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About Digital Art / Hobbyist Core Member ACBradleyFemale/United Kingdom Recent Activity
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The instrument of freedom (WIP 2)
WIP of the crew of an Aludran militia technical relaxing: this is in the contested Keska Lowlands during Operation Anvil. This is for a comic idea I'm working on of this little family's experiences in that border conflict.

The girl in black is Angelika, a fifteen-year-old, and the other two in the truck are her little sisters Cecylia (13, leaning up) and Zosia (10, fascinated by cute things). The fourth girl is Angelika's girlfriend Klara, who's the same age as her.

Angelika is a gifted violinist who had a bright future ahead of her as a musician until two years before this. Her four mothers were killed when an Etrusean police Sentinel Sabre MRAP opened fire on a pro-Aludra rally in extremely dubious circumstances.

Normally Angelika would have no problem inheriting her family's estate since the age of majority in Aludra is twelve, but it was all in the name of her mother Esme, who only held Etrusean citizenship: while her legal representative did her best, there was just no way for someone to claim to be an adult as an Aludran and claim the estate of an Etrusean.

Left with no more than what they could carry away from their house before it was boarded up, Angelika took a cash-in-hand job at a construction site where the foreman didn't care she was underage as long as she worked, and she ended up raising her two sisters in a tiny apartment above a restaurant. A short time later she rescued an old Challenger pickup truck from a junkyard* and got involved in off-road racing as a way to let out her frustrations with literally every aspect of her life. Then one day, another racer named Klara told her there was a better way to make money, smuggling contraband across the border...

*Aludra has no formal driving qualifications in terms of age or certification, the seller just has joint responsibility for any accidents you get in for three years after the sale, and so they teach you. This close to the border, Etrusea is very loose in enforcing the law on dual citizens because if they aren't it gets used by Aludra as evidence that democracy is oppressive.
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The instrument of freedom (WIP)
Rough sketch of the crew of an Aludran militia technical relaxing: this is in the contested Keska Lowlands during Operation Anvil. This is for a comic idea I'm working on of this little family's experiences in that border conflict.

The girl in black is Angelika, a fifteen-year-old, and the other two in the truck are her little sisters Cecylia (13, leaning up) and Zosia (10, fascinated by cute things). The fourth girl is Angelika's girlfriend Klara, who's the same age as her.

Angelika is a gifted violinist who had a bright future ahead of her as a musician until two years before this. Her four mothers were killed when an Etrusean police Sentinel Sabre MRAP opened fire on a pro-Aludra rally in extremely dubious circumstances.

Normally Angelika would have no problem inheriting her family's estate since the age of majority in Aludra is twelve, but it was all in the name of her mother Esme, who only held Etrusean citizenship: while her legal representative did her best, there was just no way for someone to claim to be an adult as an Aludran and claim the estate of an Etrusean.

Left with no more than what they could carry away from their house before it was boarded up, Angelika took a cash-in-hand job at a construction site where the foreman didn't care she was underage as long as she worked, and she ended up raising her two sisters in a tiny apartment above a restaurant. A short time later she rescued an old Challenger pickup truck from a junkyard* and got involved in off-road racing as a way to let out her frustrations with literally every aspect of her life. Then one day, another racer named Klara told her there was a better way to make money, smuggling contraband across the border...

*Aludra has no formal driving qualifications in terms of age or certification, the seller just has joint responsibility for any accidents you get in for three years after the sale, and so they teach you. This close to the border, Etrusea is very loose in enforcing the law on dual citizens because if they aren't it gets used by Aludra as evidence that democracy is oppressive.
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The instrument of freedom (rough)
Rough sketch of the crew of an Aludran militia technical relaxing: this is in the contested Keska Lowlands during Operation Anvil. More description to come, just getting a version of this up before work.
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Character sketchies
This is 7-year-old Princess Yasemin of Tarquesh (in the middle, with her beloved snek Eri) with her 7'5 tigress bodyguard Zahra and her 5'8 zebra tutor Dalia. Yasemin moved to Aludra after her mother arranged for her to be married to the similarly-tiny Princess Imperial, Jirina dio Alud. On the left is the three right after they moved, on the right is after they got settled. In that one Yasemin's got a little flower behind her ear that her wife gave her earlier in the day, and she's very happy because that means they're married and in love!

Zahra's from a very conservative family in Northern Tarquesh and her mother was always worried about fitting in, hence her always covering her mouth and ears even though non-hyenas don't really need to do that. While this is in part related to modesty, the main reason Tarqueshi do this is religious: they believe the personification of evil in their pantheon, a mindless but incredibly powerful creature called the Voice of the Desert, is always searching for them, and so they conceal their appearances and don't give their real names to outsiders.

The ultimate example of this is Yasemin's mother the Queen, who is only known by her title to anyone outside her immediate family. The inside of one's home is held to be a sacred place (harim) where one is safe from the Voice's influence, hence Yasemin not covering her face around the Imperial Palace after she started to feel safe there: Dalia suggested it, so she wouldn't feel like a stranger in her new home, and argued with Zahra about it before the proud tigress agreed it was probably for the best, even though she had no intention of doing the same. After she was crowned as Empress-Consort she stopped doing so entirely, hoping the gesture would show that all of Aludra was her family now, and being from a sect that believes the Voice has no power outside Tarquesh anyway.

Since this doesn't apply to other species, zebras in Tarquesh (the second-biggest group after hyenas) tend to dress as Dalia does here, and don't usually give it a second thought. There was initially a little friction between Zahra and Dalia over this since Zahra thought Dalia was an Indecent Southerner, but they learned to get along.

Zahra is former Special Forces and was overall very nervous about her little Princess being in a foreign land, and so turned up with a case of weapons including a general-purpose machine gun and several anti-tank missiles, though after a while she realised she didn't need her custom-made integrally suppressed .265 assault rifle (6.72x43mm*) and full body armour under her robes. On the right she just has a submachine gun chambered for the Tarqueshi-standard .335 pistol round (hers using +P rounds, and she still handles it like it's a water pistol) and a bulletproof vest on under her shirt. She still carries a two-way radio and never allows it out of her sight: Yasemin has the other handset, it's in the little pouch on her belt on the right. When they'd just moved and Yasemin was having nightmares, Zahra would sometimes spend the night sitting at the foot of her little charge's bed, rifle in hand, or have the complex task of escorting the young hyena to her wife's room so they could read stories under the bedclothes and giggle. She also always carries a water canteen in case Yasemin is thirsty: when they first moved, she used to spread her robe around Yasemin so she could uncover her face to drink.

The sashes Zahra and Yasemin wear indicate their clan affiliation: Zahra's is from one of the Northern fortress-cities, while Yasemin's is the royal sash with the blue referring to the coastal capital of Tarquesh, Sarib. The lettering roughly translating to "People of the Southern Water." Dalia doesn't wear a sash since zebras aren't regarded as having any clan affiliation: they often served as negotiators between the states that are now incorporated into Tarquesh.

The device on Dalia's wrist is her Everybook, a sophisticated holographic PDA that she uses for lesson plans and as a teaching aid. She mostly acts as Yasemin's personal tutor, but she also tutors other girls in the Palace. It turned out her skill at reading maps to plan educational visits for her little Princess also translates to a talent for reading military maps, and later on she acts as a strategic adviser to Yasemin.

Dalia's wearing a little more on the right because Aludra is a lot colder than Tarquesh; in summer she'll still wear variations on her old outfit. The flap on the back of her trousers is because she's used to having something like that under her tail: she feels like she isn't wearing anything below the waist without it.

Zahra tends to stand still to listen and Dalia tends to move around when she's talking, which means she tends to walk in circles while Zahra stands still and turns her head: on the right she's in mid-orbit. Zahra's fairly sure she has no idea she does this, and Yasemin thinks it's hilarious.

*Intermediate rounds are mostly used in the East because the issue that they are almost totally ineffective against Alcacians does not really come into play there. The assault rifle was invented in Chira: a few decades later the rabbits of Lis, the smallest Continental species with an average height of 4'6, took up the idea for their standard rifle, and from this intermediate rounds spread to Doras to their north and from there to Tarquesh. The Standard Combat Rifle Zahra is holding was adopted a decade before Yasemin moved to Aludra. The Future Soldier version of the Aludran Sabran Model 37 battle rifle would later use the same stock as the Tarqueshi SCR.
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"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

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 Dashid

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

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.

Aftermath

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).
"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

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 Dashid

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

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.

Aftermath

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).
Twenty years after the Battle of Omar, Aludra and Chira would face the greatest challenge in their history.

The Szakade, as the creatures came to be known in Aludran, are two species with intertwined fates: the species most recognise as Szakade, and the Veda.

Both evolved in the deep ocean trenches of Hazad, a watery planet that circled a great distance from a gigantic star. Hazad was a strange world, with an atmosphere choked in poisons from a process resembling photosynthesis and beaches scoured clean by regular releases of near-pure fluorine. The jungles of Hazad were pristine but void of all life. Only a species of virtually indestructible crustacean-like creatures, the Szarak, dared to venture on the land.

The Veda were an intelligence formed from neural networks of bacteria with telepathic abilities*, and they parasitized a simplistic species of fish-creatures with dextrous forelimbs, compelling the solitary creatures to form groups so that the Veda could reproduce more easily and dwelling in colonies on their bodies.

This species, the Szakade are an all-female species with biped-like torsos and fish-like tails with long, flowing fins. Deep-sea predators, they possess sharp teeth and extremely sensitive inky-grey eyes. As a relic of their less intelligent ancestors, they retain two lures that extend from their foreheads, glowing patches under their eyes, and flashing bioluminescent bands down their sides. Previously used to draw prey close to them, the flashes were already becoming a means of communicating simple signals to each other when the Veda found them.

The Szakade were once colonials, with even their blood made from co-opted bacteria; another type could easily be added, and the Veda settled everywhere on their skin except the stripes on their flanks already home to bioluminescent cells, their transparent skin changing to a glossy black that shimmered as they moved. A dozen Szakade were a safe host for a single Veda Groupmind, with far fewer worries about predators than in their old plankton-like state.

Stem cells from Szakade eggs gave the Veda a resource they never had before, a mutable form of cell very different to their unchanging unicellular form. Normally Szakade would court each other and then one lay an egg and the other lay her egg alongside it, the two joining together and starting to grow. Veda harvested proto-eggs to form a bed of stem cells that constantly renewed itself, and used this as a basis for biomechanical constructs that were their earliest form of technology.

The Szakade in turn grew more sophisticated, the signals from each other's bioluminescent flashes becoming a full-fledged language, and parasitism became symbiosis as the enforced groupings became a thriving society centred on Veda bio-constructs and metals worked in deep-sea thermal vents. The Veda, regretting the way they had dealt with the Szakade before, now treated them as companions and allowed them free will and an equal say in the running of their homelands.

Szarak would often wander into the deep trenches and were docile and friendly to just about everything, and the early Szakade societies used them as beasts of burden. The 30-ton adults could move just about anything with their immense strength if properly guided.

It was around this time that organised religion began to appear, with the creation of the first Szakade cities. For as long as they were able to think, both species had thought about their place in the world, and various rituals related to special places crystallised into the veneration of a mother-Goddess of the oceans. It was said this figure saved her daughters from the evils of the land by creating the sea for them to live in and had left a Promise that someday she would lead them to an ocean paradise if they kept the word in their hearts and followed the law.

Like most sentient societies, there were conflicts among groups of Veda and Szakade over values and resources. The nature of the species, with their fine hearing, and ability to sense tiny currents, meant their methods of conflict were unique, focused on fighting in perfect silence with small units, slow, careful movements, and increasingly cunning weaponry, moving from spearguns to propelling rifles.

As their technology advanced, the Veda learned to create "biometals" which, like their biomechanical organisms, responded to their thoughts, giving them the ability to shape them as they saw fit. Their technology surged forward as they discovered the principles of science and learned to manipulate pure energy and even the barriers between dimensions, allowing wireless power transmission and dimensional "tunnels" though which thermal power could be extracted safely without drilling. A darker side of this technology was the development of energy weapons, firing coherent energy bolts that could travel even in the deepest depths. As a counter to this, they created a device called the Siphon, a personal shield that absorbed energy into a pocket dimension. Civilian Siphon-based power systems quickly replaced the use of chemical batteries in just about every conceivable application.

Since biometals could hover in the water around the user, their militaries focused on adaptable multi-part variable energy guns that could split apart or join together to form weapons with almost any function the user could imagine. As these weapons became commonplace, the Szakade horror at swimming in the blood of their enemies became a cultural taboo about physically touching weapons, which they considered barbaric. Warfare became a matter of technology versus technology, with drone sensors gathering information and battlefields littered with seeker mines that responded to sound. The Szakade never saw any need for armed vehicles since they would give away the location of infantry.

Their wireless power transmission was used to keep soldiers agile since they did not have to carry anything but the weapons themselves; relays were mounted on Szarak, which would wander around and graze and show little sign of being aware a battle was taking place. It was considered a crime to actually harm one, no different to killing a civilian.

As their computers grew more reliable than their bacterial bodies, most Veda transferred their minds into electronic form, leaving behind their old selves as symbiotes that remained part of the Szakade. These AI-like creatures retained the ability to reproduce by creating a "seed" of a child-mind, which gathers data around itself to form a new, distinct personality. With the understanding of biology the two species had, a Szakade and a Veda could create DNA allowing a biological child to be "theirs," and there was no question that such relationships were right.

A few Veda spurned this development: these "old ones" saw it as abandoning their physical bond with the Szakade, something they considered sacred. All were ancient, the custodians of the memories of thousands of Szakade they had loved though centuries and millennia. While Veda and Szakade both valued these Groupminds for their wisdom and immense experience, their claims that this development would lead to the Veda discarding the Szakade entirely were not taken seriously. The new generation of Veda felt that physically inhabiting the Szakade was an unpleasant reminder of their parasitic past.

The cells that were once Veda remained in the bodies of the Szakade, tiny childlike shadow-personalities that reassured and supported them subconsciously. The Veda's telepathy remained a part of the Szakade even after their departure, allowing them to control Veda biometals themselves. Their society flourished, and they discovered means to send craft outside the poisonous atmosphere and explore the universe around them. But it was in this moment of triumph that they uncovered a horrible truth, one that at first they refused to believe.

The best scientists checked and double-checked their findings, but every survey, probe and reading led to the same unthinkable conclusion: Hazad's immense sun was dying. They had assumed the receding oceans were part of some natural cycle, but it was the swelling of the star. Hazad would die either slowly as the star grew and grew, or consumed in an instant if the unstable core collapsed. There was no stopping it.

There were great arguments, even wars, over what should be done; whether this was a test by the Goddess and they should have faith, or do something about it, or simply give up and accept their fate. Even with all their technology there was nothing they could do to the star, but a group of Szakade engineers made a breakthrough, a "jump drive" that would allow a vessel to travel the immense distances between the stars if it could only be made to work in time. The precise method of jumping took decades in Aludran terms** while over a hundred years passed outside the ship, this was seen as hardly important.

The largest Szakade trench-cities came together, and the result was the ship Aludra refers to as Leviathan. It is actually called Home 2 in their own language. The ship would have to carry as many as possible; the eventual design, a beautiful, almost swan-like lifting body eighty-five miles long and twenty-five across the wings, had enough space for eighty million Szakade and Veda. An eight-mile saucer-shaped detachable "battle" segment, Guardian, would protect it, controlled by one of the oldest Veda Groupminds; Guardian would have no jump drive, as creating even one such device in time would be difficult enough. Guardian's shape was due to the Szakade ancestral fear of their world's immense jellyfish, one of their ancient predators.

Guardian would not be alone: hurried brainstorming and simulations by Veda Groupminds led to the development of their first atmospheric aircraft, a sleek biometal fighter which could change shape in-flight at will, equipped with two powerful energy cannons. The Szakade had no idea how many they might need, but five hundred and fifty were all they felt safe providing materials for with all the other resources that would be taken up constructing Home 2 and Guardian.

Home 2 would use an immense form of Siphon to gather energy created by her own re-entry, and drain it slowly to provide near-limitless clean power for her people; as she was designed to land on water, she would use several novel applications of the same technology to reduce the vast waves she would otherwise create. While that was perfect, the reaction drive that got her out of the atmosphere would not be so gentle; firing the main engine would be enough to boil the oceans and kill every living thing still on Hazad. But they were already dead, and dying like animals struggling for the last drops of water was no way to go, so it was agreed that all those who would not be passengers would say their goodbyes and commit themselves into the arms of the Goddess, in the hope that, somehow, the Promise would still be fulfilled.

The jump drive's creator chose to remain on Hazad with her family, wishing all the best to those who left; she felt it would be cowardly to use the device she intended to save her people just to save herself.

Even as Home 2 powered up, readings from the giant star were spiking, and when she rose to the surface cameras showed immense flares arcing out from its surface. Solemnly, the crew of Home 2 made their last prayers, flooded the rear ballast tanks, and fired the engine, every trace that they had ever lived on Hazad vanishing in an instant.

The star tore itself apart as Home 2 prepared to make her first jump, and the giant ship and her eighty million occupants barely escaped. As she reappeared in the depths of space, everyone on board tried to deal with the loss of an entire world.

For those in command, though, there was no time to grieve: their task was to find a new world for their people. The jump drive's creator had discovered a means of deploying probes from Home 2 during jumps and retaining communication with them, and they had hundreds of years of transmissions from probes and observations from space telescopes to sift through.

The best candidate from the perspective of atmosphere and oceanic composition was the worst in just about every other conceivable way. Everything about this world was strange. Ancient transmissions, too garbled to decode, dated to 40 million years ago, but then one day simply stopped. They had sent a probe, but what returned was baffling to every scientist who studied it. They saw a world choked in hideous forests and built of impossible geographical formations, a great red crater amid a sea of black sand, oceans wreathed in strange swirling mists, and three strange energy phenomena the preindustrial civilisations it detected could not have hoped to manipulate, let alone create. Moreover, the creatures it found lived on the land, in defiance of what the Szakade and Veda considered the natural order.

They discarded this strange world from their list of candidates, and set about examining others. Despite their horrible losses and the failure of the Promise, many were still hopeful. Something out there must want them to survive. Home 2 set course for the most promising of the new worlds, and made her second jump.

But each world they tried to settle on was worse than the last. Vicious carnivores with metallic skin, unstable geology and appallingly barbaric aquatic civilisations greeted Home 2's landing; each time she took off again, scouring the surface clean of all but the most simplistic forms of life. It was hopeless. So much so that, very much against Guardian's wishes, Home 2, by this point struggling to function, made her final jump, to the cursed world of surface-dwellers they had ruled out so long ago.

As she blinked into existence, her jump drive exploded in the presence of the gravity wells of four giant planets; since nobody who had left Hazad even knew how the drive worked, nevermind how to repair it, this star system would be either their home or their tomb. Guardian was incensed at Home 2 for even attempting it.

Transmissions from the planet made them more nervous still; rather than the pre-industrial societies their probe had found eight hundred years prior, their sensors found thriving industries and transmissions detailing what were clearly military operations. Home 2's AI, an optimistic "artificial" Veda formed during their journey who have never been in a Groupmind, was hopeful despite the evidence, and got to work trying to decipher the odd sound-based alien languages. Since the breadth of the transmissions indicated a society that was outright impossible, she assumed some must be fiction: she felt it was a good sign that these people told each other stories. Her subordinates, the Szakade bridge crew who had grown up with her, shared her optimism, and the group managed to convince Guardian that it was safe to send down a party to examine the seabed.

They sent down the small party in an unarmed shuttle, the scientists finding wreckage on the seabed; perhaps some sign of a people like their own, and scans from their probes confirmed one of the mysterious anomalies was on the bottom of the ocean too, deep in the mists. They were pondering this as a gigantic alien watercraft approached, and, without warning, began to attack with a weapon unlike any that they had ever seen or heard of.

The survey team barely survived, and their injuries were terrible, tissue ruptures and horrible cavitation injuries across their entire bodies. Guardian was furious; an unprovoked attack by these barbarians on an unarmed survey team, with a weapon that, as far as she was concerned, could have no function but the extermination of a people like theirs. To the Veda, this proved that there were once aquatic peoples on this planet, and the surface-dwellers had waged a genocidal war against them.

Below, the Chiran Cruiser Submarine Sei-Lin 7's crew were baffled; they were there to investigate a report of a crashed, unknown aircraft. The first sonar pings had shown fuzzy contacts that almost looked like divers, but then the contacts, as well as the one on the bottom, had vanished completely. The submarine resumed her duties, later sending a routine report stating they had found nothing.

With this, even Home 2 sadly accepted Guardian's argument that a military deployment would be needed to push the alien forces away from their landing site. There was no option to move on with the jump drive destroyed. She hoped that a show of force would be all that was needed, and that, somehow, the aliens could be persuaded to accept them in time.

Guardian found herself tasked with the difficult problem of selecting a landing site for Home 2, ultimately choosing a path across open ocean which ended in a deep bay near one of the alien cities. While she had no idea what the devices on the cliffs above did, the dense power grid around the largest suggested a weapon of some kind, and so she would have to come up with some way for a species incapable of moving on land to wage a war there. The sheer scale of the device implied it could threaten, if not Home 2 herself, then certainly any attempt by the Szakade to leave.

Still, she was confident: the Siphon fitted to Guardian made it immune to any energy weapon in existence, and she knew of no other way a weapon could function above water, short of a primitive catapult that would be no threat to her.

As Home 2 orbited the largest of the giant planets, Szakade soldiers trained in four-legged exosuits that secured around their tails with their torso outside so they could still use their hands. Power for their suits would be provided by relays mounted on Szarak: testing had shown that the local flora would be fine for the creatures to graze on. Guardian tried to remain confident as she ran them through scenarios she made up as she went along, her ideas very much like the propaganda fiction the Szakade made regarding claiming their new home. Savage, bloodthirsty aliens, all of their technology working precisely as it should.

She, a Veda military commander with centuries of experience, would defeat the aliens in the way all great battles were fought, with clever use of small, disciplined units. With no water to carry sound, she assumed it would travel poorly, and so the 15-foot exoskeletons would be able to operate as stealthily as Szakade troops on the old homeworld. With no water, she assumed conflict would be purely two-dimensional. She ignored Home 2's confused suggestions based on the alien transmissions; she was young and foolish. Guardian could solve this by herself, and by doing so would give her beloved Szakade wife and their children a home. However, the AI's suggestion that the aliens were preparing for war with one another seemed promising; if they depleted their own forces, her task would be that much easier.

Home 2 was baffled at what her long-range sensors picked up and frustrated at Guardian ignoring her. This was not like any war she has witnessed: the broadcast showed one enemy receiving the other as friends. She pondered the possibility of it being some kind of honour code they were following, but the archive films she thought factual seemed very different. Not needlessly destructive, but following a very different set of rules. Ruthless, perhaps that was the right way to think of it. She was perhaps being romantic like Guardian said, but it reminded her of the story of the ancient conflict between two oldest and most powerful trench-cities: how they had finally found common ground in the last battle of all, the one to build her.

On the planet below, things were relatively calm. High above the old, beautiful city of Halleck in Aludra, the 39-inch mass driver Bolverk, the largest gun on the planet, stood guard over the sea. It was more a symbol than a weapon; the Halleck coastal battery had not been fired in anger in almost eighty years. Today a party of schoolchildren would be visiting, and the Battery Commander, a young noble, was busying herself making sure everything was perfect.

At 46, Mariella Lorii was preparing for her final parachute jump as part of Double Edge before retiring from 117 SPU to work as a drill instructor, while her little sister Sophie was preparing for her first alongside her. Her girlfriend Maxine had retired from the military after losing a foot to a mine in Garam during the civil war there, and now ran a motorcycle repair garage. Her older little sister Nadine was studying for a postgraduate degree while running the family burlesque house in the evenings; under her, The Imperial had become one of Alurna's most Respectable places for Ladies to share polite conversation and food while enjoying the acts and appreciating the beauty and elegance of other species.

At 74, Ingrid sen Sola had evaded every possible avenue of retirement, the Field-General still commanding a tank. By now she was on her fifth, Claudia V, an S-4 Black Swan II developed after the Battle of Omar. She was rather enjoying exercises against the first generation of Chiran main battle tanks; she had always felt the Chiran "agile army" concept focusing on light "infantry support vehicles" supported by fast artillery was a mistake. She was also busy dealing with the fact that she had spoken with Claudia V so often that the AI was essentially sentient; this along with Griffon PCAVs*** flying missing-plane formations after the Battle of Omar without ever being programmed to do so had led to a lively debate about AI citizenship.

Shian Xinyang and Shiori Shima, a Chiran-Etrusean duel citizen and an Etrusean, were enjoying a pleasant holiday in Halleck together, taking in the city's famous libraries and bookstores in the old quarter. It was their first time in Aludra, and while Shian had been nervous at going abroad without her beloved girlfriend Fio, so far it had been a pleasant one.

Very few looked to the sky. Aludra and Chira were preoccupied with their first joint military exercise, Operation Double Edge, both eager to show they could make it work but equally eager to show their best and quietly gather as much data as possible about the other's capabilities. Space had never interested either; large space launch complexes would be seen as long-range ballistic missile facilities, a needless provocation, and with both having the ability to shoot down anything the other placed in orbit by this time, space programs were seen as pointless expenditure. It was a private citizen with a small telescope who first sighted Guardian as she passed close to the moon.

*Veda always assumed these were their original bodies, but this turned out to be because Veda in the presence of these cells will instinctively incorporate them into their Groupmind if they are not part of one already. Aludran research indicates they are self-sufficient organisms, and it is now believed the Veda intelligences arose independently of any physical body, with some theorising that their bodies do not exist in this dimension.
**Hazad's year, due to the size of the star, was a lifetime long. Szakade marked their equivalent of years in terms of lunar cycles.
***Pilotless Combat Air Vehicle. Being "unmanned" is fairly normal for Aludran aircraft, and all other options sound silly.
Part 1 | Part 2

Construction

With final approval granted, construction equipment moved in; both the Emera family's formidable assets, which included every construction Leviship in Aludra, and two entire combat engineering battalions from the Aludran Army. Work began with blasting operations to create the artificial cavern that would extend under the central park, with a pair of giant tracked power shovels soon creating a crater four hundred feet deep and a mile across. Since the "table" structure of eight pump towers and an upper deck supporting central park was entirely below ground it would not count as part of the six month "spreadline," and so construction began immediately. Lei and Hana said this was how construction had proceeded at Rasoon, where the pump tower and fountain canopy were completed first and routinely activated to test water flow through the city and ensure there was no erosion of the foundations.

As the lower city took shape, the two young architects were able to venture outside the spray-screened trailer they had previously been confined to on the site, soon helping to direct the construction of the undercity proper. A filter plant was constructed to direct water from the river into a temporary holding lake, and six months after breaking ground a line of generators sputtered into life and water flowed through the skeletal buildings of the undercity for the first time.

One unexpected challenge during the development of the undercity was Lady Lucille, a Hawkeater Moth with four daughters who flew across the Vamar just after the "table" was completed and refused to leave. Since by this point the Hawkeater was regarded as a "non-citizen sentient" species by the Aludran government* the undercity plan required a slight reworking to accommodate her presence. Lei and Hana initially found the 25-foot predatory moth terrifying and appealed for her to be housed somewhere else, but over the course of a few weeks grew used to her and rescinded their requests, hoping that other Mirrai would have similar reactions.

While Lucille and her daughters watched in bemusement, the lower city's tiered walkways and water tunnels were constructed; as with all Mirrai cities, Lower Aqua City was to be partially flooded so that families had swimming spaces in their homes and pools to relax in.

Less troubling than Lucille's presence was the population of freshwater trilobites that established itself in the undercity during construction, in spite of estimates that the species would not like the levels of algae in the water. This led to some amusing negotiations since, for reasons that baffle sociologists, Alun are adamant that trilobites are inedible and should be treated kindly, while Mirrai would normally not have any problem with eating swimming bugs. Introducing representative Kawai to a few of them won her over, however, and an explanation that the friendly creatures were not food was added to the Mirrai citizen orientation.

Landscaping began on the park itself; Farah sen Ahan of the Alurna Botanical Gardens, who had agreed to supervise all aspects of the project involving plants**, had suggested completing the park immediately to ensure any problems would manifest themselves during the rest of the construction process. The last thing the Empress wanted was for the central park to be dying off or an unmanageable mess, and this would allow time for problems to be caught and corrected.

With their work on the central park deck completed, House Emera began to ship in their remaining construction equipment to level the rest of the site; piling works began as soon as the first pump tower tests were positive, with representatives of the Kais and Ruhm families personally supervising work on concrete and steel batches destined for the project. Now the noble families were on board, none would be willing to show anything but their best work to their rivals and the world.

The Aludran hatred of needless suffering meant every effort was taken to empty the site of animals and insects during the terrain levelling process, with staff from the Imperial College of Natural Sciences helping to set up holding areas at the edge of the construction zone. All suitable species would be reintroduced, with the remainder being relocated to suitable habitats.

The year after the first groundbreaking all foundation work was completed and construction had commenced on the first structures. Since most Aludran cities of antiquity were recorded as starting around pagan holy sites, it was decided to build the temples and their associated facilities before any other structures. The first of these was the temple requested by the Chiran government, a late addition to the city plan and designed by noted Chiran architects as a fusion of traditional forms and Aludran sensibilities. The city would feature three main temples, one for each of the main figures of Svedzi worship, and four hundred smaller chapels and shrines.

At the same time as the temples, a series of temporary structures took shape: a railway container terminal and marshalling yard, fuel storage depot, and a series of concrete plants and workshops.

At this point the project was still a mess of deep holes and trenches, which would one day be underground car parks, subway stations and tunnels, or had been dug out for pipe and cable laying. Starting anew, there was no need to drill out the tunnels for the subway system and so a pair of 2,000-ton trench excavators designed specifically for the task had dug them out from the surface. At the completion of the temples only the sections of the subway network that passed under building foundations had been installed.

The next step completed the underground parking structures and subway stations, since it was intended that they would be temporary homes for the project's workers and their families. The majority of workers thus accommodated had been offered homes in the completed city, as it was felt that people working on structures they would ultimately live in and around would do their best work. Central Station was for much of the project called "Central Manor" due to the formation of a particularly large and stable Household among the occupants.

Along with these were a series of underground structures that the Aludrans did not want to see on the surface, including the entire power grid and a series of underground water treatment and purification plants built to Mirrai specifications. Electrical substations were built within a series of honeycomb-like cells designed to prevent damage in the case of an explosion. The one thing not placed underground were telephone exchanges, since Aludra uses fixed lines or operator switchboards rather than automated direct dialling systems. Aludran nobility regarded the latter as impersonal and therefore Improper.

Since the Empress thought that the Monarch Towers would look ridiculous standing over a half-built city, the entire rest of the city would be built before the skyscrapers were raised. While the Emera family were not particularly happy with this arrangement since they had assumed they would be able to build temporary roads for heavy vehicles, they were soon given access to the four largest transport Leviships from the Air Navy Support Fleet, and moved as much equipment into the city as possible prior to the beginning of building construction. Several right-wing Etrusean newspapers took this as a sign of mismanagement and mocked the "crane graveyards" that formed within the site.

Sub-level construction proceeded briskly, with all subway tunnels completed and all but four filled over within nine months and cable and pipe laying concluding a month later. The four remaining tunnel segments were another improvisation by the Emera: the lines passed close to major construction areas, and were to be used to move equipment and materials. The Emera family bought in surplus locomotives and rolling stock from the Alurna and Reidan underground rail systems, since engines for the Aqua City Underground had not been built yet.

This involved turning the adjacent parks into goods yards, a decision that upset Farah sen Ahan. She had hoped to get all of the parks planted at the earliest opportunity so that her staff could tend to them just as with the central park, and Emera guarantees that massive movements of heavy machinery over the freshly laid soil would not result in contamination did not convince her. After a series of impatient meetings with senior members of the Emera family, she was still not happy.

Giselle sen Kais felt that Farah, rather than simply being obstinate, was frustrated: not being technologically minded, she did not really understand what the Emera were trying to tell her. Giselle sent her younger sister Gina to discuss matters with her. While still a representative of Aludra's largest concrete manufacturer, Gina was a carefree young woman who loved nature, and Farah knew she would be able to speak freely with her older sister about any concerns.

With Farah finally happy that her dreams for the four parks would not be drowned in grease and oil, she resumed supervising work on the difficult vertical gardens, the first of which was just taking shape.

The tiers and levels of the city were laid out as the smaller buildings took shape around them, stone paving, ornate wrought iron railings and decorations soon making the bare structures look suitably Aludran. A brief skirmish with Basram on the Southeast border did not affect the construction schedule, and all seemed to be going well for the incredibly ambitious 28-month goal.

At this point, however, one of the Chiran engineers spotted a problem on her plan, and went to her superiors: the lightning conductors on many buildings in the city passed much too close to metal climbing handholds. Architects trained primarily in aesthetics rather than structural engineering had added the handholds, and the plans they had been given to work with did not even include the conductor wire locations. While Chirans would tend to climb the inside of a building during a storm, the layout was unacceptably dangerous, and construction paused while existing plans were quickly reworked and equipment returned to buildings thought to have been completed. The result was a substantial delay given the sheer number of completed structures.

In the end it was just over three years after the consecrating of the temples when groundsheets with the Emera coat of arms on them began to be removed from the largest cranes around the three hundred and eleven remaining bare foundations. The schedule now demanded following the delay would require swiftness and military precision, and the two combat engineer battalions returned to the site to assist in coordinating construction.

Farah sen Ahan was delighted to discover all efforts would be made to clear out the temporary yards by building from the middle of the city outwards; due to the "spreadline" this would leave at most twelve months to establish the four parks, but Farah had spent three years considering the matter and was certain she could manage. She was encouraged by Gina sen Kais, by this point her beloved wife; the ceremony had been conducted in Aqua City's Grand Temple.

All of the city's temples had been in full operation for over two years serving the workforce, and over that period had conducted five hundred weddings and eighteen funerals, four due to accidents and the remainder from natural causes. Even the Chiran temple was in use for the surveyors, testing crews and advisors supervising Chiran accessibility. To the delight of the Chiran ambassador when she visited, Aludran citizens were also attending services and prayers there.

Estelle sen Emera herself arrived as the first girders were laid. With the hopes and dreams of Aludra resting on her shoulders, the formidable head of the most powerful family in Aludra short of the Alud themselves was in her element. Her presence around the site was such that in interviews, workers half-seriously questioned if there was only one of her.

As the first four towers rose, others joined them, the construction starting to shift ahead of schedule. Estelle had decided to leave the Monarch Towers until last despite their central location and that if any project would generate unexpected difficulties it would be that one, but her sheer confidence in her workforce's abilities buoyed up morale at the site. Estelle was fond of reminding them that while others are able to make all possible things, a Lady is able to make all things possible.

The schedule quickly moved to continuous shifts; Alun, being descended from nocturnal ancestors, have few problems adapting to working at night. Three rotating shift sets were set up so that they could still enjoy a mid-shift nap without there ever being a time when work had completely paused.

Almost ten thousand additional workers joined the final construction. Many of them were qualified volunteers paid by their Households, either out of either pure patriotism or desire to win the Empress' favour, rather than as part of the project's budget. The site became a hive of activity as the towers rose together, even the most skeptical coming to accept that the plan would almost certainly succeed.

Though unexpected delays cut into the initial lead, Estelle sen Emera proudly watched as the spires of the Monarch Towers were lowered into position, twenty-six hours ahead of the six-month goal. With three hundred and eleven buildings topped out, a small army of electricians, glaziers, plumbers, decorators, upholsterers and carpenters descended on the site while Leviships made constant runs to ferry construction vehicles too large to move by themselves out of the city***.

The final step was the construction and testing of the city's above-ground water systems, from relatively simple reflecting pools to canals, complex fountains and most difficult of all the system of pumps, lakes and aqueducts that would create Lei and Hana's distinctive waterfalls. Along with this was the dismantling of the temporary irrigation systems that had supported the gardens that would now be nourished by the water system. This work was not without setbacks including several leaks which were difficult to track down, but six months after the skyscrapers topped out, the main reservoirs were fully flooded for the first time. As Lei and Hana watched, Hana's bioluminescent sides glowing faint blue from nervousness, their vision finally became reality. Aqua City was complete.

Occupation

It was agreed that the Mirrai settlers would be moved in first to ensure they were comfortable; any large works project on the undercity would be disruptive to those moving into the buildings above. Happily, the arrival and orientation was without any major incident and soon eight thousand Mirrai families were settled and learning the layout of their new home.

Representative Kawai was delighted to discover she had been assigned an embassy in the undercity, having spent the entire project living in the Imperial Palace's sauna and baths, and even happier when she learned the Empress had demanded she be made ambassador. Four servants who had been appointed as her personal staff during the project were allowed to join her, and two later married her.

The next group were the occupants of Old Aqua City and the five thousand Chiran families. The former's worries that the government in Alurna would not make good on their promises were finally laid to rest as military convoys delivered them from the old airfield to their new home. The final stage of the project, the demolition and redevelopment of the old airport, began before the last buses had even left.

The new citizens were amazed at the sight that greeted them. The dirty, narrow and dangerous old city had been replaced with shimmering towers of pristine masonry and beautiful parks and flower gardens already filled with songbirds and chirping moths. Now truly living up to its name, the city was filled with flowing water, from ornamental streams with fish and trilobites to the great waterfalls, some of them hundreds of feet high.

The Imperial family themselves had commissioned three thousand sculptures and statues**** for public spaces, and much to the surprise of the Old Aqua City residents, several of the old murals on abandoned buildings had been precisely replicated at approximately the same locations. Carnival Square, a cheerful place known for community-organised fairs and markets in the old city, was almost exactly restored at its original location, and the Delfi families who make it the lively place it was were housed nearby.

The Empress had granted official noble titles to the heads of family groups moving into particular buildings, and the first few days included a series of meetings in the central park so the new nobility could get to know one another. Among them were former gang leaders and higher-ups, granted full pardons by the Empress along with promises of jobs for their subordinates if they would assist in enforcing the law in the new city. Much as crime did not go away, particularly not smuggling through the new docklands, many were grateful for the end of open hostilities and petty turf wars.

Six months after the official inauguration of Aqua City as a district of the greater Alurna metropolitan area, a public holiday was declared, a day of festivities to celebrate the appointment of Aqua City's first official Representative at the Imperial Court. While Aludra's relationship with Chira had deteriorated greatly over the preceding year and trouble was brewing on the eastern border, for that one day all was right in the world. In the evening, as families who had come from across the world watched fireworks light up the sky alongside thousands of Mirrai looking up from the gleaming waters of Lake Harmony, they knew that they were home.

*While in Etrusea the identification of Hawkeaters as sentient required a long series of intelligence tests, in Aludra it was entirely due to a Hawkeater called Lady Roselle, who lived on the roof of the First Temple. One day she had entered the Temple during a service, walked the length of the building as the congregation silently watched, and bowed to the statue of Hira. Since "recognising the image of their creator" is one of the Aludran criteria for a species to immediately be considered sentient, all Hawkeaters in Aludra are treated as having rights comparable to any other sentient species, with qualifiers since they cannot work or pay taxes.
**The Ahan family have for centuries been among Aludra's most sought-after landscapers and were responsible for some of the most beautiful mansion grounds in Aludra. Farah had initially been very enthusiastic about participation in the project, but tended to be a little short with the representatives of Kais, Ruhm and Emera since she worried that they did not take her work seriously.
***The availability of Leviships meant that Aludra had little interest in Chiran ideas of containerised construction equipment. For example, even discounting crane Leviships that simply have winches mounted directly to them, a large Isra-Class transport Leviship can move a 3,200-ton capacity ring crane in two loads (or three without dismantling the main boom), while the Chiran equivalent splits down to 135 container loads. The gigantic Aludran railway loading gauge also means a lot of medium-sized construction vehicles are only barely dismantled for shipment.
****Per tradition, not a single one was of the Empress or any previous Empress, such statues only standing within the Halls of Counsel (usually called the Aludran Parliament in Etrusea) and the Imperial Palace. Putting them elsewhere has historically been regarded as Improper, immodest and unnecessary; the country and species already call themselves after the Alud.
Part 1 | Part 3

Mirrai Connection, continued

Attempting to employ the primary architects of Rasoon proved futile since all were settled with large families they did not wish to move, and were skeptical about their ability to survive the far drier climate in Aludra. In the end, the best candidates were two graduate students from the prestigious Seldivna Architectural College, Lei Uwari Aris and Hana Uwari Kiyna*, both of whom were among the many promising young architecture and city planning students who had participated in the Rasoon project and both of whom were curious about the world outside Mirrai.

Since Mirrai at the time did not have a single embassy on the Continent, negotiating their passports required a Representative of the Mirrai city-state of Seldivna be sent to Aludra. The Empress was unsurprised that the only Representative willing to attempt such a journey was young and inexperienced and did not regard it as an insult, and after much consultation, Representative Kawai Uwari Isenka made the journey in a climate-controlled container in the back of a military transport aircraft.

Initially, at her own request, she was greeted as any dignitary would be, but after a short time the young Mirrai was visibly uncomfortable and looking like she was ready to faint. Soon Empress Lana sat with her in the Imperial Palace's sauna as the much happier but still nervous Kawai stammered her way through a list of requests, and the Empress was surprised at the final one: that Aludra be host to the first colony of Mirrai to live outside their homeland. The young salamander looked down at her notes as she did her best to suggest it would enrich Aludran culture without implying there was anything wrong with how it was now, drooping her gills by the end as she was certain she was about to be ordered to leave.

Instead, the Empress accepted; such a unique population would be a way of showing that Aludra was not just for Alun as Etrusean propaganda tended to claim. Kawai remained in the Imperial Palace to act as liaison while the city-state governments of Mirrai set about selecting the agreed-upon eight thousand families. The process was complex and intended to present the best side of Mirrai culture, with the final selections including a rather disproportionate number of priestesses, teachers, scholars, scientists, musicians and artists.


Final Plans

Lei and Hana's first plan submission surprised every Aludran architect who studied it, a tiered city with up to five ground levels and vehicle traffic kept to sub-levels using ventilation and automated fire suppression systems based on those developed for use on Air Destroyers. The only aboveground roads were strictly reserved for the deployment of emergency service vehicles.

This would be less challenging than in some Continental countries since most Aludran citizens do not own a personal car. As well as incorporating a similar subway rail system to Alurna and the tramways beloved of Aludran city-planners, above-ground monorails were to be used for the first time; great efforts were made to design rails and trains which would not look out-of-place, with the final designs aesthetically similar to old steam locomotives. The subway trains would be the same type used in Alurna: electrically driven, but fitted with cosmetic steam engine connecting rods driven by the wheels rather than the other way around.

Like all Aludran city rail systems, the subway trains would use 4'11 gauge (considered the minimum acceptable for twin-deck passenger cars designed for Alcacians) rather than the gigantic 6'6 gauge used on Aludran standard railway lines**.

Over fifty percent of the plan's land area was to be parks and open spaces, with cascading vertical gardens and carefully engineered multi-level waterways creating beautiful waterfalls designed to flatter the forms of their surroundings. For the first time accessibility and comfort for Chiran species was considered too, with external climbing paths included for many buildings.

The latter reached the attention of the Chiran ambassador to Aludra and through her the Chiran government. This was at the height of a period of good relations between Aludra and Chira under Empress Lana, and it was hoped a cultural exchange between the two nations would foster greater understanding between their peoples. In the end it was agreed that Aqua City would become home to five thousand Chiran families, while the same number of Aludran families would be accommodated in Chira.

The two Mirrai had worked with a dozen Alun architects to keep quirks like the Mirrai love of swamps and mushroom-like forms in check, and the Central Planning Authority, Old Aqua City Representatives and Aqua City Provisional Civil Authority all felt the plan had potential when it was presented to them. In particular they were impressed by the use of what they learned was the standard system of waste disposal in Mirrai, using a system of pneumatic tubes connecting all homes and businesses to a central disposal facility rather than collections, since underground Mirrai cities cannot accommodate vehicles of any kind.

The fixtures of the new city were modern, but still styled to make it clear it was an extension of Alurna. Cosmetic wrought iron was used extensively, particularly for streetlamps. As in Alurna, the central district was to be lit by gas lamps since Aludrans consider such lighting romantic. Unlike Alurna, though, which is notoriously dark for species with poor night vision, the lamp spacing used the Etrusean all-species standard. The remaining lighting was to use the "electric gas" system developed eighteen years earlier, lamps designed specifically to replicate the appearance and ambience of real gas lighting.

While Lei and Hana assumed Mirrai's preferred solution of nuclear fission power would not be a problem, they were told on the presentation of their first plan that Aludra's uranium was all reserved for military purposes, while their molten fluoride thorium reactor program was not yet ready for large-scale civil use. The two were unhappy with the Aludran solution of using natural gas and coal power plants on the reactor sites, arguing it would make the city less pleasant, particularly for their people. Aludran city planning still retains some ideas from fortress-cities, including locating power plants within a close radius; modern planners hold that this localisation of the power grid prevents large-scale attacks on major power plants that would affect industrial output in multiple cities.

After many negotiations, the eventual solution was four smaller power stations, two coal and two gas with the latest filtering and rapid-quenching systems, supported with two solar power stations using Mirrai-designed high-output panels developed for the upper surface of Rasoon to decrease the load on the tower's reactors.

As it became clear the plan was practical, the Empress ordered the construction of two new bridges between Alurna and Aqua City, along with an ambitious plan to create a copy of the Galina Bridge alongside the original with both now featuring a retractable section of deck for the passage of what were cryptically termed "tall ships." This was actually the earliest sign of the plan that would eventually become the Grimalkin-class hybrid carriers.

Following surveys of interested noble families and a census of potential migrants to the new city, eighty-five major industrial plants were incorporated into the plan, mostly focused on servicing the new docklands.

Since Aqua City was modelled after Alurna, it would require the establishment of family businesses; Lana's mother, Empress Kiera, had already declared Etrusean-style shopping malls were Improper and her daughter shared the same opinion. The census of potential migrants was also for this purpose; those hoping to establish new businesses were questioned regarding their needs in terms of layout and floor space. Since even the Aludran military only used modular design grudgingly on the basis that it worked for their needs, it was determined that no two stores should be identical, and each was designed primarily with Aludran sensibilities in mind. Modest windows were used and full glass fronts forbidden since a Lady should choose if she wishes to view the interior of a building rather than having it waved at her uncouthly.

Larger businesses and entertainment venues, like industry, would mostly be the direct responsibility of nobility, though a few exceptions like burlesque houses were purpose-built based on existing structures: Park Avenue Burlesque, for example, is a near-replica of The Imperial in Alurna.

The school system, built around Aludra's ideal of five students to a teacher, would require a large number of new staff to be trained, including as many multilingual ones as possible. Accompanying the schools would be two new universities and twelve specialised colleges. Surveys were taken of staff in educational facilities throughout Aludra to find tutors and professors who were happy with moving, and substantial incentives were given for teaching programs.

As the Aludran education system heavily relies on offering voluntary education for early school-leavers, it would be essential to create dozens of museums and libraries, which would require the assembly of appropriate collections. The Alurna Board of Culture took responsibility for this, with its notoriously adorable junior representative Alicia sen Sievna tasked with negotiations. Creating military museums was a simple matter of asking nobles and the Central Historic Depot for equipment and building dioramas, but coming up with Proper collections for the other museums required delicate discussions. The curator of the Alurna Museum of Natural History, Genevieve di Alud, was particularly loath to part with any of its peerless collection of specimens and papers to start a new research department, to the point that the Aqua City Museum of Natural History was actually completed before a deal was reached.

Meanwhile, among the Old Aqua City residents, those who had worked as doctors and medics were offered training as hospital workers in the new one, joining with hundreds of new trainees who would be their colleagues.

The Mirrai habitation in Aqua City presented many challenges given the climate of Alurna, with the eventual solution being suggested by the Emera designers based on their recent experience in building concealed underwater submarine pens in the naval base at Halleck. The plan added a vast artificial cenote underneath the central park, with a hundred-foot opening in the middle of the main lake and the city's waterways altered to give the cavern six main waterfalls with sluices to control the flow and prevent flooding if the lower city's eight pump towers failed. In case of a failure of the sluices, the electrical supply to the lower city used a cutoff system based on the water level: Mirrai are incapable of drowning, so even the complete inundation of the lower city would not be a problem by itself.

A series of water-filled tunnels would allow Mirrai to exit the undercity in tree-shaded areas around the perimeter of the lake so that they could interact with citizens of the upper city; it was felt that it would defeat the entire point of the project if this was not possible. Since it was the main water source for the undercity, the entire lake already had to be clean enough for Mirrai to swim in it, making it technically the largest drinking water fountain in existence. Filter systems ensured the algae in the waters of the lower city did not end up in the lake.

One idea that appeared at this point was for a ring of mixed-use recreational facilities to surround the lake with access from the water tube system, so that Mirrai and other species could do things other than chat at the very edge of the lake. This led to a series of strange meetings for Lei and Hana as designers attempted to work out ways for Mirrai to participate in well-loved Aludran activities. Swimming was by far the easiest since the only requirement was use a disinfecting method that did not involve leaving chlorine in the water, but others, particularly allowing them to share in the inexplicable Aludran affinity for ten-pin bowling, took some lateral thinking.

Greater still was the challenge facing Aludran biologists and chemists, that of creating Mirrai nursery pools. Functional nursery pools were essential if the Mirrai population was to last more than a single generation, and nobody had ever tried to establish one anywhere outside of the Home Island.

This seemed an insurmountable problem with test pools recording values hugely outside the range of acceptable nutrient levels, but negotiators finally persuaded the government of Seldivna to send Mirrai egg tissue cultures to the labs working on the project for more direct testing. It turned out even the Mirrai themselves had never identified all of the factors involved in creating a functional nursery, since several like nutrient leeching from specific types of stone had been dealt with by the traditional methods of building a temple's nursery. This research finally explained why attempts at creating "high tech" Mirrai nurseries had always produced tiny eggs with tadpole-like hatchlings who remained aquatic and totally dependant for over a year***.

Further challenges included the introduction of familiar species of Mirrai plants and animals to the undercity without damaging the ecology of Alurna or vice versa. It was quickly established that there would be a colony of Etrusean Honey Bees and Eastern Colonial Fireflies in the undercity within about a year and that steps would have to be taken to ensure they did not destroy populations of imported species****. This was ultimately handled by deliberately introducing well-fed populations into the undercity along with Mirrai-native species and continuing to feed the colonies well until they came to like having the imported species around. Competition for nesting spots on the roof between Aludran and Mirrai moth species was handled with carefully designed rock facings with "reserved" nesting sites designed to be unappealing to Aludran species.

Botanical studies suggested a minimal likelihood of any well-loved Mirrai species becoming invasive with the exception of luminescent bracket mushrooms that are a common feature of Mirrai homes since they grow on stone and provide more than enough light for the species to see. It was thought unlikely that spores would be able to exit the undercity, but a few structures in the city ultimately ended up supporting fungal colonies on their lower stories, thought to have been carried on construction equipment or workers' clothing.

With input from the Old Aqua City Representatives who were eager to preserve the positive aspects of their home, the final design sketches and 3D models showed an organised yet endearingly lived-in city designed to comfortably accommodate a population of around 3 million. The vision of what came to be called "Alurna's long-lost sister" won over even some staunch opponents of the project, and was declared to be Proper by Empress Lana during the Coronation Day celebrations two weeks after the presentation. The final plans credited everyone involved in the planning process, the list running to over eighty thousand names with commoners listed before nobility and including the names of foreign companies which had assisted in the project. A carved copy of this list would later be added to one wall of the Alurna Museum of Civic History*****.

*The same middle name means both women were hatched in the Uwari temple in Seldivna; indeed, the two were a hatchling couple (two girls who swam in their nursery pool at the same time after hatching at nearly the same time), a very special bond for two Mirrai to have.
** The latter gauge was that of the first Aludran freight railway line, constructed for the new Ruhm boiler factory to ship enormous complete Leviship boiler vessels to the fabrication yards at Blackridge Works in the north. It was standardised during Shri dio Alud's reign due to its suitability for heavy freight, armoured trains and railroad guns. 4'11 gauge was used by very early passenger trains in Alurna which were little more than a novelty, and was the first candidate when the Alurna Underground Rail project was suggested.
***Biologists concluded that this is actually the natural state of a Mirrai hatchling, with the colonian egg creating an environment that allows safe accelerated growth from the "tadpole" state to what the Mirrai consider a healthy hatchling. A "normal" Mirrai hatchling should be able to leave the water for short spells after a few months.
****Both species are Hawkinsae, with wild Eastern Colonial Fireflies a voracious predator of non-Hawkins bees; just three 12-inch-long fireflies can destroy a hive of 50,000 bees in half an hour. The "dual colony" is the result of a defensive adaptation in Etrusean Honey Bees: their soldiers, which are enormous compared to the three-inch workers and almost identical to fireflies, court firefly scouts, which are sterile queens. Success means the scout will return to her nest's actual queen and tell her they are not in their own hive, leading to a display of bafflement followed by the entire firefly colony relocating to surround the bee colony. This leads to an extremely nervous four-inch queen bee having to share her chamber with an 18-inch queen firefly who is still not quite sure if this is supposed to be happening, a relationship which gradually goes from the bee trying to hide in her chamber's side-tunnels to sleeping under the firefly's wing. There are benefits for both species; the soldier bees will help their carnivorous firefly "sisters" to hunt much larger prey than they would normally be able to since fireflies bite while soldiers have a three-inch non-barbed stinger that can dispense enough venom in a single sting to kill a horse. Bee queens also retain dormant viral DNA which results in larvae with almost no brain development, which they use to lay "sacrificial combs" if the fireflies are struggling. Equally, fireflies have the ability to secrete sugars if the bee colony is struggling; important since bees in a dual hive have their hibernating reflex disrupted.
While worker bees are exceptionally stupid for Hawkinsae, their soldiers and queen are not, and keeping them is a matter of earning the trust of the hive, whereupon they will gently shoo workers off of combs when their keeper comes. It is most common for keepers to be bipedal bees, since they have UV body markings that the bees recognise. Conventional beekeeping techniques are practically useless, and displacing a dual colony forcibly is regarded as outright insanity.
*****A decade later following the revelation that missile attack on an Aludran container ship that led to the Fourth Battle of Kythen Ocean was actually carried out by a Doran submarine using a copied Chiran hypersonic cruise missile built at Straugn Works, the words "Straugn Dynamics" were scratched out with the sign of the Seventh Kythen ("Murderers"). It was never clear if a vandal or the museum itself did this, but the panel was repaired a few years later.
Part 2 | Part 3

Plan 311, the construction of New Aqua City in Aludra, remains the single most ambitious construction project ever undertaken.

Early History

The story of Plan 311 begins during the era of the Industrial Revolution on the Continent. While in Chira steel-framed buildings had already existed for about seventy years, on the Continent it was a Basran engineer, Grigori Doros, who first wrote on the idea of using a fireproofed iron frame and deep foundations to support a prodigiously tall building. His illustrator sister Erika assisted in his first presentation to the Duke and Dutchess, Towers of the Future, her paintings showing a vision of Tauberg dominated by great neoclassical towers "wherein the great magnitude of future citizens make their homes (and) business be conduct'd," estimating the future city's population at over ten times the number at the time.

The first true Continental skyscrapers were built at roughly the same time in Messirah in Garam (Crown Messirah, 372ft), Vermillion City in Etrusea (Johansson Building, 277ft) and Tauberg in Basram (Aldren Tower, 300ft), all three making various claims to be the first and claiming the others to be shorter and / or mismeasured*. Crown Messirah was perhaps the most ambitious of the three, benefitting greatly from the cooperation of the nearby al-Hassan integrated steel mill, the supervisor of which threw out the original plans for a riveted iron frame and instead insisted on attempting to use only arc-welded steel, a method that had never even been attempted before. This resulted in the plan being reworked from a rather unremarkable 150ft rectangle to the slender and graceful tower that still stands in Messirah today.

The Empress at the time, the legendary Fiol dio Alud, thought that such structures would ruin the carefully-managed unity of form of the buildings in Alurna. Knowing that simply forbidding tall buildings would make her country seem regressive, she had the Alurna Central Planning Authority draw up a draft proposal for a high-rise development that, she believed, would be impossible to actually construct**.

The plan required the simultaneous raising of no less than three hundred and eleven skyscrapers and all of their supporting industry and services, with no more than six months between the completion of the first tower and the last. The required number of residents of the new city would also have been impossible to achieve with the technology of the time, since averaged out it would require every single residential structure to be at least as tall as the Johansson Building.

311 is a holy number in Aludra, though precisely why has been lost to time: many folk etymologies exist, with one of the most enduring being that there were 311 steps from the door of the original Grand Temple to the altar.

A little over a generation later, everything had changed.

Operation Quadrant

The groundwork for Aludra's "industrial miracle" had been laid by Shri dio Alud throughout her reign with authorisations for many projects considered radical at the time, and was nurtured by her older and younger daughters, Fiol and Keira. By her granddaughter Lana dio Alud's time, Aludra was one of the most powerful nations on the Continent, with first-rate armed forces and an immense industrial base.

By this point, Old Aqua City on the west side of the Vamar river was a sprawling blight on the beautiful city beside it, primarily composed of run-down apartment complexes built to deal with the housing crisis during the industrial revolution and a series of long-abandoned brick industrial buildings and warehouses of little historical value. Several plans to redevelop Old Aqua City's abandoned docklands to take pressure off the increasingly congested container yards on the east side had been considered over the years, but nothing had come of them.

The area was officially abandoned, effectively a tiny state run by a surprisingly effective coalition of organised crime syndicates and community leaders, which had kept the city supplied with basic amenities from the government in Alurna. In recent years, the antiquated infrastructure had led to numerous utility failures including a major gas explosion and fire that is often credited as being the last straw for Old Aqua City: the narrow, dilapidated and confusing streets seriously delayed the deployment of fire trucks from Alurna and led to the destruction of the area's only functional hospital. The only positive was an increase in Old Aqua City's goodwill towards the Empress, who acted quickly to prevent deaths at the hospital by ordering the deployment of transport helicopters from carriers docked across the river.

Old Aqua City's unofficial representatives helped to draw up a draft plan to empty it; the Empress accepted a deal under which the population would be granted citizenship with no charges bought to those who had come to Aludra illegally, and all would be guaranteed homes and preferential selection for employment in the new city. Empress Lana even added a promise of noble titles for the community leaders to ensure they maintained their status and influence in the new city.

The evacuation, Operation Quadrant, began shortly afterwards. The Army moved some 53,000 civilians to housing set up on the runways of the never-completed Aqua City Airport, and set up a cordon around the site to ensure the buildings were not re-occupied prior to demolition. It soon became clear that the seven incredibly thorough sweeps of the city by the Army were less about checking for remaining citizens (all of whom were found in the first sweep) and more about using Old Aqua City as a massive urban combat training range while it was still standing. The final "sweeps" actually demolished a substantial part of Midtown with artillery, battleship and tank cannon fire following the clearance of all remaining personal effects from these buildings, as part of a program to evaluate the effects of gunfire on real buildings. In particular, the two Aludran battleships that took part in the operation, ANV Mirage and ANV Empress Kiera, singled out the Shaw Building, a notoriously hideous experiment in reinforced concrete, due to its bunker-like qualities.

Experience gathered during this exercise was incorporated into the Advanced Gun System project and the overall operation was instrumental in the development of the Broadsword IFV, Mantis heavy attack helicopter (the first helicopter to mount a hard-kill active defence system) and the Black Swan main battle tank. Testing included the bulky prototype of Lindstrom Optics' Smallarm Reflex Sight, which was prioritised for further research and adopted four years later, and the data gathered also led to the first iteration of the endlessly-delayed Aludran Future Soldier program.

New Aqua City

With ordnance clearing and the remaining demolitions in progress initial plans for modest stone housing, in line with the redevelopment of Alurna's faltering slaughterhouse district half a century earlier following the advent of refrigeration, were quickly displaced by the resurrection of a far grander plan.

Historically Aludra's two most powerful noble families short of the Alud themselves, the steelmakers of the Ruhm dynasty and the gargantuan construction consortium of House Emera, have never seen eye to eye, but the marriage of Dominque sen Emera and Sahar sen Ruhm led to a period of cooperation between the two. Plan 311 fascinated the head of House Emera at the time, Lady Estelle, who felt that it would ensure the prosperity of both her family and Aludra as a whole to see it to completion.

With several major Aludran cities experiencing problems housing their populations without extensive and destructive redevelopment, the proposition of building an entire new city won support from several other major noble families who felt it was an elegant solution to the issue. Drawing further support largely proceeded by the classic method of getting Alun to do things they do not want to, this being suggesting it is fine if they think it is too difficult.

The first step had already been done; the unique mindset of Alun had been studied centuries earlier to determine the best way to run a sailing ship, and the engineering of functional social groups had long been a key part of Aludran military training***. Architects were advised by naval designers from the Karim family, with the aim being for residential buildings to accommodate communities rather than disconnected groups of people. To Alun, a building accommodating a group of people who do not particularly know one another is almost as bizarre as it is for bipedal bees; all of the buildings designed for Aqua City reflect this, with the individual kitchens and washrooms very small and only intended for occasional use over the communal dining areas and baths. A group of residents in each building would be the staff of that building, with their accommodation paid for by the remainder: it was assumed the residents would be able to work this out among themselves.

Lady Estelle felt the original plan, which only consisted of skyscrapers and support buildings, would be unpleasant to actually live in. The new preliminary plan included a large number of smaller residential complexes and setbacks in the residential towers to give them communal areas on the lower floors. Among other things, this would mean entire buildings could be assigned to particularly large family units, replicating Aludra's much-loved and very Proper "Household" polyamorous family unit.

Attention was paid to Etrusean efforts to make towers suitable for Alcacians, but their method, using insertable modular floor trays to divide single-floor apartments in half, was felt to result in floorplans that were too generic. Instead, every apartment was designed with a 20-foot reception area and the rest of the rooms on two floors so other-species families could receive Alcacian friends in their homes, and a set number of dedicated Alcacian homes were built based on estimates of arrivals and population growth. There were far more than would immediately be needed, but this was accounted for as they were designed to be converted into indoor gardens or storage areas if they were not being used for habitation.

A long contest led to the selection of three hundred and eleven final designs for the core towers, which were then placed in a preliminary plan and reworked to relate to one another and the smaller buildings that would surround them. Most were in Aludra's favoured art deco and neoclassical styles, with some incorporating elements of Basran gothic forms, particularly those close to the new city's three main temples.

The crown jewel of the new Aqua City would be the Monarch Towers, two graceful 1,883-foot postmodernist spires joined by a high bridge. The design was something of an oddity since it was not of Aludran origin, rather being the work of Zahra al-Murad, a Garam-born gazelle, as her gift to her new nation.

While the preliminary details of what building would go where resulted in a skyline that the Empress found aesthetically Proper, she was concerned that the concept paintings looked more like a military base than a city. Further, she felt that no Aludran city-planner would be able to organise such a massive undertaking; her country preferred slow and sympathetic additions to cities, and Aludran planners were mostly chosen for their understanding of local history and Appropriate sense of composition, not for the ability to build an entire new city from scratch. Asking foreigners from the Continent would be seen as giving up, and so that too was unacceptable.

At a meeting of the noble families already sponsoring the project, Giselle sen Kais, the young scion of the family of ancient stoneworkers by that point responsible for almost all Aludran concrete manufacturing plants, stood up and made a suggestion that left the whole room silent in contemplation. "Wouldn't the Mirrai know how to do this?"

Mirrai Connection

Mirrai at the time was at the height of their industrial Renaissance, fuelled by the discovery of methods to prevent their species from suffering serious poisoning while working with chemicals which for the first time allowed the Mirrai workforce to directly assist in processes like refining and welding which they had previously relied on other species for. Mirrai society was well known for its great scholars and love of the sciences, and combining this with large-scale production rather than small workshops over the course of a hundred years had transformed them into a first-rate industrial power with major supply contracts to most nations on the Continent. Their imports of steel from Aludra meant the Ruhm family already had contacts they could speak with.

At the time, the pride of Mirrai was the completion of their first above-ground city, Rasoon. The was an immense achievement for the Mirrai, aquatic amphibians with the most difficult set of living requirements of any sentient species. Their eyes are very sensitive and direct sunlight is blinding to them, and they require near-100% humidity, a fairly narrow temperature range and regular immersion in water since even as adults they cannot regulate their body moisture; their hatchlings are for a time fully aquatic. In addition their semi-permeable colonian eggs require very specific symbiotic bacteria and nutrients to form correctly, and the bacteria in particular do not occur anywhere but Mirrai itself.

Because of this Mirrai civilisation had largely been restricted to multi-tiered underground cities built by expanding cave complexes, but Mirrai was running out of suitable locations for such cities, and from this emerged a bold plan to construct one on the surface, using a vast nuclear-powered pump tower to endlessly raise, filter and pour water onto the buildings below.

The Rasoon Fountain Canopy, half a mile high and two miles across, was the largest single structure ever constructed**** and even by the Fourth Battle of Kythen Ocean was only exceeded by other Fountain Canopies and the Chiran mobile shipyard Null, which did not officially exist*****. Moreover, Rasoon was at the time the only example of a successful project to build an entire city from scratch.

*In actuality, the largest building at the time was Century Tower in Chira, at 1,355ft with the tip of the spire 1,590ft.
**In spite of this, plans were filed to build a 210-foot experimental Leviship mooring tower in Alurna during this period, but scrapped when the eight thousand ton Etrusean Air Destroyer Bastion attempted to moor at Mercia Tower in Basram with a strong tailwind and pushed the tower over, killing five ground crew. From this it was determined that a wrought iron tower was simply not structurally strong enough for mooring a Leviship, and most such towers were either scrapped or used exclusively for rigid-frame airships only a tiny fraction of a Leviship's mass. Aludra never operated any dirigible airships since two successive Empresses (Fiol and her mother Shri) viewed them as impractical and dangerous, and so all plans for mooring towers were cancelled as they would be unsuited for use by any vessel in the military or civilian aerial fleet.
***Like their four-legged cat cousins, shouting orders at Alun simply ensures they will do anything other than what you're shouting.
****Garam initially disputed this due to a mistranslation of what was actually being claimed, since the al-Hassan integrated steel mill complex has a much larger footprint than the Rasoon Fountain Canopy but is not a single structure.
*****The name Null is inferred from the vessel's communications using a blank field for the sender ID, which is interpreted as <NULL> by decoding software. The most common name used by the Chiran fleet translates as "unknown hardware" since the warning "ALERT: UNKNOWN HARDWARE HAS CONNECTED" is logged any time a ship shares telemetry with it.

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Thank you so much for the watch and all those faves! It really means a lot to me.Huggle! 
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:iconflapperfoxy:
FlapperFoxy Featured By Owner Apr 13, 2017  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Thank you very much for the watch and faves!Fox emoji - hearts Fox emoji - hearts 
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:iconfox-pop:
FOX-POP Featured By Owner Dec 20, 2016  Hobbyist Digital Artist
thanks for watching me here too ^^
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:iconzaphkiellane:
Zaphkiellane Featured By Owner Dec 10, 2016  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Thank you for the watch, I think your work is really interesting. I'm going to be watching back. 
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:iconoreon-la:
Oreon-la Featured By Owner Dec 7, 2016  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Thanks for the favs and watch~! ^^
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:iconfreeingmyangelwings:
FreeingMyAngelWings Featured By Owner Dec 1, 2016  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Wow, thank you so much for the Watch! :aww: I really appreciate it! 
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