The Dry Season
The Origin of Species
As might be expected of cultures living miles above the surface of the world, a common subject of philosophical debate is precisely how they came to be there: None of the inhabitants of the islands believe that they originated on them, but neither do any of them agree on how they got there. What follows is a summary of the prevailing theories about how the orcs, elves, gnomes and humans came to live on the islands.
The Will of Heaven:
The dominant philosophy of the Celestial Kingdom dictates that the will of Heaven is the driving force in all things, but the orcish view of their arrival in the islands is one of the few cases where the will of Heaven is indicated by direct action rather than influence on the actions of lesser beings.
The orcs maintain that they were the first by many centuries to arrive in the islands, brought there when the first emperor, Tan-Janarat, died and ascended to his place in the Celestial Bureaucracy. Since Tan-Janarat had been a tremendous instrument of Heavenly order and righteous growth and prosperity for his people, he became very highly placed in the Celestial Bureaucracy and successfully petitioned the Great Emperor to move his people to a place better suited to their virtues. The islands were created by the great dragons who served Heaven, and the mist-shrouded central island was placed that truly excellent individuals might, through personal perfection and attainment of knowledge, reach Heaven through the mortal sphere.
The orcs grew and prospered on the islands, but found that for all their numbers they could not fill them all. And so Tan-Benara, a descendant of Tan-Janarat, petitioned heaven to bring one of the lesser peoples of the land below up to the islands, that the orcs might share their prosperity with them. And so the elves came to the islands, brought by the will of Heaven up from the forests the islands passed over during the building season.
The elves grew and prospered under the guidance of the orcs, though in harder times when resources were scarce the two species made war on each other. But as time passed the emperors noted that some of the islands still held no grand cities or great centers of culture and learning, and the empress Yen-Atan – for the Mandate of Heaven had left the Tan during one of the early wars with the elves – petitioned the Bureaucracy to bring up from the surface those whose minds were most worthy and whose hearts were most oriented to learning and peace. And so the gnomes came to inhabit the smaller islands, and built their great libraries and monuments to artistry and design.
Centuries more passed, and though the elves and orcs still feuded for resources in hard times, the gnomes were careful and planned long, riding out scarcity and keeping themselves safely outside the politics of the larger species, for their islands had too little to be worth the price of their fierce resistance. And so it came about that after the last of the orc-elf wars, a great period of prosperity began. And the emperor Mok-Enetal, who had received the Mandate of Heaven as the war came to a close and still remembered its horrors, petitioned the Great Emperor to bring forth from the surface the species most greatly in need of aid and guidance, that the Celestial Kingdom might give them safe harbor.
And so the humans came to the islands. But they were ungrateful, and despised those who had raised them up from the horrors of the world below. A series of foolish rebellions ended with the first great human settlements destroyed and humanity scattered across the islands, their great benefactors the Mok having lost the Mandate. The Tan rose to prominence once more, and have kept human populations in the islands of the Celestial Kingdom tightly controlled ever since.
The orcs are large, strong, and sturdy, and their view of the universe leads them naturally to the assumption that they are meant to rule and guide the lesser species with whom they share their home – though violent resistance to this idea has led most of them to accept suggestion and gentle, indirect pressure as their preferred method of guidance, rather than direct rulership. Nonetheless, each new dynasty inevitably tries to assert direct power over the elves and gnomes, leading to a remarkable amount of outside support for the status quo in the Celestial Kingdom.
While some amongst the elves – chiefly those who live nearest to the Celestial Kingdom – adopt the Orcish theory of Divine Will, most are of a much more deterministic bent, and believe the four races came to the isles by their own choice.
Once, they say, the islands floated emptily through the sky. Indeed, they believe that there are many other such islands scattered throughout the skies of the world, and expeditions often leave in search of them. But mighty beings of lightning and mist, whom the elves call Kashali reached up and pulled the islands down, forging great chains that held them close to the ground. They used the islands as breeding grounds for their livestock and open land for crops, safe from raiders on the ground. Those tasked with tending the animals and farms lived on the great central island, and the mist that shrouds it is all that remains of their mortal forms.
In this distant past the orcs, elves, gnomes and even humans lived in cities on the surface, peaceful and prosperous. But they lived in fear of the terrible creatures who had chained the islands, and who might snuff out an entire city on a whim. There came a time when the Kashali warred against each other, and the cities of the four peoples were caught in the conflict and left in ruins. With all four races facing extinction, they banded together, and concocted a desperate plan: they would steal the islands the Kashali had chained to the earth.
Distracted by their war, the Kashali did not notice as elves, orcs, gnomes and humans made their way up the broad links of the islands’ chains and began to quickly form communities, as the mightiest warriors and sorcerers of each race worked to break the chains and set the islands to flying once more. Here the story becomes less clear: each Elven nation has, of course, an official version, in which the founder or some great ancestor of the nation found the method to break the chains. Some versions suggest a joint effort by orcs and elves was responsible, while other suggest the gnomes, with their great talent for earth shaping, simply detached the sections of the islands the chains were anchored in. Perhaps strangest of all is the version, believed mostly by fringe communities of historians and theoretical sorcerers, that the dwarves were responsible, though exactly how they might have done it is a source of great argument even then.
The ultimate result of this theory is that the elves, more than any of their neighbors, believe in cooperation between the four races of the islands, and that balance and diplomacy are better than war. it has been pointed out (usually by the orcs) that this philosophy keeps the elves from facing superior orcish numbers and weapons, or the deadly star-fueled magic of the gnomes, and allows the elves to focus on internal conflicts, but the elves dismiss any suggestion that they are making up stories to justify their outlook on life.
From The Stars, Life:
The Gnomes have perhaps the strangest prevailing theory, for even the Orcish belief in the divine will of Heaven assumes that all the peoples of the islands are native to the world at large. The gnomes, on the other hand, believe that all four races come from the same, astral origin.
On the great central island, so they believe, lie the blindingly brilliant remnants of a dying star; as it crashed through the heavens towards the world it began to shed its energy in great waves, trying to temper the damage its impact would cause – and from this idea can be understood that the gnomes believe the stars to be both alive and capable of thought and feeling. The first shuddering waves of energy formed the islands in the sky, dispersing most of the star’s physical body. Next the life-energy of the star radiated outwards, forming first orcs, then humans, then elves, and at last the gnomes, as well as the myriad animals and plants that would support them. Finally, the soul of the star, the fiery essence that allowed it to traverse the darkness beyond the worlds, crashed into the central island and drew around it a great shroud of mist, so that the brilliance of its form would not harm its creations.
While the theory seems to most non-gnomes to be as implausible as anything could be, only the bravest of the brave are willing to say so to the gnomes, who possess a tremendous mastery over star-fueled magic and are the deadliest night-time fighters of the islands. Some of the gnomes believe it is the duty of their species to free their creator star, and subject themselves to tremendous magical power in an effort to make themselves strong enough to survive the star’s radiance and return it to the void. These greater gnomes are almost entirely immune to magic and can wreak fiery havoc with a glance – or so the rumors go, for they almost never seen outside their warded compounds. Even other gnomes are uncomfortable around them, though for the most part this is due to their anti-social and domineering natures, which are at odds with the gnomes deeply democratic and social society.
The humans of the islands believe, quite understandably, that it is not their natural place to serve other species. They believe, in fact, that once they ruled over all of them, in a glorious kingdom on the surface, where mighty human armies kept a vast, well-ordered empire safe from harm, even for those who refused to contribute to its defense – here, of course, they mean the elves, orcs and gnomes who they so generously allowed to live under human rule.
They claim that the other species, jealous of human greatness, tried to call down powerful creatures of the planes to serve them, that they might carve out their own great empires. Lacking the natural human will to dominate and the great discipline of human enchanters, they lost control of these creatures, who laid waste to the great human empire. As a a last ditch effort, the human emperor sacrificed himself and his bloodline, and in so doing cast a great spell of a creation that forged the floating islands and transported the survivors of the empire’s fall to live upon them.
Some of the more objective elven scholars note the similarity in description between some of these creatures and the elven stories of the Kashali, but are otherwise dismissive of the theory. The orcs accuse the humans of warping Orcish records of the great Celestial Emperors to create their own origin story. The gnomes note that human enchanters do have a great innate talent for domination magic and controlling summoned creatures – but they insist this is simply because they were born from the part of the falling star which guided it through the void, and any claim of great surface empires of any species is utter nonsense (the gnomes have notoriously poor relations with the dwarves and lizardfolk).
The humans, in short, are alone in believing they should be ruling anything, but this belief keeps human rebellions against governments of the elves and orcs a common concern. When rebellions do begin, it is frequently under the lead of an enchanter, leading to serious questions about how willing most of the rebels were to participate – but both orcs and elves usually err on the side of executing all the rebels they can catch.