Origins of the Highborn
In Summer 383YE, then Minister of Historical Research Caleb of the Cenotaph, with the aid of Thanmir Hrafnar, Ambassador to the Sarcophan Delves, arranged for a team of scholars to travel to the Sarcophan Delves. As guests of Bedelaar-Huisbaas Annike, they undertook a comprehensive investigation of the origins of the Highborn people and their connection, if any, to the city now occupied by the people of Sarcophan. The following extensive document represents the fruit of their investigations.
After some consideration, the Imperial Archivist arranged for it to be published in its entirety, with minimal annotation. The publication comes with a warning that the document often contains speculation or theories proposed by the scholars responsible for compiling it, and that these should (as always) be subject to critical evaluation - as should the language used to describe the so-called Umshallan empire. Some of the line drawings made by one of the scholars. the Varushkan Stjepan Uniemyslic Zor, have been included.
In summary, the scholars came to the conclusion that the Highborn originated in the Sarcophan Delves, as part of an empire dubbed the Umshallan empire after the great river at whose mouth the city stands. Their founders followed a religion seperate to the more widespread Umshallan belief in fatalism that scholars have named the philosophy of the spiral. They fled both religious persecution and the spread of a devastating sickness to found a new colony in what is now modern-day Highguard.
The Way of the Spiral
The empire that contained the city of Sarcophan, dubbed the empire of the Umshalla after its river, had two religions. One of them, in the ascendant during the empire's fall, was deeply fatalistic, identifying the Creator with Death somehow and claiming that no choice or action could avert an inevitable spiral of spiritual decay. The other held life and death to be a labyrinth of choices, and used both that word and that symbol explicitly, though clearly with imperfect understanding: the leaders of this faith, known as Navigators, served as counsellors and advisors similar to Navarri guides.
It is our conclusion that this fatalism was the doom of the empire of the Umshalla, even as their unsophisticated understanding of right action was the salvation of the pilgrims who came to Highguard.
Thanks to official consular assistance and the implicit patronage of one of the Bedelaar Huisbaas, I am pleased to report that our work has gone relatively smoothly. The local Guild of Historians and Assayers are diligent scholars as far as they go, but are somewhat over-fond of their own ideas. It is somewhat of a culture shock to be working with people who were not educated to know that Wisdom is a virtue, people for whom the process of ruling out an idea is more akin to losing a battle than winning one. Nevertheless, we relished the challenge, and here present our findings.
This section refers to an "Imperial pendant" - a medallion uncovered during an earlier archaeological expedition to the Delves.
The symbol of the labyrinth, of course, is well known the world over. So familiar, in fact, that the initial reaction from the Assayers was one of slightly patronising good humour: the Imperial pendant was, in their opinion, a fake. The guild arranged a visit to a collector of forgeries, who had half a dozen of the things, alongside such things as a motif of a hound in chains graffitied onto an older mural by some unknown follower of Loyalty. The collector herself was deeply amused by our mission, noting that the Way has at various times in history advanced theories for the location of Atun’s birthplace in practically every place from which the Casinean Empire can be reached by ship!
Needless to say, we demolished that position as if the Towerjacks had sent us. The Imperial pendant, provenance verified by individuals above reproach within the Empire, using magics unknown to the Sarcophan, was evidence enough for us, but not for the locals. The price they quoted for doing their own scrying was laughably exorbitant. Wisdom dictated something far simpler, however: the Congregation of the Horse.
Knowing of the ongoing restoration efforts there, we arranged for a fact-finding junket to the Congregation itself, in the company of a guildmaster hungry for attention from well-connected foreigners. Once there, we were able very quickly to show the assembled worthies a bas-relief of a labyrinth half-buried in the mire of ages – for even people brought up to assume that everyone is out to defraud them can be convinced, if sufficient Virtue can be brought to bear. In short, it is inescapable that these people used a recurring motif of a labyrinth in a religious context: there is quite a deal of evidence for it, and not all of it is a forgery.
It was at this point that we were introduced to an old man by the name of Lars Rijn. One of our archivists remembered him as someone who had been quite unseemly keen on talking to us upon our arrival. The guildmaster had, up until this point, steered him away from us, in the polite-but-firm manner that one uses with the departmental crank. But upon the discovery of (what he took to be) incontrovertible evidence that his life’s work was true after all, it was no longer possible to keep the man away from us. Despite his tendency towards garrulity and digression, we found Lars to be a distinctly useful resource, and our explanation of the labyrinth pendants owes much to his theory.
On the Theory of Lars Rijn
The word that was used for this symbol in the old tongue has survived into the modern day with very little corruption, both in the Sarcophan language today and the Imperial language: our word ‘labyrinth’ may be indeed a legacy of these people.
In the view of Lars and his apprentice, the symbol of the Labyrinth is no foreign addition. It was a metaphor: Labyrinth, in the view of the people of the Umshalla, was the whole of existence. They did not believe that life and death and the time between were as distinct as we do, seeing them as parts of a greater whole. They saw the place between lives as something to be traversed, to be navigated, with decisions to be made just as they are in life, and they had no separate name for it. Moral decision-making in this worldview is described as a process akin to working through a maze. Despite the stratified nature of society there was a belief that people had deliberately chosen to be born into their station: that a poor station in this life was the result of past choices deliberate or accidental.
The society of the empire of the Umshalla was a relatively stratified one, that much all will agree, with comparatively little social mobility in life compared to, for example, the Empire. One of the upper strata of the society were effectively freelance advisors: people whom it was customary to consult before important decisions, in the way that the Jarmish might consult an astrologer.
Unlike in other such societies, however, the wisdom of these advisors was considered to come from no higher place than themselves. They had reached their exalted position through successful navigation of the Labyrinth, and therefore people came to these souls with a proven track record of good decisions stretching back through uncounted ages, to pay well for their advice in an entirely pragmatic fashion. These people were known by a name that jumps out from an inscription to an Imperial eye: it is not difficult to see how the locals believed these inscriptions to be forgeries! For the title of these people was that of ‘Navigator’.
A historian’s aside: ‘Navigator’ is the title traditionally ascribed both to Atuman and Atun. It is also referred to as late as the histories of Permion, who is referred to as ‘the last Navigator’: in that time it was the title of the leaders of the Highborn, who ruled from Pharos, the city which became the Necropolis. It is fascinating that the word ‘Navigator’ survives in both modern Sarcophan and Imperial.
In Wisdom, I append to Lars’ theory two things: first, that while the above gels well with all the evidence and magical investigation we have been able to gather, one cannot verify a life’s work in scant months, and one should expect the life’s work of an eccentric old man to be significantly overclaimed. And second, that Lars’ opinion conflicts with a majority opinion that was presented to us as well-evidenced and settled fact!
On the Majority View
The ancient people who first built the Sarcophan Delves - the empire of the Umshalla - are well known to have been fatalists. The symbol of their religion was the spiral of existence. An individual followed a path that was not limited to one life: it was a part of a greater whole, an unchangeable spiral of fate. We were shown a transcript of an inscription decrying the concept that those who claim to give good advice are spiritually elevated, for the concept that spirits could somehow uplift each other was foolish nonsense.
Associated with the spiral, of course, is what was considered to be the spiritual and metaphysical centre of the Umshallan universe: that is to say, a nameless figure of great stature and wealth which is somehow the personification of the force of Death. The great ceremonial palace of the beggars, in which the modern Tomb-Banquet is held, was held to be Death’s residence, not the abode of a temporal ruler, for all that the business of state was conducted there.
Bedelaar-Huisbaas Annike was kind enough to open her own palatial residence to us, which contains a number of artworks based on renovated originals: the most artistically striking of these, overlooking a room in which the modern family conducts important business dealings, depicts a succession of increasingly complex human figures making their way outwards along a richly inlaid spiral.
She was very keen for us to understand that just because the people who had lived here before the arrival of her ancestors had held a view that was almost the opposite of our own, just because she had renovated their art, did not mean that she herself gave this view any credence. In the opinion of those people who own the city today, the ones who originally built it were fools. Their beliefs were all-encompassing, all-pervading, and the height of foolishness, and eventually killed them. For to them the plague, the fall of their city, was the natural consequence of the spiral: nothing to be feared, nothing even to be particularly avoided – it was simply what came next. Correct action was to allow it to pass – for there could be no way that the plague could harm the human spirit – and then pass beyond the pain and suffering into a new and different world that could not be understood in this life.
Reconciling the Two Religions
Even when winnowing out all the fabrications and falsehoods, we are left with a contradiction. On the one hand the spiral of the fatalists, with a wealth of evidence for it: on the other hand, the unmistakable evidence that at least some of those who rode horses in the antiquity of this place used the familiar labyrinth as their symbol. There is only one answer that is consistent with all of this evidence, namely, that it is all true: the empire of the Umshalla must have supported two religions.
In this understanding, the faith of the Labyrinth and the leadership of the Navigators would have been in the ascendancy in the ancient, great days of this empire. It is much easier to believe that your leaders’ wisdom comes from a proven track record of excellent choices, that the poor have somehow chosen to be poor rather than risking falling away from this world, when your experience of the world is not a plague-riddled nightmare. But as the wheel of history turns and the great plague comes upon the empire of the Umshalla, the faith loses credence. Perhaps there is a prophet, a demagogue, a heretic: who knows, but as their days darken the people turn from a path that tells them that they can do something about the world to one in which it does not matter if they do not.
And yet, of course, some cleave to the older beliefs. We know some of their names. Perhaps among the sounds heard by our ritualists, were others: this, we shall never know. And in their civilisation’s darkest hour, Atun and Atuman – Navigators, spiritual leaders through temporal wisdom – lead an organised effort to sail north, in their understanding a great turning-point of the Labyrinth, and in ours a moment of the purest Virtue. And their history ends, and ours begins.
The Fall of the Umshalla
A Slow Decay
With the assistance of Sarcophan scholars of the Guild of Historians and Assayers, through a laborious synthesis of textual and oral evidence, we have an account of the decline and fall of the Umshallan Empire.
Following a gradual decay over the course of centuries, during which lost territories were not retaken and the rulers of an increasingly stratified society grew concerned only with their wealth and political positions, the Umshallan Empire entered a period of extensive civil war. This political division rendered the empire’s ruling council completely incapable of responding to the devastating plague which appeared during that war, and crucial failures of Vigilance and Loyalty, enabled by the crushingly unvirtuous philosophy of the spiral, led to the collapse first of the existing social order, then of the Umshallan culture entirely.
It is our conclusion that the spiral philosophy is largely responsible for turning what might have been a crisis on a somewhat lesser scale than the vallorn into an extermination event for the Umshallan Empire.
By the time of its violent dissolution by the Plague, The Umshallan Empire was already considerably decayed. The latest-dated maps found by the Sarcophan people depict a much smaller territory than earlier maps. Little effort was made to reconquer lost territories, and secession was apparently frequent and unpunished.
While it lost territory hand-over-fist, however, the capital was reputedly glorious. Great monuments lined the streets; great boulevards separated the districts of the city; great palaces defined the skyline.
The central districts of Umshallan Sarcophan were divided (more or less) by function, with the ruins of walls evident around the outside of most of the tomb-palace complexes which serve as palaces to the modern Beggar-Kings. These tomb-palaces housed both the living and the dead together, with the dried and wrapped bodies of ancestors occupying positions of honour overlooking feasting-halls and offices alike. Plaques and carvings indicate that this custom was an ancient one: even before the plague, the Umshallans lived literally alongside their dead.
Of these palaces, one in particular is remarkable: the district with the Beggars’ Palace at its heart. The site of the imperial government during the empire’s final phase, this was not occupied by any particular family. Rather, suites within were found decorated with the sigils of the Hatyat (the Great Families who held seats on the empire’s ruling council), each with their own kitchens, great tables, and once-fine decorations. One suite, centrally placed and decorated in a gaudy, gilded style, as if by an unimaginative acolyte of a Necropolitan Stewards’ Chapter, is believed to have belonged to the figure of Death itself.
The Parralenth Hatya
In the final years of the Umshallan Empire, the Great Family of Parralenth (its “Hatya”) held sway over the Council. Once a small city near Sarcophan, Parralenth was absorbed by the capital’s growth in much the same way as the city of Sarvos would later absorb the village of Caricomare. In time, it came to pass that their leader Asnat balanced the ambitions of competing families to place herself in a position of soft authority over the Council.
After her death, her son Elam and daughter Orpa solidified this authority considerably, to the extent where some refer to them as Diarchs – “Twin Monarchs” – though they held no formal title. They undertook to exemplify the qualities which the Umshallan people claimed to value: they made themselves brilliant horseback riders, trained with bow and sword, composed poetry, wrote texts on politics, philosophy and rulership (all, tragically, now lost), and cultivated reputations for honesty and peacekeeping which appealed to the Umshallan sense of orderliness. Though they navigated the waters of politics masterfully, they nevertheless created resentment over their consolidation of power.
Following Orpa’s death, the situation deteriorated quickly. Vying to assert their will over the Council, several Hatyat fell first to bickering, then to raising armies. After two years of inconclusive war, the powerful Sutenre family decisively defeated their rivals the Menkaure in battle, and set about dismantling their control over their holdings.
Within days, the plague appeared in the lands of the Sutenre.
The Umshallan Plague
While it is not strictly within the scope of the paper, the authors believe that, being in possession of detailed information about the Umshallan plague, it would represent a potentially catastrophic failure of Vigilance not to publish it. Nothing like the Umshallan plague is known to the Empire, but that was true for the Umshallans too once. Fortunately, the Umshallans took medicine seriously, and excellent descriptions of the plague are available.
The scholarly consensus is that the plague was contracted from a miasma surrounding other sufferers, undetectable at first but obvious once the coughing began. There is no consensus on its initial origin.
The disease would begin with a dry cough, becoming increasingly violent over a few days, and with it, headaches, aching joints, fatigue, aches and swelling in the nose and throat like influenza, and a slowly progressing fever. This fever would grow intense, laying a sufferer in their bed for between a week and a month – if they were kept fed and watered. The sufferer would continue coughing until they were too weak to continue, whereupon they would struggle to breathe.
Deaths primarily from the Plague numbered around one in twenty; in the first wave, most recovered naturally. However, later, when society began to break down, lack of care killed many through starvation and thirst, exacerbated by the disease’s disruption of the harvest cycle. Many of these would have recovered had there been anyone capable of taking care of them.
Curative methods focused on clearing the throat and alleviating the fever. Honey, ginger, gargling with salted water and bathing the head in steam were known folk remedies, while the wealthy had access to “ananas” extract - a syrupy substance made from a certain fruit. Other methods, such as encouraging sufferers to eat mouldering bread, or inhale spores from it, are surely nothing more than superstition. But many would accept no medicine, for the philosophy of the spiral encouraged sufferers simply to lie down and “face the wall”, to give up in hope of a better incarnation, and to face the end of Umshallan society with peace and without resentment.
What follows is an epidemiological history of the Umshallan plague, taken from an outsider, Djekafre, from a nearby petty kingdom which once belonged to the Umshallan Empire. Relying on first-hand accounts from fleeing Umshallans, Djekafre synthesised a mostly believable account of events, though he clearly had an axe to grind. We have tried to strip away the political bias – not that it matters a great deal anymore. The broad strokes are clear enough.
The first wave of the disease struck the lands of the Sutenre, the victorious side in the Umshallan Empire’s last civil war, after they installed a malleable puppet as chancellor. The harm done was limited, and for some reason the Plague did not spread further. Nevertheless, the cult of the spiral sought a scapegoat and found it in a minor nomadic population of traders, along with a general xenophobia. “Purity laws” were passed banning these nomads from entering into towns or cities, and rounding up the “enemies of pure society”. Drunks, beggars, and the destitute were taken for slaves and put to work in the fields.
Meanwhile, the defeated Menkaure rallied, drawing a new levy from the fields. But in the spring when their campaign was to launch, the disease struck again. The hastily-erected and poorly-supplied camps of the Menkaure and their allies were devastated. One in three died, while the rest deserted, helping the disease to spread further. Other powers now tried to raise forces to seize land or assert dominance, and each in their turn was ravaged. Another author notes that the particular devastation wrought on armies in the field seemed to be some kind of punishment for the very act of making war.
Throughout, the ruling Hatyat concerned themselves only with their own protection. At this stage the first Palace complexes were stocked up and walled up, as the Great Families decided to wait the disease out. Outside, however, the planting season had been disrupted, and 5% of the population had been lost. Those planting crops too late despaired of having enough food to survive the dry season. In time, starvation and banditry followed.
This second wave of the plague may have been Umshallan society’s last chance. Had they poured their Prosperity into importing food, had they Wisely coordinated hospitallers to where they were most needed, had they simply acted with Vigilance instead of turning to face the wall, they may have survived. But – reading between the lines – the Spiral encouraged them to accept what came, and to pass gently from the land of the living to the land of the dead.
While they waited, another harvest failed.
Worse, the first public-facing response from the Hatyat came when the first horse died of the Plague. Laws were swiftly enacted to protect horses, but not humans. Umshallan writers often attributed their success in war, the greatness of their empire, to the horse, and this arrogance proved ruinous. Whole populations rose up to seize control of granaries; the Hatyat’s provincial holdings were raided and their horses butchered for meat. Mercenaries were hired to help suppress the uprising, only to turn on their masters once it became clear that food was the only currency. Many fled.
And then the third wave of the plague arrived, and Umshallan society simply disintegrated. While the majority of the empire’s population starved in their sickbeds, the remaining Hatyat walled themselves in. The only noteworthy exception was the Parralenth Hatya, whose young scions (presumably including Atun and Atuman) sought to establish a “Principality of Purity” within the capital. With heroic Vigilance they struggled to keep the disease out of their walled district, and with fierce Loyalty they worked tirelessly to keep not only their families but their retainers, servants and slaves fed and watered when they fell sick. It is written that they did not legally own most of the ships they would eventually depart on, but that the deserted dockyards left their claim uncontested.
We have, by this point, switched to a different source: a council member, Khaprinemhat of the Menkaure. Khaprinemhat’s Council motions are strident declarations of fury against the Parralenth, who were, by now, functionally independent of Umshallan rulership. They raided other districts for their food-stocks, they stockpiled weapons and armour, and they seized assets in a targeted fashion. Evidently, it was clear to the Parralenth long before they left that waiting the disease out was not an option, and they took steps to enable their journey well in advance. They did not break and flee; they retreated in good order.
At its height (that is, while it was still an empire with an Empress), the Umshallan Empire co-existed with the Terunael Empire. The two regarded one another much as we regard the Asaveans: strange and different, with very divergent attitudes on key social matters such as magic (which played a less pivotal role in Umshallan society), but trade between these societies was limited by modern standards.
Nevertheless, “the north” was not a desolate wasteland to the Umshallans. They traded after a fashion with the Asavean Empire and its colonies, and were certainly aware of the wide, fertile Bay of Catazar. While naval piracy was a problem, they make no mention of the Grendel as a threat, presumably because the Grendel themselves were not a unified political entity at this time. Nor do they mention the names of Jotun, Druj or Thule, nor any of the lesser nations which occupied the lands of the present-day Casinean Empire; these peoples were just not worth dealing with.
It makes sense, then, that by Khaprinemhat’s account, the Parralenth set off north equipped for war. They seized several hundred horses from the estates of weakened Hatyat, and raided armouries and stores. Khaprinemhat believed their intentions were domination: even this mildly Ambitious Umshallan could not conceive of the scale of a paragon’s Ambition to remake society anew in a new land. But Atun and Atuman were not alone in their departure. Accounts vary wildly of the number of ships which departed for foreign lands, and of whether the Parralenth were the first or simply the most organised.
Knowing little of the land, Atun and Atuman must have expected to have to carve a kingdom for themselves out of a land occupied with unruly and barbarous orcs. That they founded the greatest city in the world at the time is a testament to their Virtue and skill in war and peace alike.
Not long after these great naval departures, the capital city was devastated by a fourth wave of the plague. Little remains of this time except graffiti, and most of that has been eradicated by enterprising Sarcophan decorators – with the exception of one palace, whose ruling family have apparently decided to delve deep into the irony of their inheritance. There, amongst simple naming graffiti and crude slogans, a singular message stands out, reading, “After the Diarchs of Hot Blood, the Triarchs of Cold Bone.”
Our Sarcophan colleagues merely shrugged at the mention of the “Triarchs of Cold Bone”: no political triarchy is known in their history, and by the time of these graffiti, no political leadership existed at all. Nevertheless, the phrase raised hackles among the research group, for unlike the Umshallan Empire, the Eternal Realms do contain a Triarchy known for their cruelty and capable of wreaking devastation.
Oral tradition, from texts unknown to present-day scholars and buried too deep to have found so far on our expedition, teaches that none survived in the Umshallan delta, and that the area was shunned for centuries, at least until the bold, brave Sarcophans arrived to loot the ruins. In the course of our expedition, we have been given no reason to doubt this: whoever came first must have looted the vast wealth they found, and that it was the ancestors of the modern Delvers proves it.
These are the true conclusions which we, the authors, have drawn through Wisdom and Vigilance, and to them we affix our seal.