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Worth the Candle: A Brief Description of Aerb

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It’s commonly accepted that the world began in 30,000 BE, though there are a handful of historical records that claim much different dates, some more authoritative than others. Among entities that claim to have been present at (roughly) the start of prehistory:

  • The gods all claim to have “arrived” around 30,000 BE, though they refuse to say where they had been before that time. Invreizen describes Aerb as being “thawed out”, Karakter describes it as a “fracture”, Skaduwee says “a lightening”, Aarde refers to it as a “mudslide”, and Truuk has never told the same story twice. These variable descriptions are difficult to reconcile with each other, though it’s possible that they arrived in different places on Aerb, or perhaps came at different times.
  • The three eldest dragons all claim to be roughly thirty millennia old, and all describe Aerb as a place constantly in motion, with sweeping changes on a weekly basis, sometimes with mountains appearing from nothing. Shadowfang’s theory is that the world of Aerb was “pieced together” from other worlds, but she offers no suggestions on the mechanism for this to have happened, nor for the source of these other worlds, nor does she have any evidence besides what she saw with her own eyes.
  • The earliest memories of the renacim date to approximately 30,000 BE, and reveal much of early efforts of the mortal species to civilize, as well as the various monsters that prevented much in the way of that happening for thousands of years.
  • The elves claim that Celestar has its own history distinct from that of Aerb, and that Aerb “appeared” one day as a round jewel in the sky. That said, there were thousands of years between elven accounts of the appearance of Aerb and the first successful attempts at traveling there, and the history of Celestar is considered suspect, as much of it was written by those who emigrated from it.
  • The city of Cidium claims to have existed in perpetuity, not just thirty thousand years old, but millions of years old, if not billions, or, at the extreme end of claims, without end. This would be easy to dismiss as impossible if not for several sources of independent corroboration.
  • Demons and devils have been, predictably, unhelpful, but their estimates of the age of Aerb do sometimes conform to the standard thinking on the matter.

[Juniper’s Notes: Aerb kind of looks like it was literally hacked together from bits and pieces while the simulation was running, which I guess is as good a creation story as you could ask for. But it’s kind of funny, since a lot of the speciation is consistent with longer time spans. They don’t really have genetics on Aerb, at least, not yet, but you can take a look at the differences between island populations and see that logically, this group of finches is consistent with having a common ancestor with this other group of finches. There’s a similar thing for plate tectonics, where a lot of the geography follows the rules, but there’s not enough time for it to have happened in if you accept the ~30,000 BE start date. So I don’t know what’s really going on here, and none of my theories really illuminate anything, nor are they testable. I assume that “everything hacked together from different sources” is commentary rather than literally what happened, but that’s a matter of theology.]

Pre-Imperial Era

The First Empire was erroneously named, because there were many empires before it, though none quite so large or successful. The history of Aerb prior to the First Empire is one of civilizations rising and falling, each time leaving behind a little of themselves. As most varieties of magic require extensive education, which in turn requires large civic support structures, most of these large-scale nations and small-scale empires were supported by magic in one way or another until their collapse, which typically took working knowledge of the magic with them. While many of the great nations were felled by internal structural factors, there were also occasionally outside factors in play, typically monstrous but occasionally as a consequence of the magics being used to sustain the large civilization.

The origins of the athenaeums lie in this rising and falling action that preceded the First Empire. From time to time, a crumbling nation or empire would be able to maintain a single city-state that was able to weather the civic collapse of the rest of the nation. These city-states typically remained as centers of learning and knowledge, with the most accomplished mages often sitting at the top of the power structures. These proto-athenaeums didn’t always last, but those that did carved out a place for themselves that could weather the centuries of political change and plan for different contingencies, making them some of the most resilient organizations on Aerb for their time.

It’s sometimes theorized that even without Uther Penndraig, Aerb might have been heading for a revolution anyway. The majority of the athenaeums had been founded and were firmly entrenched, a number of “enabling” entads had either been created or were soon on the horizon, and the “two steps forward, one step back” path that civilization had been on was heading toward technologies that would help to stabilize civilization and better ensure that the single step back wasn’t so catastrophic.

[Juniper’s Notes: Interesting that so many people think that Uther was just a cog in the machine of history. I mean, he clearly wasn’t just that, but it seems like he was set up so that was a plausible excuse for at least some of his successes. Aerb doesn’t have the long history of stagnation that some fantasy worlds have. Kind of curious how much of the ebb and flow was DM machinations, and how much is just how histories work; it calls to mind the fall of the Roman Empire, fall of the Ottoman Empire, et cetera?]

The First Empire

Following his defeat of the Dark King (a minor emperor in his own right), Uther Penndraig began making overtures of cooperation to the kingdoms surrounding Anglecynn, some of which had been under the Dark King’s control. The Meeting of the Seventeen Swords established a pact of mutual protection, trade, and cooperation that would quickly lead to the formation of the First Empire, with Uther at its head as the Secretary General. Following the adoption of Uther’s new calendar, this would become 0 FE. The First Empire committed enormous resources to its own improvement, partly in the form of education, partly in research and development (a process that had been created from whole cloth by Uther), and partly in new social, cultural, and physical infrastructures that would allow the empire to knit itself ever more tightly.

Uther’s inventions are often overshadowed by his other feats, but the wood-burning steam engine and the moveable type printing press were the two primary innovations that set the foundation for the next hundred years of the First Empire. The spread of Anglish as the common tongue was controversial at the time, but helped enormously by the flood of incredibly cheap books into foreign cities. More than that, Uther seemed to have an endless supply of stories, and even after he went missing, his pamphlet stories kept landing by the bale in the major cities of the Empire.

Wherever he went, Uther sought to revitalize and reform, and the oft-heard term ‘Penndraig reforms’ refers to any of hundreds of different schemes, some of them on the level of the empire, others in less grand arenas, like mail systems or bureaucratic codes. In general terms, the Penndraig reforms were focused on making things “efficient, consistent, and redundant”, meaning that they would produce the most possible with the least resources, they would hardly ever fail, and when they did fail, they could be easily repaired or replaced.

As another point of order, the exclusionary principle started around the time Uther first came on the scene and somewhat marred the First Empire, both in the way it occasionally removed useful magic from availability, and in how it negatively impacted the involved economies (both in terms of the land/infrastructure/resources/people it removed from the hexal market, and in the magics that were made unusable anywhere else).

First Interimperium

There is some debate over whether Uther was the lynchpin of the First Empire by design, negligence, or necessity, but in the wake of his disappearance in 30 FE, it became clear that the First Empire wouldn’t outlive him for long. Part of the problem was the short-sightedness of his sons and their near-war with each other over control of Anglecynn, which had calamitous effects on the rest of the Empire, namely in how they attempted to hold their resources hostage or extract capital from goods and services that had once been held in common trust. This began a cycle of withdrawals from imperial agreements and escalating tensions between the various polities of the Empire, which eventually led to the Imperial Remnants period circa 48 FE, marked largely by small groups of polities holding each other as close allies, typically in open hostilities with other groups (and usually grouped according to species similarity or shared cultural values).

It wasn’t quite a period of complete regression. The athenaeums held strong, weathering the imperial collapse as they’d done in the past, and most now abiding by the cooperation agreements that Uther had set in place. They were also acting under (most of) the Penndraig reforms, which proved a boon to their continued operations. Similarly, a number of initiatives started under the First Empire continued in modified or partial form after its collapse, either under the directives of individual polities, through amended agreements, or by individual actors. Notably among those were the railway systems, the Draconic Accords, international mail, and the vast increase in literacy (much of it focused on the Anglish language, which continued to cement itself as the lingua franca of Aerb).

While culture was generally regressive during this time, as nationalist ideologies clawed back territory, many of the measures that Uther had put in place began to take hold, bringing the major centers of population into greater conformity with Utherian ideals of cooperation and understanding. Similarly, technology was able to progress, largely as a result of Utherian advancements being percolated out into the rest of Aerb.

In some respects, the first interimperium was gentler than the second and more famous period that would follow the Second Empire, but it was still a time of calamitous changes, even if some of that was regression toward what had been before. Popular among amateur historians is the idea of a Great Snapback, as though the world had been pushed out of shape against tension and was destructively returning to its old form, but the truth is more complex, as many of the problems of the interimperium cannot be attributed to Uther ‘pushing things out of shape’, but rather, to the greater interconnectedness of the world, to advances in technology and magecraft, and to changes in social structures. It is likely that the Internecine Wars and the attendant loss of life would have happened regardless of whether there had ever been a First Empire; they would simply have been between dissociated polities rather than former imperial members.

The Second Empire

The rise of the Second Empire happened largely as a result of the discovery of the bulk teleportation spell, which made organized warfare between countries much more deadly while at the same time greatly lubricating the frictions of trade. The Athenaeum of Barriers was put to work fortifying cities against attack by bulk teleportation as best as possible, and pacts of mutual defense and/or teleportation-in-warfare bans were put into place, which, along with trade agreements and enforcement mechanisms, formed the basis for the rise of the Second Empire and its eventually legal formation in 176 FE.

Ideologically, the Second Empire took quite a bit from the writings and thinking of Uther Penndraig, usually taking them a step further or showing less in the way of restraint. Uther had worked to demystify any number of phenomena, and beyond that, spent a great deal of his time challenging stagnant or corrupt institutions, along with those traditions and practices he considered “barbaric”. The Second Empire put funds and personnel into full unification of Aerb, sometimes at swordpoint when there were disagreements with rulers who sought to have their nation stand as a pillar of independence.

Soul magic provided the backbone of imperial power, and skilled soul mages stood as force multipliers in both military and political realms. Soul mages were used to enact bloodless coups where possible, as well as produce a variety of soul-manipulated creatures that served various utility and combat roles. One unfortunate feature of soul magic is that the soul is resistant to change and will regress toward the mean unless manipulated extremely carefully over a long period of time; this feature meant that it was more economical and logistically simple to consolidate power in a single place so that soul mages wouldn’t have to be constantly on the move, refreshing their manipulated subjects. This consolidation of power and soul mages helps to explain why so many important people were in Lankwon when it became an exclusion zone.

Scientific research in the Second Empire was conducted with a fevered intensity. Some of these efforts bore fruit, increasing scientific understanding, especially in regards to the various schools of magic, but many simply resulted in wasted resources, events that would later be deemed atrocities, and the creation of new exclusion zones. Beyond that, the Second Empire’s general defiance of conventional wisdom and lack of respect for established institutions and traditions resulted in a number of high-profile failures when those institutions and traditions turned out to have served some useful function after all.

The action of the exclusionary principle engulfed Lankwon, the Imperial City, in 324 FE despite the best efforts to prevent such a thing (research bans within 500 miles, restrictions on entad creation within 300 miles), and the nature of the calamity was such that there was a near-total decapitation of imperial leadership. This came at a time of heavy criticism of the empire and its various failures and a strong counter-imperial movement, effectively bringing about a swift end to the Second Empire (which was arguably on its way out anyway as its various mechanisms of cohesion and economic prosperity had been coming undone). Counter-imperialists began purges in a large number of member polities, sometimes trying people for post facto crimes and other times swiftly executing the opposition.

Special note must be made of the many deaths during the Second Imperial period. Some were a result of imperial “misadventures”, some were intentional extermination campaigns, and others came in the wake of imperial fracture. Hexal population was approximately seventeen billion at the time the Second Empire was founded, but dropped to ten billion at the time Manifest took the Imperial City. Imperial supporters will point out that much of this century-long drop can be attributed not to malice or incompetence, but rather disease, increased prophylaxis, and a deliberate attempt to curb birth-rates of the most populous species following projected labor surpluses.

[Juniper’s Notes: It’s pretty interesting to think that a bunch of the people who were in the Second Empire are still around, given how long-lived some of the species are on Aerb. Hells, some of them were around for Uther’s time too. I guess the word I would use is “complicity”, and there seems to be an awful lot of it going around in that time period. I’m sure that it was just like the Nazis, which the Second Empire is kind of sort of patterned on; a lot of people would say that they were just pressured, or trying to work within the system, or that they were secretly double agents when really they were just trying to play the odds. Then you’ve got institutions like the athenaeums, which actively worked with the Second Empire, a fact that usually gets swept under the rug or attributed to a period of bad leadership. Hard to know how much everyone knew and who was actually buying into some of the more reprehensible shit they got up to.

I should note I’m also giving the whole thing with Manifest the stink eye, because it looks more like DM intervention than exclusions usually do.]

Second Interimperium

In the same way that the First Empire gave way to a wave of reactionary nationalism, the Second Empire gave way to regressive, conservative, and isolationist sentiment, especially as the counter-imperialists were (largely) the ones to take up the reins in the wake of the Second Empire’s dramatic fall. Soul magic was seen as one of the culprits for the Second Empire’s various crimes, and as a consequence, tended to be tightly regulated if not outright banned.

Where the collapse of the First Empire still saw some advancements from the systems that had been put in place, the collapse of the Second Empire left very little of worth behind, not least because virtually no effort had been put into proofing against collapse or maintaining strongly decentralized systems.

As generational churn was putting some of the weight of that era in the past, two developments naturally led to a more strongly united Aerb, in spite of the remaining counter-imperial sentiment. The first was the creation of the teleportation keys through forge frenzy in 389 FE, while the second was the development of radio technologies in 413 FE. The keys in particular were a boon to the nascent empire, given that they were auctioned off in such a way as to be somewhat evenly distributed among the soon-to-be member nations. With those technologies in place, increased communication and cooperation was nearly a given, and after some initial growing pains, many of those in power began once again talking about having a true international community.

The Empire of Common Cause

The Empire of Common Cause formed at a glacial pace in comparison to its forerunners, being termed an “empire” three full decades after the initial cooperative agreements were in place, and a decade before the Articles of Empire which created the modern governmental structure were signed. The initial “core” of the Empire of Common Cause was seventeen member nations who entered into mutual trade, immigration, and defense agreements. The athenaeums were principled supporters of the early empire, in part because of remaining imperial sentiment there (the athenaeums having not been hit quite as hard by the purges and general violence that marked the second interimperium), and in part because of a need to be able to exert influence beyond their city-states.

Another factor in the rise of the Empire of Common Cause was the falling birth rates around the hex, most of which was due to the policies that had been implemented by the Second Empire. Advances in technology had increased food production and multiplied the effects of labor, which helped lead to greatly increased urbanization as the agricultural labor force moved into the cities, sometimes in protest.

Originally developed as a joint economic zone, the Empire of Common Cause expanded with every passing year, not just inducting new members, but instituting new laws and expanding its purview. In theory, every member polity flew its own flag and abided by its own laws, but the gradual creep of power and responsibility has allowed that principle to go to the wayside. Much ado is still made about sovereignty in the face of exercises of imperial power, but the risk of censure silences all but the most egregious offenses.

[Amaryllis’ Notes: “Utterly dysfunctional” is a pretty apt description of the Empire of Common Cause, which is largely a result of the aftershocks of the Second Empire and unchecked diseases in the underpinnings of imperial law. Of course, there’s no fixing it without consensus from the entire Empire, which is never going to happen, so we’re stuck with what we have. Frighteningly, this might be the best possible Empire we could ever have achieved without someone going on an extensive conquering spree. Let us be thankful that there are islands of competence and utility hidden within the sea of bureaucracy and waste.]

[Juniper’s Notes: The phrase ‘member polity’ shows up a lot in discussions of the Empire of Common Cause, which threw me for a loop at first, since ‘member nation’ is what the UN uses. As it turns out, ‘nation’ has connotations of ethnocultural unity that, apparently, some people really don’t like, mostly because their polity isn’t homogenous. Similarly, ‘state’ doesn’t accurately describe some of the polities, who have weirdo layered governments or oddball politics. So I guess ‘polity’ is the catch-all that everyone has settled on, even though the default in the modern era is nation-states, similar to on Earth.]