We passed on the road, on the far side of the rift and two furlongs deep, the great dome of Nacan. The top bristles with iron spikes to catch falling demons, while the sides are covered with slits through which defenders may thrust their weapons in defense. No souls stirred in the winding paths round the dome, but we did not linger for fear of the brigands.
We camped this night on the overlook above the burnt ruins of Soltol. This city was once the Fifth City of the rift, the Sixth being Toroth. But not fifty years ago the city was struck by a great calamity of unknown cause. The end result was the utter reduction of the city to ash.
Soltol was once a beauteous city, as evidenced by the wide and high arcades carved directly out of the stone, allowing light to flow into the deep halls of the city. The city was but twenty-two of these halls of varying lengths. The caravan master said the city was famous for its stained glasses, ceramics, and other fired goods. The river bank and terraces below the city also grew a great deal of food, the loss of which greatly deprived the rift as a whole.
The city was also reputed as the only haunt of wizards in Yoth following the great destruction that fell on the land. The three court wizards employed by the king at the time of the storms were all reputed the most powerful in the land, and were known far and wide as the Bond of Gold, for they all forsook the infighting common to their kind and worked in harmony for peace and the benefit of the kingdom. However, all their works could not reverse the kingdom’s sudden fate, and with the collapse of the kingdom their agreement soon came to an end. Aphadis remains with the royal family in their perpetual exile. The wizard Halls’s accomplishments in the wider world needn’t be documented here, but he is rumored to have returned to the Valley Kingdoms of his birth following his recent disappearance. Daeluin remained in the rift, in Soltol, to learn all they could of the kingdom’s affliction. By dint of their great power, they in essence came to rule the city as well, though a council of selectman nominally held the sceptre.
In the years preceding the great catastrophe, Daeluin became rather more reclusive then they were already, and rumors of senility and illness in the wizard’s advanced age abounded. Daeluin hadn’t taken an apprentice in a century, but one was chosen in the years immediately previous the great gout of flame and many seem to connect these two events though no evidence of their relation is forthcoming. Regarding that crisis, the city was consumed – not even the length of the calamity is known. One day, the city was there, and the next it was ash. Nothing heralded the fall, no great shaking of the earth, no lighting of the far horizon, no screams of the damned echoing through the cave walls. Not even the corpses of those lost were found in the ashen wastes left behind.
Emgol contains no permanent outdoor works aside it’s farmlands on the canyon base, and a few platforms hanging off the riftwall. Though the town proper is but a furlong off the canyon floor, the platforms reach all the way to the top of the canyon. Each one is shaped as the head of an animal, baring their teeth or in calm repose. I espied a great peacock, three red dragons, at least ten skulls of men, and nearly two dozen swans, besides many more singular or repeated. These serve as the guard posts of the Fraternity of the Bow, the six hundred and fifty master bowmen that serve as defenders and de facto rulers.
Membership in that order is hereditary, and the bows of the oldest members have been passed down for generations, as the brotherhood is said to predate the great cataclysm that consumed the above world and once had ten thousand or more members. The neophytes of the order are given the duty of guarding the laborers that toil to grow the food in the fertile valley from the demons above or their desire to flee. The men of the Fraternity are oft bored in this duty, for few demons elect to fall directly from the top to the canyon floor, and few of the agricultural slaves seek to escape. Many content themselves with hunting the birds the glide and roost on the canyons upper reaches, and they often adorn their items and clothes with them, with the dresses growing so wild that the men often resemble beakless birds with feathers of brown, black, white, and the richest of them trade for the exotic colors of distant lands when the chance arises, and the caravan master did a brisk trade in this. Their brotherhood tactically relocates to the other cities, when they are under threat, for their prowess in battle is the greatest of all the men of the rift.
The city itself is composed of several massive antechambers carved into the stone and hidden from the outside world. The houses of the inhabitants crowd into the floor and walls of some of these antechambers, while others serve as markets, granaries, plant nurseries, or stables for the city’s herds. Those closest to the rift wall serve as housing for the field slaves, who sleep in simple alcoves carved from the stone. Indeed, the hereditary class of slaves makes of the greatest part of the population, perhaps having five or six slaves for every man of the brotherhood. There are also two free adults for each member of the brotherhood, to account for their wives and also the few woodcraftsmen, fletchers, bowyers, and reeves that manage the city.
These slaves grow almost the entire canyon’s food, and perhaps was one of the densest and well-managed operations I have ever seen in my travels. The river’s silt allows for the planting of two crops each year, and every square acre of the canyon floor is employed in this service for a few leagues in each direction. This land grows feed for the cows, corn, wheat, beans, potatoes, vegetables and fruits of a staggering variety given the limited room, and even sugar and the wood for the Brotherhood’s bows. The work is given over to less than five thousands of people, only half of which are men, necessitating a brutal drive to complete crops in time.
Because of the general dearth of free labor in the canyon, the reeves make a great effort to keep the slaves alive and working. Most of them eat and perhaps even sleep better than most of the common folk the world round. But they live as mere beasts, working constantly and unceasingly. No thought is given to their education or recreation. Most of those that do die simply refuse to leave their lodging one day, unable to carry on. Even their sated appetites and long rests can accomplish nothing. The caravan master said that those with the means to transport chattel or rare bow-woods into the canyon made great profits.
Passed the ruins of Gocan, one of the first cities established in the chasm, on the side far from us. The great lion statue that made the city famous remains standing, though heavily worn by time both in color and form. The last ship departing from Yoth in the days of the storms ended up taking with them the interim rulers of Gocan, and no leadership was forthcoming. For many years the dispossessed wandered the rift as brigands, for no other city would take they extra mouths, as starvation was common in those days. These brigands became infamous in their own right, and their names are passed down as folk heroes and villains. The Lion King, Bent Bow Borain, Stonemaster, and Gefm of Gacan are all common subjects of stories and morality tales amongst the people of the rift.
Last and deepest of the cities is Pagol, the seat of the priesthood and kritarchy. A truncated bridge reaching from the north side of the rift to a third quarter of the rift’s width serves as the only outer structure, but what a structure it is. In truth, the building is less like a bridge, and instead serves s the core of the city itself, as the original structure has been long overgrown with additions sumptuous and practical. The town is in fact a massive rectangular block, taller than it is wide, with the vast majority of the city’s business taking place beneath, atop, or around the bridge. The bazaar, the library, the House of Hearts, the Lake Cult, the school, the homes of the inhabitants and their hanging gardens – all appended to this single structure. The outer constructions of the other cities are meanly wrought of sandstone, limestone, or tuff, but the bridge itself is of fine white stone, and the city, though made of the same materials, is much finer in its construction, with flourishes and designs pleasing to the eye. Lower to the water, the jagged sky blue lightning bolt, abounds on murals and in the forms of pennons. The only vital function that remains ensconced within the stone is the Beetle Cult, though the vitality of that organization remains a matter of continuing debate. The river flows around the bridge’s outer edge, and the true crossing into the wall on that side can be found lower down, so low on the water one might think it floating.
From the far side, great mines of silver and iron stretch endlessly down into the earth, stripped by the laboring classes of the city. The miners of the city live in great luxury compared to those of most of the rift and indeed even their kin in the world over – their children go to school, they have clean water and delicious food, and they have privilege in all personal, as well as economic, proceedings. This is the only source of silver or iron actively tapped in the whole land, and as such both the miners and the city hold great influence even besides their cultural and religious privilege.
As mentioned, the men of the deeper and more western reaches are considered holier and higher in the cultural caste system. For this reason, the leaders of Pagol are also esteemed as the leaders of al the riftmen, with the judges of the House of Hearts holding absolute law over life, death, bondage, and manumission. Any serious punishment, including execution, imprisonment, or slavery is the exclusive purview of the kritarchs, and any of the rulers of the other cities that wish to deliver this sentence must place the accused in the hands of the twenty-five Outer Judges. Meanwhile, legal conflict within Pagol, or between towns, as well as general management is left to the five Inner Judges. Together this body of thirty men and women rule the narrow world of the rift.
The judges are a tight hereditary class, with theoretically strict limits of membership. When one line of judges dies out, men and women both, only then can another citizen be elevated to the ranks of the Outer Judges, from which Inner Judges are selected. This is in fact a rather common occurrence, as the judges typically find it expedient to extirpate the lines, root and stem, of their rivals. The people of Pagol are amongst the most peaceful and safe in the world – the only exception is those too close to the rulership. Because none of the Outer Judges can be convicted save by the Inner Judges (who for reasons of expediency typically ignore their underlings indiscretions) murder is a common, even accepted political implement. As such, the Outer Judges rarely last more than a decade, while the Inner Judges rarely last more than two generations. These masters of violence also find time to run the affairs of Pagol and the rift as a whole.
Yet it was not always so, as rule once came from Toroth, the city of the lake of the same name. As the canyon was once the path of pilgrims, the terminus of the path was the home of an order of priests, which grew into a city as the storms and demons above drove the desperate into their waiting arms. Not two kilometers from Pagol, on the far end of the lake, a city sprung up over water, more numerous than any now standing and ruled entirely by the Sun priesthood, who also claimed rule over the rift as a whole.
However, a hundred years ago the water level of the lake began to rise, and eighty two years ago the city as a whole was evacuated. Many of the thronging masses were unceremoniously expelled to Emgol and Altol, where they died in bondage or in demon attacks. The priesthood and annals were resettled temporarily in Pagol, and would have resumed their rule, but for the intense schism that rocked the cult. The partisans, the cults of the Lake and Beetle, split on the subject of permanent resettlement. The Lake party wished to remain in Pagol, thereby gaining their moniker by dint of geography. The Beetle faction was named for the sacred sun beetles, beauteous golden insects that grow to enormous size and purportedly display a strange ritual wherein they pray towards the sun at various times of the day. They gained this moniker because the keepers of the sacred beetles sided with the faction that supported resettlement of one of the abandoned cities.
The conflict between them was complicated by the leadership of the priesthood. For the times since before the storms, the priestly class was hereditary, with the traditional high priesthood held by the royal family and smaller offices held by a secondary aristocracy. The priestly families that inhabited temple of Toroth when the storms struck still continue to this day. The former Head of the Temple became the de facto central power of the priesthood, city, and rift on the whole, and this office passed between the two most prominent families, in an alternating manner. When a potentate form one family passed, the sceptre would pass to a member of the other. And this agreement continued unbroken for a hundred and forty one years, excepting a period of unrest in the years immediately following the storms. However, during the crisis the rulership failed to transfer properly by agreement of all parties. Eventually the family that gave up power wished for it back, but by then the other clan had consolidated their permanent place in office. So, the family sided with the opposing Beetle faction, and took with them their partisans, escalating from an internal schism to essentially civil war.
Pagol burned for a week, but in the end the Beetle Cult was hemmed into the stone of the rift, where they negotiated their surrender. The peace formally welcomed them back into the fold, but the cult grew insular first, then strange. Pagol’s subterranean district is a city of its own, with its own rulers and customs. They still make appearances in religious festivals, but otherwise keep to themselves and move through the canyon and city in their secret ways. They walk the city proper at night, and deal sometimes with select of the diurnal people of Pagol. These contacts (Twilighters, in the parlance of the city) are chosen for their discretion and ability to provide the goods the cult desires. Little else can be said of them, for almost nothing is known by the general population.
Here also is where the caravan master made his greatest profits, for the men and women of Pagol are ever hungry for the luxuries of the outside world, as trader’s are hungry for their fine silver. Fine cask of wines, exotic spices, good silk and linen and leathers and furs as well fetch an enviable price in the market, held on the top level of Pagol’s bridge. All men are rich enough to take part, but the greatest buyers are the priests and judges, who bless and officiate the opening of the market each day, dressed better than many kings in the colors and fibers of far flung lands.
Yet it was here I saw a man standing on a platform, gesticulating and speaking with great vigor, his mind aflame with the energy of fanaticism. I asked our guide for a translation, and he told me to pay no mind to the man, for he is of the faction in the city that believes nothing outside the rift truly exists, and the world is confined instead to this narrow defile. This curious belief has gained great traction in the city as of late – even ten of the judges and some of the priesthood have come to believe it, despite their enjoyment of luxuries certainly beyond their domain. They explain this as the product of the other fallen cities, which they persist in believing still persist with human populations. Any outsiders are merely actors with painted skin, or the power of illusions, and speak gibberish. They believe that the lie was created by some of the judges in a conspiracy to consolidate power, and as such they are increasingly hostile to the powers that be, supporters of one or the other having come to blows in recent months and threatens to lead into the usual spasms of political murder amongst the judges. The guide told me to pay the ‘rift-believers’ no mind, though they eyed me with great vitriol.
The rest of the fold is lost.
We camped on the great hills of the valley kingdom of Gorn, looking back on the now deep desert of Yoth. The line of the rift is still visible from this distance and height, as is the great depression of Toroth, though the ruins of the city are hidden below the wall. Yet the pillars and arches of the great Cradle of the Sun yet poke over the rift’s edge from the center of the lake, and indeed I remember still the sight of the sun occupying the sky between the pillars in high noon, nestled comfortably between the arches. We departed from the bird men at daybreak, giving them some tools for use by their single-handed shamans, and watched them ride the dervishes away from us, still awed by the sight.
Of Gorn, little is ever said in the wider world, for the kingdom is poor…