In which the heavens fall and the hells rise; twelve kingdoms fail to unify; and the Valiant Societies approach calamity
Certainly there was a glorious empire long ago. There must have been, we can still its majestic remains today. The magical stone of the Great Path was carved for vehicles heavier than our wooden wagons. The outer walls of Jangan are presumed to be the foundation of a single mighty building from that age. And the lucky can still see a heavenly engine soaring through the sky. Our ancient ancestors created such wonders! We call this legendary lost empire the Yan dynasty, and we live on the time after its death: Shiyan.
What caused the catastrophe? If you ask the others it was we humans who did it. But they speak from fear and jealousy. Except for the fairies, who still whisper and whine that it must have been their ancestor’s transgressions that brought down the heavens and raised up the hells. Just like a fairy, so naturally guilt-wracked and thieving that they will even steal blame from us if they can. Despite the talk, no one but the gods know for sure, and the gods have been silent since the death of the Yan.
Three worlds coexist uncomfortably in Shiyan. The world of city and road is where most of us must live and toil. It is the world of politics and power, sometimes called the green world; a world of duty and decorum. The world of mountain and river is filled with heroes and swords. The Valiant Societies wander these less civilized places, looking to win a name and glory with mighty deeds. And then there is the red world of sky and tunnel. These are the strange places, filled with the weird people from the fallen heavens or lifted hells and those still touched by the catastrophe. That is world of wonder and danger, fit only for heroes and fools.
The World of City and Road
In this new and ruined Shiyan the twelve kingdoms formed and grew. The violent Tiger in the north, locked in perpetual struggle with hungry Dog. Proud Horse to the west, and remote Sheep looking down on everyone from snowy peaks. The embattled fairies of Rabbit just want to be left alone. Grim Ox and soaring Rooster are the gatekeepers of the south, protecting the mainland from the mysterious Serpent islands and the warlike fairies of the Boar. In the plentiful east Dragon, Mouse, and Monkey vied bitterly first to conquer one another, and then to reunite the other kingdoms into a single empire stretching shore to shore.
It was Dragon who eventually triumphed over Mouse and Monkey, and with their combined power Dragon eventually dominated the entire land and even brought Serpent to heel. But never Boar. This Dragon Dynasty was long and glorious, officially the equal and successor of the Yan, even if the ancient wonders still remain impenetrable. Over time the Dragon’s grip became weak and brittle, and finally the great Boar Wars shattered it. Rooster fell into chaos and Mouse was occupied by invaders. Dragon quaked ineffectually until rescued by vicious Tiger. The Boars were repelled and fled back their island fortresses, and then Tiger simply neglected to go home.
So began the tumultuous Tiger Dynasty. Dragon royalty and scholars were slaughtered, but bureaucrats were allowed to serve their new masters, shadowed by the constant threat of death. The Tigers are ruthless and brutal tyrants, but they are also two things the Dragons have not been for some time: effective and passionate. There are many opportunities for women and non-humans afforded by Tiger purges that were previously forbidden by Dragon tradition. Despite this (or possibly because of it) there is a seething rebellion of outlaws and outcasts fighting to restore an imagined perfect Dragon..or at least get rid of the hated Tiger outsiders. For most of us Dragon or Tiger never made much difference. Both have hunger and teeth and claws. We toil, suffer, and sometimes starve no matter whose banner flies above us.
The World of Mountain and River
Ah, the bold wanderers of the Valiant Societies. Though some are royalty and magicians, most of them come from simple villages. They set themselves apart with their talent and training. The righteous among them are generous, kind, and fight to the death to protect the downtrodden. But there are also eccentrics who follow grotesque paths to power, and it’s difficult to tell the one kind from the other. Both the righteous and the foul will kill over an insult, so it’s best to enjoy tales of the blue world from a safe distance.
The world of mountain and rivers is now balanced precariously around the fate of the Tigers. Traditionally the Valiant Societies are above and apart from politics, and only concern themselves with idealistic action and martial prowess. According to the tales a skilled disciple of a respected society could best an entire troop of soldiers or bandits. And in truth the societies are powerful enough that both the Dragons and the Tigers are wary of them. But the societies are wary too, for not every disciple is as talented as the tales may say and the Tigers have battle-tested heroes of their own.
Many Tiger generals and warriors are disciples of the Glory Fist clan, one of the five major righteous societies. The deep ties between the Glory Fists and the Tigers troubles the other societies. Equally troubling are the Free Shields, once the elite warrior caste of the Mouse kingdom. They survived under both the Dragons and the Tigers as a ‘sports association’ rife with rebels and vigilantes. Cooler heads in the societies fear someday the shields will go too far and drag all the valiant into an impossible war. The monks of the Stone Foundation monasteries try to ease the suffering of the people, but when that suffering is caused by the Tigers it sets them on the same dangerous path as the Free Shields. The Tigers are especially leery of the monks because they are so widespread, popular, and powerful. The vagabonds and beggars of the Magic Wheel are eccentric wanderers. The other societies tend to look down on the Magic Wheel because it seems they will initiate anyone, but hidden among the rabble are true masters. Rumors abound that the beggars are spies for the Tigers, or the rebels, or both. Finally the sages of the Righteous Text struggle to remain neutral, and to keep the other Valiant Societies the same. The sages are the oldest and largest of the societies, and have long been the unofficial leaders of the valiant. But those who can see these things sense that the sages have been in decline for some time, and both the Glory Fists and Free Shields seem eager to challenge them for supremacy. It seems only a matter of time before swords will fall like pouring rain.
The World of Sky and Tunnel
The world of sky and tunnel is beyond me. I know only that all manner of devils live underground, and emerge at night to ravage the living. Mystical immortals practice their bizarre rituals atop the clouds, where heavenly engines vault on streams of magical fire. It is said that the red world is a mirror of the others, and as rebellion rages against the Tigers so too demons rise up against the order of heaven and sow destruction and chaos in the other worlds. Some say it is the Tigers who have upset the natural order, and the rampaging demons and ghosts are merely a reflection of the chaos in the world of green. It is true that the horrors of the red world have been all too common in the years since the outsiders came to power. Either way, if you’re not a hero it is best to avoid the dark places underground and turn away from strangeness in the sky.
Truly, we are cursed to live in interesting times.