"It seems the most natural thing in the world is to have faith, be it the herbivore who longs for a loving protector, or the carnivore who one day looks down at her bloody hands and says 'I am more than this.'" – The Holy Kyhadib, Wisdom 9:1
The most common faith among the hyenas of Tarquesh is known in Etrusean as al-Tafid (roughly "the devotion") or simply Tafid*, with priestesses sometimes taking the surname Abd al-Tafid. Adherents of the main sect are referred to as Shamonic or Shamonist.
Tarquesh divides roughly into Northern, Central and Southern areas: the North has great arid plains and mighty mountains, the southmost shielding verdant valleys, which form a natural border, protecting the rest of Tarquesh from the worst of the effects of the Namir desert to the North while being low enough in places to allow boulders of volcanic Levistone to drift further south.
The North and parts of the Centre depend heavily on underground water supplies liberated by the ground shock of the Nemesis comet impact, drawing their supplies from cenotes, wells and caverns which often have great religious significance to the communities that depend on them.
The Centre and South are also arid, with grasslands in the East and savannah in large areas of the Centre and South, providing excellent hunting grounds for early Tarqueshi packs. The mighty twin rivers, Kijah and Khoha, wind South across the state, leaving a trail of fertile land along their floodplains as they go, providing food for non-carnivores and grazing land for cattle. In modern times, gigantic irrigation projects have allowed a huge expansion of farmland in the Centre and South, and two massive dams control the flow of the Kijah and Khoha to prevent drought-related famine, which the people of Tarquesh count themselves as lucky to have never experienced to any serious degree. The ancient capital Naqareya straddles the Kijah river, while the modern capital Sarib is at the mouth of the Khoha on the coast.
Far to the west is the range of mountains the Tarqueshi refer to as the Western Wall, which divides the Jalath Desert of Tarquesh from temperate Doras and Lis. The Jalath Desert, in the rain shadow of the Western Wall, is easily the most inhospitable part of the country, only crossed by bold hunters seeking feral elk, prized as a delicacy in Tarquesh, on the Lisian side of the mountains. Such hunting parties would typically kidnap any Lisians who discovered them to avoid direct conflict with local authorities, and incorporate the rabbits into their families as best they could: this led to Tarquesh's population of Lisians, and to explicit Lisian fiction about Tarqueshi wanting them for their "harems," which the Tarqueshi consider equal parts charming and ridiculous.
Modern Tarquesh incorporates all states south of the Namir Desert, east of the Western Wall, and west of where Namir meets the sea. Formerly there were a number of independent states east of Tarquesh including Jasua and Ruel, all of which were gradually annexed by their larger neighbour.
Tarquesh is home to a great variety of wildlife, with a phenomenal diversity of mammals, birds, reptiles, arthropods (including a frankly unnecessary diversity of scorpions), Hawkinsae (including the 12-foot Eastern Black Scorpion, one of two non-bipedal Hawkinsae regarded as sentient) and synapsids, the latter cousins of the bipedal sentients of Doras. These form a diverse group from massive lumbering herbivores, some weighing almost a hundred tons, to swift, agile predators. 18-foot tall elephants are the largest mammals of Tarquesh, and are the among the prey of perhaps the most spectacular species native to the country, a creature whose name roughly translates as "Lady of the Wastes."
These enormous creatures resemble featherless therapod dinosaurs and can weigh up to 45 tons. They have a tigerstripe body pattern, and distinctive curved quills extending from the backs of their heads. They are heavily adapted for hunting even in fierce sandstorms,: they are pack hunters, generally not aggressive towards bipeds unless either starving or a young up-and-coming Alpha trying to replace an existing one by impressing her pack, which generally leads to them attacking structures over people and often to the existing Alpha interceding.** If taken young they can actually be trained, though they will always regard themselves as dominant to their trainer and take any commands as suggestions.
"Tarqueshi" is often used by foreigners to refer to the entire population, but in their own language only refers to the four species of all-female hyenas who form the largest species group, at 49% of the total modern population. The second largest population is zebras at 21% (mostly descended from Garamese slaves bought from the Continent by Tarqueshi traders who thought they were paying bride price for them, since Tarquesh has never had any concept of slavery), followed by jackals, Alun, big cat species, Lisians and Dorans, with many coastal cities having small populations of other Continental species such as raccoons and foxes.
The majority of Northern Tarqueshi are striped hyenas, as opposed to a mix of the four in the Centre and a majority of spotted hyenas in the South. While the four sentient hyena species are incapable of interbreeding, they have historically never been at odds with one another on a species basis, with all Tarqueshi conflicts being political in nature. Indeed, due to modified predatory reflexes related to zebras, spotted hyenas find striped hyenas exceptionally desirable and beautiful.
The Old Way
Like most modern faiths, Tafid has distant roots in ancient attempts to explain the impact of Nemesis eighteen thousand years ago. Tarquesh is the closest nation to the impact point that survived, and is believed to have had close ties with Mir, the empire that was annihilated when the comet fell. Like Eastern Garam, Northern Tarquesh also experiences the dreaded "Hollow Wind," deadly seasonal dust storms that carry toxic and radioactive particles from the depths of the Namir Desert.
The first form of the religion that would become Tafid is found in the teachings of an enigmatic figure simply referred to as the Prophet, said to be a wandering traveller in a robe that completely covered her body who would appear in remote towns and villages to offer wisdom. As is common for important Tarqueshi figures, almost no information exists about the Prophet: secular historians and even many moderate Tafidic priestesses believe that the singular figure called the Prophet is an amalgamation of the teachings of many Tarqueshi throughout their early history, while the more devout followers of Tafid take the Prophet's claim of being granted immortality by the Whisperer at face value rather than as a metaphor. The Prophet is usually shown as a tall figure in a traditional Tarqueshi robe with a hood drawn over her muzzle. Older depictions show a plain white robe, while modern depictions tend to show the Prophet in a black robe with gold embroidery, sometimes with a sword at her side representing courage or a golden staff in her hand representing wisdom.
Central to all forms of Tafid dating right back to these times is the Law, a set of codes which govern how a follower must behave and a general outline of the necessary acts of worship. Followers are called upon to be righteous, truthful, modest in both manner and dress, forgiving and calm in their dealings with others, to refrain from evil actions and excess, to be charitable and help the needy, to be earnest in their prayers and devout in their worship, and to be ready to defend the faith if need be.
Tafidic worship has always been more loosely organised than the strictly ordered services of Aludran Svezd, with much less administrative power in the central church structure and local priestesses given a lot of leeway in how they conduct prayers and other services. Songs, dance and music are common elements, with the priestess often conversing with her congregation rather than preaching to them.
The Prophet's teachings were handed down orally for centuries before being collected together, slowly gathering support over local pagan practices, and those that formed the book that became known as the Dashid (from "da'ishid," roughly "(the) true sayings") were compiled by the priestesses of the Royal Temple in Naqareya, which, though originally a pagan shrine, had become a nexus of Tafidic worship. The central theme is the Prophet's claims of meeting a being she called the Whisperer during her travels in the deserts of Northern Tarquesh, the teachings of this being, and her own thoughts on what the Whisperer taught her.
Understanding the Dashid is not a simple matter of opening the book and reading: there are many companion texts and commentaries that explain the historical context of specific verses and teachings, often greatly altering what might be drawn from the plain word alone. "Dashid-only" understanding of Tafid is regarded as a form of foolishness, and such interpretations have never been taken seriously by Tarqueshi scholars.
The Dashid is written in an archaic form of the Naqareyan dialect, with translating it directly thought of as disrespectful: instead, it is read to or chanted by the faithful in the original language, followed by the priestess explaining the meaning of the passage. Like the Aludran Kyhadib, a copy of the Dashid is treated with great respect, usually kept on a special wooden frame and only opened after bathing the whole body and cleaning the hands. A small cloth embroidered with a declaration of faith is used to turn the pages and used as a bookmark if need be: nothing else may be placed within the book except one's faith. The commentaries and companion documents are kept on lower rungs of the frame that holds the Dashid, symbolising their lesser status, and are usually modern translations.
For a long time after the invention of movable type, mechanical reproduction of the Dashid was forbidden as it was felt to cheapen the book, but eventually there came about a school of thought that a "disposable Dashid" for soldiers and those in other dangerous professions to draw faith from was preferable to losing priceless family copies of the text with storied histories. Copies used by temples must still be handwritten: it is generally preferred that the priestess reads from a copy she made herself.
Verses from the Dashid are often copied out and used as decorations in the homes of the faithful, from the declaration of harim which usually adorns the entryway to small blessings placed in individual rooms. Civic buildings almost always have a verse appropriate to their function carved above the entrance.
The Whisperer is the figure of good in Tafidic lore and the patron Goddess of Tarqueshi. She is described by the Prophet as a beautiful hyena without markings, who glows a soft blue and has an ethereal elegance, but in line with Tarqueshi tradition she is only visually depicted as a stylised glyph or a ball of blue light.
Unusually, she is the weaker of the two main figures in Tafid, more reminiscent of a fairy than a Goddess, but though her powers are limited, her kindness and capacity for good is boundless. In the earliest forms of Tafid she was thought to have once had far greater influence over the mortal world, which ebbed away as the Voice of the Desert became proud and powerful.
The Whisperer's teachings included showing the Prophet the way to her realm, Paradise, through the following of the Law. No actual Tafidic teaching requires that the Whisperer be honoured through prayer: most scholars accept that this was simply modesty on the part of the Holy Goddess, and that doing so anyway is part of keeping the faith. Traditionally, the Whisperer is honoured three times a day: once after waking but before working in private, once at midday in public, and once in the evening with one's family or at a temple.
One key teaching of the Whisperer is that Tarqueshi are to seek knowledge and understanding of the world: the Dashid states that through the act of understanding, order is imposed upon the world. In some early texts not incorporated into the Dashid but valued by early forms of Tafid, the Whisperer states she has scattered knowledge across the greatness of the world so that the Voice of the Desert could not claim it; this is thought to have inspired early explorers such as Nasim and Yamina of Tarquesh, who charted the Continental coastline and the Strait of Huron in the Aludran year -4,471***, opening up trade with the Continent, and Simah of Tarquesh, who discovered the island of Mirrai in -4,291.
Another particularly important teaching is that the Whisperer's blessing to the faithful creates sacred places (harim) which evil spirits cannot enter unless invited by an adult of sound mind. The inside of one's home is held to be such a place, as are temples and libraries. Most modern sects accept the Southern reading, popular with traders, that states that the presence of a single believer is enough to make even an unbeliever's home a safe place.
The symbol of the Whisperer's blessing, as well as the symbol of Tafidic faith itself, is a golden circle divided into sectors: how many and what they represent depends on the precise sect, but it is always an even number and never less than eight. The symbol is often worn as a pendant, and one with sixteen segments (representing the Sixteen Steps to Paradise) is shown above crossed scimitars on the flag of Tarquesh. In modern Shamonic Tafid, the symbol is held to represent the soul.
The Voice of the Desert
The Voice is the most powerful entity in Tafidic lore, a formless, boundless and mighty being of pure evil that loathes order and all living things. Though all but omnipotent, the creature is virtually mindless, feeling only animal rage: only those spirits that serve it have any measure of true intellect.
These spirits are said to emerge from a lake of blood in the middle of the Namir Desert called The Cauldron, the source of all the world's evil: this is actually the Nemesis impact crater, 19 miles across and half a mile deep, and full of tepid, poisoned water stained red by the comet.
In all versions of Tafid, the Voice seeks Tarqueshi hyenas specifically as part of its attempts to bring suffering and misery to the world. Evil spirits that serve the Voice seek to discover information about the Tarqueshi so they can curse them, and so the Tarqueshi conceal their faces in public and do not give their full names to outsiders (traders often replacing their surname with "of Tarquesh"), or sometimes not giving any part of their name at all. Spirits and the Voice are held to have no sense of smell, while Tarqueshi can recognise each other by scent: this also means concealment does not prevent them identifying the species of another Tarqueshi.
Many of these same traditions, with different justifications, also exist in Eastern Garam, leading to some speculation that the two nations were once one, joined by an expanse now swallowed by the Namir Desert.
The Path to Paradise
This crucial part of Tafid, today called the Shamon Text but originally known as the Path to Paradise, is an account by the Prophet of her meeting with the Whisperer during a ferocious sandstorm in the trackless North, during which the Whisperer saved the Prophet's life by showing her the hidden path to her domain, Paradise, which the Prophet describes in detail so others may follow.
The importance of the text was not recognised for centuries, as it was among many ancient texts archived in the Grand Library of the capital, Naqareya, and awaiting translation. The messages regarding the Path to Paradise in Tafidic lore were instead taken from other ancient writings derived from the Shamon Text, such as the Song of Paradise and the Sixteen Steps to Paradise.
In -3,767, a great fire tore through Naqareya, and despite the best efforts of the Royal Guards reached the Grand Library, destroying many irreplaceable texts in its collection. A large part of the Shamon Text was among those lost.
As the Library's remaining collection was inventoried in the aftermath, it was realised that the Shamon Text was a lost writing of the Prophet herself, and great priority was placed on its translation. While this revealed little that was not already known, it was quickly added to the canon of the Dashid.
The last section that could be read was a statement by the Whisperer, always translated as "I no longer have the power to create anything." This was read as a mournful reiteration of her statements elsewhere in the canon that she is powerless to help the Tarqueshi directly.
Then in -2,233, everything changed.
The Lost Words
According to the most commonly told story, in -2,233, a young striped hyena scholar in the coastal trading port of Sarib, Laleh al-Shamon (her name is known due to the Tarqueshi tradition of priestesses telling their real name to their congregations, and is usually suffixed "blessed be her name," originally to protect her), was clearing out an old archive when she discovered a sealed box made of "strange metal" hidden behind a false wall panel. Alternate sources for the box have been given over the years, including exploration of a shipwreck off the Southern coast some months earlier, but Tafidic scholars point to flaws in the details of these as reason to reject them. The mysterious box itself, thought to be an ancient Mirish artifact, is said to be in the possession of the modern Royal Family and is not shown to outsiders, meaning it cannot be confirmed that it actually exists. However, it is very clear what al-Shamon discovered that day.
What she found was a second copy of the Path to Paradise, the Shamon Text, undamaged by fire. Al-Shamon excitedly translated it to compare to her copy of the Dashid, noting a few corrections to fire-damaged portions as she went. But the greatest shock awaited her when she discovered that her copy included the remainder of the text.
The Shamon Text revealed a very different story: the true section of text where the original document ended reads "I never had the power to create anything" and is followed by a confession by the Whisperer: she lied to the Prophet about her own status and that of the Tarqueshi. She then describes the truth.
The Whisperer herself is described in the text not as a rival creator, but as the first creation of the Voice. Unable to create another being truly evil like itself, the Voice instead inadvertently created a creature of good from the fractions of the world that were not encompassed by it. The Whisperer admits she had no idea why she was created or if there even was a reason, for as soon as she saw the formless chaos that was her creator she fled in horror.
The Whisperer found she could add a single thing each time the Voice created something, and used this to subvert its will. Each act of destruction was transformed into an act of creation, to the fury of the Voice, and soon the world it intended to be shrouded in cold and darkness was filled with warmth and life. This is described by the Whisperer:
"In every curse I placed a blessing, if only the ability to learn from it, and in even the bitterest fruit I placed a seed."
The Tarqueshi were created out of pure evil by the Voice as its soldiers, to scour the rest of the world clean of life. As beings formed thusly rather than accidentally, their nature as beings of darkness is revealed by the way light is reflected out of their eyes at night, showing there can be no light in them.**** Seeing this, the Whisperer reached out and gave souls to them.
With the capacity for love and kindness placed within them, the Tarqueshi rebelled against their creator and fled from its presence. A section of the text involves the Whisperer describing her first meeting with the Tarqueshi in a cave in the Northern mountains, the Goddess convincing the confused and angry creatures that she could help them to find safety and happiness if only they would listen to her words over the bellowing of their creator, a fearful sound that echoed even here.*****
When the Voice first desired to hunt down the Tarqueshi, it created the Ladies of the Wastes, which the text describes as arch-demons. But the Whisperer made them vain, knowing only the Tarqueshi could flatter them. When it created the spirits of disease to weaken their resolve, the Voice gave each one the possibility of a cure. On and on through the centuries, she would tilt the scales just enough to give them a chance at happiness.
But more than any of those things, she taught the first Tarqueshi the Law, and with it, the path and the key to the domain where she was originally born, Paradise, the only place in all creation where the servants of the Voice cannot go. Through the Law, the Tarqueshi gained the power to manifest a measure of the same protection in their own homes. Allowing them to know the path to her sacred home finally convinced the Tarqueshi that she truly loved them, and they accepted her as their patron Goddess.
The Shamonic Writings
Laleh al-Shamon found herself being questioned as to her understanding of the text she discovered by priestesses of every major temple in the Sarib territory. Though a shy woman not used to public speaking, she rose to the occasion, writing commentaries and giving sermons that led to her being hailed as one of the Prophet's greatest servants.
Al-Shamon re-framed the existing canon in light of the Shamon Text, stating that while the Whisperer wishes to lead all Tarqueshi to Paradise, she must be certain they have overcome their evil nature, and that is why Tarqueshi must follow the Law.
The Voice seeks to reclaim its army by tempting the Tarqueshi to abandon their souls and embrace their dark nature. There is an implication in the Shamon Text that while submitting completely to the Voice is an act that will annihilate a Tarqueshi's soul and leave what remains to wander the wastes of Tarquesh forever as an evil spirit, feigning acceptance to draw on the Voice's power can achieve good ends.******
Al-Shamon also wrote commentaries on faith by non-Tarqueshi, as Sarib had many foreign species and Southern Tarquesh already had a large population of Garamese zebras. She drew on accounts from a recently arrived religious scholar from Garam to draw up ideas of how species that were not given souls by the Whisperer might still give thanks to her for the souls of their friends and loved ones. She agreed with many prior priestesses that non-hyenas need not hide their identity and could wear indoor clothing anywhere, and that by following the Law, they could join their loved ones in Paradise.
The War of the Faithful
When word of this reached them, Tafidic scholars in Naqareya were horrified and declared the Shamon Text to be a forgery, proclaiming that its teachings rendered the Tarqueshi "less than beasts," and comparing the Shamonic teachings with brutal cultist movements revering the Voice that the Dashid claims existed in Tarquesh's ancient history. They demanded that the Temple of Sarib destroy the Shamon Text and execute Laleh al-Shamon for "gravest heresy."
The ruler of Sarib at the time, a Shamonic convert only ever called "The Believer" in modern records, refused. When a proclamation arrived repeating the Royal Temple's demand and bearing the seal of the Queen of Naqareya herself, The Believer responded by declaring herself Queen of Sarib and having Sarib's standing army swear loyalty only to her. In response, the Queen of Naqareya declared war on "Sarib and all unbelievers."
The civil war that followed, known to modern historians as the War of the Faithful, raged for 22 years and incorporated numerous other factions. As the war proceeded, the professional army of Sarib acquired a reputation not merely for ferocity, but also for being disciplined and merciful; even accounts from scholars in defeated cities speak of the silent, calm soldiers who refused to engage in looting or harm the innocent.
As an affluent trading port, Sarib also made use of many foreign mercenaries, and their exports of spices, textiles and gemstones kept a constant supply of wealth flowing in to support their war effort. Sarib's powerful navy enabled them to regularly blockade the mouth of the Kijah River and several fierce naval battles were fought there over the course of the war as Naqareya struggled to secure a route up the river for supplies. The city often experienced shortages of imported goods, and since the Kijah runs shallow in several places, they were occasionally forced to send forces to defend trading ships that ran aground, carrying supplies that would normally be transported overland from Sarib.
The battles rapidly increased in scale and ferocity, and it quickly became clear that many states in the South had greater sympathy for their neighbour Sarib, the nexus of local trade, politics and religion, than they had for the distant government in Naqareya. The Queen of Naqareya's demands for levies of troops from the South and drastically increased taxes only exacerbated this further, and soon many Southern cities were drawn to Sarib's banner.
The New Temples
As Sarib's territory grew and their preachers travelled far and wide to spread the new faith, many converts made pilgrimages to the city to worship at the Temple where the True Word had been revealed. Many times, the faithful found the Temple full to overflowing, and simply stood in the square around it, heads bowed in silent reverence.
The Queen found this unacceptable, and in spite of the needs of the war ordered the temple be rebuilt on a scale that surpassed even the Royal Temple of Naqareya. In -2,221 the new Temple of Sarib was completed, taking advantage of all that the Tarqueshi had learned over the hundreds of years the original Temple had stood. The new structure's enormous gold-plated dome was intended to be a "beacon of faith" clearly visible to ships entering the docks, with the cavernous, intricately decorated interior envisioned as a representation of Paradise to inspire the devout. Laleh al-Shamon gave the first sermon, her shyness now replaced with the fiery passion of a true believer.
The faithful returned to their homes with stories of the otherworldy grandeur of the Temple of Sarib, and many of the temples built in the austere style typical of earlier Tafidic worship were remodelled or even outright demolished to make way for similarly grand structures: the Queen of Sarib assisted in funding these new structures from her own treasury. Following the collapse of the partially-completed dome of Dharbah Temple in the city of Jalesh which killed sixty workers, she also allowed architectural secrets that had previously been jealously guarded to be spread to her subjects to ensure the new temples were as strong as they were grand.
The War Continues
The explosive spread of Shamonic faith in the South led to Central preachers calling their people to arms to defend their faith, and followers of traditional Tafid found themselves embattled everywhere. The heretical movement had become a threat to their sect's very survival, and they fought back ferociously. Though almost certainly an exaggeration, it is said that during the final hours of the Battle of Jasab, eight thousand Jasabi soldiers died on the steps of the Temple, obeying to the last their Governess' order not to allow the heretics to defile it.
Allied armies were often formed of less disciplined conscripts rather than volunteers, and a number of atrocities are recorded during this period, including the slaughter of the priestesses of Riyasa Temple and the sacking of Cairib. The Queen of Sarib dealt ruthlessly with the perpetrators with almost all being executed. She publicly denounced them as servants of evil, and forbade conscription throughout her territory. Her strategists drew up plans to extend Sarib's rigorous military training to all of the lands loyal to the Queen, and for six months the army of Sarib fought alone as their allies retrained their troops and rooted out potential troublemakers.
The depleted forces of Sarib weathered several defeats during this period, but the Queen of Sarib refused to alter her stance on conscription, relying on the brilliance of her generals to hold the line until their allies arrived. This period also marked the heaviest use of foreign mercenaries by the Southern forces.
Dubious actions not involving conscripted soldiers, specifically the firebombing of the fortified city of Talabad by Leviships from their old foe al-Qarim, were treated far more leniently, most likely because Sarib simply could not afford to lose the support of the powerful al-Qarim aerial fleet. This action led to a centuries-long feud between Talabad and Sarib.
Al-Qarim's aerial fleet proved vital in defeating the Air Navy of the Principality of Jasua when the latter attempted to intercede in the war, and paratroops deployed from al-Qarim's highest-flying Leviships were instrumental in breaking the Siege of Jaqbah in -2,218.
These Leviships were of a relatively simple design: since they predated the Basran alchemist Miguel di Fortuna's work on heating Levistone, they simply used steel anchor bolts to attach the hull to a rounded-off Levistone boulder. By this point in time, Leviships typically either had two lines of smaller boulders or a single central line with smaller rocks on outrigger arms to reduce their tendency to roll. Their cruising altitude depended on the purity and size of the boulders used in their construction, with this only altering depending on ambient heat: at the time, it was thought that Levistone was affected by the time of day and season rather than the temperature. They also had no real way to move without wind in their sails: while they could be pulled along by teams of soldiers, horses, cattle or elephants, this was not an effective way for a Leviship to enter combat.
Combat began to bog down for the Southern forces in -2,217 as the Central states staged a stiff counter-offensive, retaking several cities in bloody battles and leaving the war at a stalemate. The battle lines ebbed and flowed over the months that followed, with gains by the two sides quickly reversed or proving inconsequential. There is some evidence that the Queen of Naqareya's advisors attempted to persuade her to sue for peace during this period, but the ageing Queen declined, saying the war would not end until every last heretic lay dead and Sarib had been razed to the ground.
The Northern Army
In -2,216, the conflict reached the attention of the governesses of the fortress-cities far to the North. These massive and ancient fortresses had long guarded the herds and the very lives of nomads within their dominions, acting as shelters when the Hollow Wind blew, and were known for their peerless archery and fierce horse cavalry*******. They followed a version of Tafid that retained many ancient customs and local spirits, particularly those connected to water sources, and generally considered themselves above the petty disputes of the South.
It is generally believed that this changed when merchant converts to the Shamonic faith visited the vast fortress of al-Habalah, site of the greatest of the Northern shrines. An ancient myth re-interpreted in light of Tafidic lore held that al-Habalah was built on the site where the Whisperer empowered the Prophet to throw a rope around the prideful sun and pull it to the ground, creating the night to save her people a dreadful death from the heat, the distant impact drawing water from the very rocks to sustain them. While this was no longer taken particularly seriously, the Shrine of the Sacred Waters at al-Habalah was a crucial part of local tradition and the site of pilgrimages from every other Northern city.
Used to thinly-veiled allegations of heresy from the Royal Temple of Naqareya for their reverence toward their patron spirit, She of the Waters, the priestesses of al-Habalah were quite happy to listen to fellow heretics and found themselves intrigued. They prayed to the Whisperer and She of the Waters to seek their guidance, and poured over the Shamonic manuscripts presented to them.
Al-Habalah sent a messenger on a dangerous journey south to meet with the Queen of Sarib and speak with Laleh al-Shamon to find out her opinion of She of the Waters and the other Northern spirits. Though it was months before the messenger returned, her answer was affirmative: al-Shamon believed that such entities were well within the scope of creation, explaining that they had probably never been mentioned in the Southern writings because the Whisperer worried about spreading knowledge of them too far.
Pleased with this, the priestesses of al-Habalah petitioned their Governess to support the movement in the South, and with the support of the priestesses of She of the Waters, the Governess soon drew up an army of troops from most of the Northern fortresses.
The Battle of Naqareya
Forces from the remaining Central city-states did their best to prevent the Northern Army's relentless advance, and while the Northern forces spent years trying to break through, they were eventually turned east, preventing the threatened encirclement of Naqareya. The traditionalist generals were horrified when this apparent defeat spurred the Northern Army on, an advance force including war elephants and at least two Leviships forging a path through the fortified pass at Ahanz Valley and allowing them to join with the Army of Sarib. The result is usually referred to by historians as the Grand Army of Sarib.
The Grand Army's sheer size allowed for commitments of enormous forces, the cities south of Naqareya falling one by one as the Queen of Sarib dismantled her enemy's lines in detail. Soon nothing stood between them and the capital.
In early -2,211 the Grand Army of Sarib marched on Naqareya with a force of some 250,000 soldiers, at the time, the largest single military deployment in history********. They found the city extensively fortified, with all remaining loyalist forces arranged to meet them: a force still less than half the size of the Grand Army.
The calm winds during their march had prevented their supporting Leviships from keeping pace with them, and with this weather continuing, the Grand Army made camp. They waited two days for the Leviships to arrive, during which the wind died off still further to a flat calm. At midnight on the second day, the Grand Army suddenly broke camp and began to form up, attacking shortly afterwards.
The Battle of Naqareya raged for three days, with the Shamonic forces winning a bloody victory. The Grand Army's Leviships finally arrived on the third day when the wind picked up, engaging the Naqareyan aerial fleet to force them to leave their moorings along the outer wall. Prior to this, they had been raining arrows on the attackers with impunity.
The Siege of Naqareya that followed lasted for a month before the fortified city finally surrendered as food supplies ran low, Naqareya 's massive batteries of ballistae repeatedly preventing the Grand Army's Leviships from deploying paratroops to break the siege.
Civilians cowered in the Royal Temple praying for the Whisperer to save them as the blooded soldiers of the Grand Army surrounded the structure. What happened next was recorded by the High Priestess:
"...she stepped forward, a youthful Saribi soldier of moderate office, and pulled down her hood to address us - a deeply respectful gesture a commoner would offer one of far higher birth in the South, so I am told - and presently unfurled a scroll. 'Citizens of Naqareya!' she called out, in a voice that struck me as already well-practiced at command, 'Her Merciful Highness, the Queen of Sarib, proclaims this message to you. Your sins are forgiven, and you shall not be harmed. This is all.'"
Such a display of mercy from the followers of evil baffled the priestesses of Naqareya, more so when the invaders bought great shipments of food through the city gates. Live animals were slaughtered before the eyes of the people, to ensure they did not believe the Queen intended to poison them or feed them with the bodies of their dead.
This was troubling, and the priestesses and the Queen of Naqareya and her court, in hiding within the Temple, deliberated: it was obvious this was intended to send a message, but as days turned to weeks and the anticipated massacre never came, their arguments of being lulled into a false sense of security rang hollow even to their own ears.
Finally, a month after her city fell, the twenty-year-old Queen of Naqareya, recent inheritor of the war from her mother, stepped out of the Royal Temple and identified herself to the invaders, fully expecting that she, at least, would be put to death. Famously, her most beloved concubine, an aardwolf named Aliya, refused to leave her side, holding her Queen's arm as she walked out to face her fate.
The same young captain who had spoken before was called, and unfurled another scroll: what followed recorded by Aliya:
"...She was clean this time, no longer a fearful apparition fresh from battle with blood staining her muzzle and teeth. Her torn and battered uniform was replaced with one polished and new, fresh as though she was ready for presentation to her own Queen. And she stood with a sense of measured pride I found oddly comforting: no longer did she haul a weary body to attention through sheer force of will, yet she also did not radiate arrogance in her stance as the Captain of my Queen's guard so often had. She spoke without due deference, but also without mockery, 'Ruler of Naqareya, Her Highness the Queen of Sarib in her mercy offers you this pact of understanding. Her Highness' request is that you renounce the persecution of those who follow the torch held high by the Servant al-Shamon, blessed be her name, and that you accept her authority over this union which we call Tarquesh. In return, no harm or humiliation shall come to your person or those close to you, and you shall be granted a title of lesser but still grand status to rule over this city.' She closed the scroll without mention of consequence for refusal, and awaited an answer."
"'I am told' my beloved and noble Queen said, 'That you are true to your word. I request an audience with your Queen to discover what this title is.'"
And the Sarabi soldier bowed as she would to a superior, raised her hood, and declared "It shall be so."
There is some evidence that supports the idea that the Queen of Sarib had heard from spies that her opponent was not the woman who had originally declared war against Sarib, explaining the young Queen's extremely lenient treatment. She was granted the title of High Governess of Naqareya and even allowed to retain her anonymity, a very rare concession for the ruler of a conquered city.
In late -2,211, after months of careful negotiations, the Queen of Sarib was crowned as Queen of Tarquesh and the Royal Temple of Naqareya accepted the Shamon Text as canonical, in exchange for the Queen allowing traditional worship and ceremonies to continue there. Over the next 40 years Shamonic teachings slowly took primacy even in Naqareya, and in -2,159 the Royal Temple was reworked in the majestic style of the Southern temples.
Not all temples in the North, where foreign species are less common, agreed with al-Shamon's idea that non-hyenas did not need to cover themselves, either regarding doing so as a matter of simple decency, or requiring those kindred species with reflective eyes to cover themselves so that the Voice would not recognise them as it's other soldiers. Conservative non-Tarqueshi families will also often abide by the clothing codes, feeling that not doing so is disrespectful or marks them out as foreigners*********.
Many of the mercenaries who had fought bravely for Sarib were offered the chance to remain, and many did, in particular Alun forces who had fought ferociously with their infamous short swords, ancestor of the modern Aludran military machete. This led to Tarquesh having a substantial number of followers of the traditional Aludran faith, Svezd: they were permitted to worship in existing temples, though they soon built their own. Because these Alun missed the reforms after the Aludran War of Unification, Tarquesh's Svezd is a unique sect with significantly different rituals (including the use of Tarqueshi music and dance during services) and some major doctrinal differences (particularly the direct veneration of the Empress as a Goddess in her own right and its lack of the creator-figure Hira). It reconciled with the Central Church of Aludra after Empress Lana dio Alud's visit to Tarquesh in 875, and is regarded as a legitimate form of the faith.
One of these Alun mercenaries is believed to have been the ancestor of a gunmaker named Sabrah Hadid. Hadid was an admirer of the legendary Aliya Hakim, a famed Tarqueshi artisan who had made many ingenious clocks and mechanical toys, and invented the harpsicord. One day Hakim had accepted an old Doran hand-cannon fitted with a simplistic (and broken) matchlock mechanism in trade for making a traditional Tarqueshi puzzle box. Finding the design hopelessly primitive, Hakim spent several years working on her own design and by 193 had created a rifled, breech-loading snaplock musket with a self-operating pan cover, using detachable chambers with pointed brass bullets and with calibrated sights, at a time when the Continent was only just introducing matchlocks. These "Hakim muskets," sometimes called "magic rifles" in Doras and "thousand-yard guns" further west, would be worth their weight in silver outside Tarquesh for several centuries, with their methods of construction a closely guarded secret.
Frustrated at being barred from learning to make the lockwork of the Hakim musket, Sabrah Hadid left Tarquesh in the Aludran year 281 and vanished. "Coincidentally" this was the same year a certain Maria Sabran arrived in Aludra and started producing extremely high-quality rifled matchlocks. During her lifetime, she also invented the world's first revolving musket, the Continent's first practical wheellock action, and a primitive black powder magazine-fed lever-action wheellock rifle which was issued to special troops. She was granted a noble title by the Empress, starting the Sabran line of smallarms makers.
Obviously given over two thousand years of separation, the language spoken by Alun from Tarquesh is very different to that spoken in Aludra, with only a few words in common and an alphabet much closer to the flowing Tarqueshi script. Locally the language is still referred to as Aludran, with the actual language of Aludra referred to as "Continental Aludran."
The Queen of Naqareya's concubine, Aliya, is remembered for her bravery: to be "bold as Aliya" or "loyal as the soul of Aliya" is very high praise.
*"Zhakid" in Aludran.
**The so-called "Battle of al-Sarabi," a duel between a young 45-ton individual and a one-eyed 38-ton Alpha assisted by the staff of the isolated oil refinery attacked by the former, is one of the most famous examples of such an event.
***The Aludran date is counted with 0 as the formation of the Empire with the Acts of Unification. For scale the Battle of Omar is in the Aludran year 874 and the Szakade arrival is in 894. The Tarqueshi modern era begins in the Aludran year -2,233, with Laleh al-Shamon's discovery of the Shamon Text.
****Tarquesh's nearest neighbours are Lis, home to bipedal rabbits who unlike their quadruped cousins do not have reflective membranes in their eyes, and Doras, home to formerly nocturnal synapsids who lost their reflective eyes when they developed infrared-sensing pit organs. The Shamon Text appears to have been written at a time when the only known sentient species with reflective eyes were the Tarqueshi themselves. Since other such species had been discovered further from Tarquesh in the time between the writing and discovery of the Shamon Text, Laleh al-Shamon identified these as sister-creations of the Tarqueshi who fled far away and were forgotten by the Voice. This led to the traditional Southern belief that the Voice has no power outside Tarquesh.
*****Modern scholars believe the sound referred to in this passage is the regular volcanic eruptions deep in the Namir Desert.
******Secular commentators believe this represents Tarqueshi recognition of their powerful feral instincts: like Alun, they are born killers, with 98% able to kill without hesitation. Like big cat species, three of the four species are also prone to using their powerful jaws in melee combat: traditionally, a soldier who removed her hood to do so would be sworn to kill any enemy who had seen her face. Also like big cat species, all four Tarqueshi species have proportionally stronger muscles, though only 1.2 times stronger rather than three times.
Aardwolves have the same capacity for killing as the other three species, but historically tended to serve as scouts, charioteers, cavalry, slingers or archers rather than melee fighters due to being slightly smaller (in modern times averaging 5'6 while the other three species average around 5'10) and having much weaker jaws than their sister-species. Plenty still fought on the front lines in spite of this, and were thought of as very brave for doing so. The first Tarqueshi martial arts appear to have been developed specifically to allow aardwolf soldiers to defend themselves effectively.
*******There are several possibilities for cavalry in Tarquesh: since it is home to many cousins of the lizard-like synapsid bipeds of Doras, it is possible to train monitor lizard-like creatures and creatures resembling ceratopsids to accept a saddle.
********This force is known to have included at least 50,000 cavalry: there is disagreement on whether this is part of or in addition to the figure of 250,000 "soldiers" given by Tarqueshi historians.
*********Zahra's mother is one such person. On the right, she is following the laxer Northern clothing code for decency rather than wearing a traditional robe, requiring the covering of all areas where bare skin would show on any species: namely the mouth, nose and ears. Given the method of reproduction of the all-female species, Tarqueshi tend to view public eating as obscene, similar to the Central Province of Chira eliminating the "O" sound used in other Chiran dialects for being needlessly sexual (though they know where to put it back if they want to be needlessly sexual).