I have returned. I will probably start running sessions again once the semester starts. This area will likely be very relevant. Without further ado:
The Zalim Desert
The Zalim Desert is cold. While the days do get hot enough in summer to warrant fear of heatstroke, the real danger is the bitterly cold nights. The desert sits right next to the massive border mountains that keep the atmosphere of the bishop ring in, so cold air is constantly flowing down into the desert. This also leads to freak sandstorms in the summer, where enough hot air reaches the area from the coast/rest of the landmass.
The Zalim Desert is massive. No one has fully mapped it. Only a few have crossed it all in one go, and takes two months or more. Most of the thing is empty. Some places are featureless plains of sand. In other places, the ground more rocky and solid, especially nearer the mountains. The center is mostly massive shifting dunes. Few things live in the desert, but those that do are dangerous. Canisphinxes, deadly scorpion swarms, and the dreaded purple worms all call the desert home. Travel, if it is done, is done in groups. Caravans of fifty or more people is advised.
The Zalim Desert is united. Despite its size, danger, and lack of water, almost all of the desert is nominally united under a single religion. The Sun Wardens brought order to the chaos long ago. The desert’s greatest danger is its dearth of easily accessible water, but this also a boon to those who seek to control the people within. Control the oases and wells, and everyone in the desert must bow to you. And this is what the Sun Wardens did so long ago.
The Sun Wardens
The predominant religion of the entire desert is in reverence to the first Sun Warden, Nursa. With four arms, two of flesh and two of light, he fought back the demon blades and the dreaming madmen, and the united the tribes of Nursa’s expanse. His heirs finished the conquest of the desert by taking each of the oases, one by one. Everywhere one goes, three armed, four-armed, and sunburst motifs are apparent.
The Sun Wardens are easily determined by the sunburst marking their right hand, through which their magical powers flow. All Sun Wardens are left-handed, and everyone else is right-handed. Left-handed people who aren’t Sun Wardens are sacrificed. One in five of all left-handers are born bearing the mark.
The Sun Wardens are privileged and elevated in the society, but they do not rule. Not anymore, in any case. The Grand Scion of Nursa is primarily ceremonial office given to the foremost of the young Sun Wardens, but once the title passed through ultimogeniture and carried with it rule over the deserts. So while the blood of the prophet runs through the Sun Warden’s veins, control is given over to the mundane priesthood of the Church. Adepts, especially those that receive their power innately, are in general far too erratic and self-assured to be trusted with control. Usually they will serve the Oasis Wardens of whichever place they were born in.
The Oasis Wardens
The keepers of peace and enforcers of law in the Zalim Desert. They have no magical power themselves, but all political power is in their hands. Each oasis or water source has some member or members of the priesthood in control of the surrounding area. Each oasis runs mostly according to its own disposition, but each mini-theocracy is part of the larger confederacy blanketing the whole desert. The confederacy does not usually have a ruler, except in times of greatest need, when a Sharif is elected to lead the united armies of all the oases. In other times, the city of Kerulay serves as a de-facto political and cultural center.
The most important service the Oasis Wardens is the water dole. In the Zalim Desert, even in the old days, water was never bought or sold, only given and received as a gift or as charity. Now, this process has be normalized and ritualized. Since the Oasis Wardens control all of the water, for others to live they must receive water as from them; this is the water dole. Every day, every citizen receives a fixed amount of water. Usually enough to live on, but not enough to be comfortable. Great pains are taken to ensure that each citizen gets only the water they are allotted. These same pains make the Wardens excellent administrators, for they must know the name and status of every person within their domain. The penalty for thievery is severe, the penalty for buying or selling water even worse.
The common sentence for theft is amputation of a limb, usually the left hand. An outright death penalty is rare, but one of the sentences unique to the desert is castigation, wherein the accused is branded on each hand and on the forehead. Those bearing the brand can never receive water or charity from the Oasis Wardens, ever. Private citizens can still give them water, but most of them have no water to give and wouldn’t if they could, due to the stigma associated with the castigated. So, castigation is in most cases tantamount to exile.
Each citizen should receive the same amount of water. They do not. Farmers naturally get water via irrigation, but that water is still part of the church. However, agricultural products are expensive and many farmers become rich enough to influence the church to grant them extra water. Merchants likewise do the same, as it is necessary for them to cross the great distances to buy and sell. To incentivize gladiatorial combat, the church literally showers the fighters in water. The result is the creation of an upper class, essentially capable of maintaining their own loyal households reliant on them for water.
DGR: while the ability to gain extra water is obviously tied to material wealth, they still aren’t “buying” water as we would mean it. The water is exchanged for various “favors”, some of which very obviously have to do with the flow of money, but nevertheless, they find ways to make the transaction indirect. A merchant gives a great sum of money to a farmer with close ties to the priesthood, and the priesthood is so overjoyed they give a large amount of water to the merchant, as an earthly reward for his generosity and support for the community. Shit like that.