys unequalled to the present day; the blades and armours produced from those legendary steels all bore distinctive patterns of banding and mottling reminiscent of flowing water. From crude, utilitarian clay pots, pottery advanced until it had perfected exquisite porcelain and brilliant glazes. Alchemists and herbalists unlocked the secrets of minerals and plants, and in the process mastered the arts of fermentation and distillation. Nor were they backward in literature, philosophy, and the fine arts, but the pinnacle of their accomplishments was in the fusion of mathematics and science, logic, lore, and longing, into arcane magicka, equalled only by their devotion to and understanding of faith and their ability to channel our grace.
"Such was the world when the comet made its eighth pass. Under the spur of desperation the Shadow had also made advances, patching the fissures in its disintegrating world as much as it could, but devoting the greater part of its time and energy into shaping itself into a terrifying enemy armed with alien but prodigiously effective magic. It surpassed and far exceeded the strength of the sixth wave. Tamaranth had all been making preparations as well. In -515, 2,342 Alcanti still survived. Many had grown sick of warring with those created to be their brothers and sisters, but a significant fraction persisted in vilifying and assaulting each other at every opportunity. Most of those entrenched in hatred were Loyalists, who still blamed the Free Men and took pride in never having doubted. Overall, the Free Men were more humble, burdened by the weight of guilt for a mistake long since expiated in full, and tired, so desperately tired, of the persecution. Some resolved to try one last time to divert the Shadow to the island that they had restored to a holding pen, hoping for another lucky chance to weaken it, such as had occurred on the seventh pass, but determined to allow it no purchase, to fight until it was destroyed or they were. When the comet made its closest approach to Tamaranth and the waves of Shadow surged out to try, yet again, to establish a beachhead, the Free Men met it boldly. Their dauntless gallantry should be the stuff of legends, but even their fellow Free Men did not see how hard they fought or how bravely died. Many thought they failed, forcing breaks in the barrier. Some even wondered if we were punishing them. Nothing could be further from the truth. Over a third of the wave forced through our guard--we would have needed our dodecahedron made large enough to encase the world to stop it--but a mere six hundred Alcanti reduced that terrible force by a full quarter! Even so, the pseudopodia that made it through was devastating: the Burning Times had returned. Civilisations crumbled to blackened dust beneath that ebon bane, and the death toll mounted to astronomical numbers. But the war was not one-sided. Mortals, Alcanti, and Osprem fought with telling skill and strength, scything down the enemy much faster than it could replicate, while we held shields around it, starving it of dweomer. Slowly the toehold it had gained was eroded. Together we finally won, although it took nearly a hundred years before every last remnant was vanquished…and looked around at a world in ruins. Nearly half the sentient mortal population was dead, and the losses of other species, both plant and animal, were incalculable; some had been driven to extinction. The destruction of the works of men was heartbreaking too, especially the eradication of precious knowledge. Of the Alcanti, only 947 remained. Of the Free Men, 600 had perished, leaving the rest to try and defeat the Shadow in the southern hemisphere, left woefully unguarded with so many of the original defenders slain. The Loyalist's losses were slower but higher; between -515 and -418, 795 Alcanti were destroyed fighting the Shadow on the continent of Tamaranth and in the surrounding areas.
"As for the Shadow, only the most powerful magic had kept the comet intact; it was less than half its original size, and running out of precious volatiles. One more pass would finish it...one way or the other.
"Five hundred years after the eighth cometary pass Valverus returned. None too sane when he left, after over 150,000 years subjected to the raw dweomer of the Everflowing, he was raving mad: delusional--completely unable to distinguish fantasy from reality--and more megalomaniacal than ever. He knew the Truth, he was the Truth, and physical evidence had no importance, for was he not the One True God? He spewed his bilge upon the people of Tamaranth, and a small band of the primitive and credulous heeded his ranting, writing down his 'inspired word' and aggrandising him--and in consequence themselves as his chosen disciples. However, the response of the vast majority of people was indifference; those that did notice him and his smelly, ignorant followers, reacted with derision at best, hostility at worst. Valverus' rage knew no bounds. These puny mortals dared laugh at him, mock him, defy him? Valverus tried to smite them...and once again we stopped him.
"After billions of years of community and consensus, we have grown together so closely we literally can not act without unanimity, but we remain distinct, strong personalities. This is both a great strength and occasionally a severe weakness; it was unequivocally the latter in the case of the Comet: during the first, second, and even the third cometary pass the Shadow could have been exterminated, preserving Tamaranth from its deadly assaults, but we were not able to reach agreement that genocide was ethically defensible...and the Shadow was allowed to live. It likewise proved our undoing in our dealings with Valverus. We realised the threat he posed had to be neutralised, but as we considered possible courses of action, he rendered all our cogitation moot; he formed himself into a force barrier that encircled the whole planet. If he could not rule in solitary--and arbitrary--omnipotence, then no one could. Now any one of us can easily take down the barrier, but there is one major problem with that: the field is rigged to concentrate and project the power downward. The force necessary to destroy the barrier is more than enough to turn the surface of the world into a hellish inferno where no life could survive. Valverus' Orbs will have to be dismantled from below.
"And that's where we stand. The Shadow is more formidable than ever, Valverus has been shown the comet and has dismissed it as a puny dirty snowball that he can vaporise whenever he chooses...and we are facing a battle to the death with our hands tied. Bluntly, we need your help. All of you."