Exalted: The Sun Also Rises
A History Writ on Water
To the Far West lies the Elemental Pole of Water. As one travels westward from the Blessed Isle, islands are at first large and common, but they grow smaller and less frequent the further west one travels. Past a certain point, there are no more islands, only a horizon where the sea and sky come together. This horizon can be distinguished only at sunrise and sunset. Even experienced sailors find it maddening to sail too far out, for what is there to find save more ocean stretching out unto the end of time?
The West is the least populous of the directions, as there is simply less land mass for humans to live on. The lack of arable land makes vegetables in the islands other than cultivated kelp a luxury. In the Southwest and the Northwest, stretches of temperate land allow for widespread cultivation, before the mountains and deserts of the true South or the frozen wastes of the North make such farming a losing proposition.
Political units in the true West are based on the island, with each island or archipelago forming its own independent nation. While not everyone is a sailor, pirate, shipwright or fishermen, the sea cannot be ignored. A child who cannot sail a boat by the age of six is a child poorly raised. Many nations entertain the pirate trade, though only Wavecrest and the Neck allow non-aligned pirates to openly enter port. (They and the outright pirate nation of the Lintha, that is with its secret port of Bluehaven, whose location is said to constantly change.)
In the Southwest and Northwest are coastal nations rather than islands, which range from Realm-affiliated principalities to petty kingdoms or republics ruled by Dynastic Dragon-Blooded offshoots. Such nations become more agriculturally oriented the farther south one goes. War between island- or land-based nations is a permanent condition in the West, even if many of the nations are tributaries of the Realm to some degree. Human raids aside, the Fair Folk and water spirits are a permanent menace to the nations of the West, moving more easily than humans through the seas and the Wyld to seek fresh prey to quench their constant hungers.
In the First Age, huge warships of orichalcum and jade drove across the waves, propelled by elementals of wind and fire, and lost sorceries built magical gates between distant islands or grew crops from the dry coral. When the Solars fell, their distant laboratories were lost or destroyed with them. The few that survive were taken over by the Dragon-Blooded, but they no longer operate at their full capacity. As crop capacities and shipping degraded, nations were forced to turn to piracy and preying upon each other to survive, and many once-placid archipelagoes became multiple groups of small islands struggling separately.
The average Westerner is bronze-skinned, with those from the Far West or the Southwest having an almost golden skin tone. Those from the central West have hair tones in sea shades—green, blue and dark gray—while those from farther north or south have darker shades, primarily purple and black. Clothing is oriented toward practical shipboard wear. Westerners give offerings to the sea spirits, the bow spirits of their ships, the spirits of wind and weather and good fortune and any other spirits who may have a bearing on the situation. Western culture is frequently patriarchal, with women’s roles in the community being well defined if not actually confining. Visiting women from outside a particular island are often treated as honorary males for the duration of their visit to minimize the cultural impact, but they are encouraged to remain in the foreigners’ quarter of town rather than test local hospitality.
The Neck is what many people think of when they imagine the Western islands—a peaceful and innocent collection of tiny islands, where most inhabitants survive by finding and gathering kelp. It is a tributary to the Realm, but it pays only in cowry shells and coral beads, for the inhabitants have nothing else to give. The Neck is ruled by its elders, who appoint one of their number as spokesman for their islands. It has frequent contact with ocean spirits and water elementals, and many inhabitants bear the telltale signs of descent from spirit or divine parents.
Less idealistic and more warlike is the Coral Archipelago, the second-largest nation in the West. Coral is a militant dictatorship bent on dominating its neighbors, and it considers its southerly neighbor Wavecrest to be first on its list. The Coral Archipelago consists of almost two dozen islands, with a total population of more than a quarter million. Since it is little more than a series of coral atolls, none larger than 150 square miles, the archipelago has little arable land, so the inhabitants depend on the sea for their livelihood. This area of the ocean has distinct seasons, and Coral suffers chill winds and cold rain for much of the year.
The Coral Archipelago’s economy is built on booty and conquest. While the islands are ruled by a dictator known as the Sea Lord, he commands a military bureaucracy and is advised by the wealthiest inhabitants of the atolls. These forces sometimes work against each other, but most commonly combine against the rest of Creation, ripping wealth and slaves from those who cannot defend themselves. With the exception of that afforded to the Sea Lord and the military, status in Coral is based purely on wealth. Those who achieve great wealth are considered blessed by the Ocean Father, a powerful god revered by all Coral islanders. Women are legally lesser beings, they may not vote, and they are under the authority of the male members of their families. Justice is also based on money, and all criminals are fined or must become indentured servants, working out crippling labor or serving on suicidal naval missions.
While Coral’s navy is notorious and feared, Coral’s pirates are dreaded even more. The Sea Lord sells letters of marque to pirates who will swear never to interfere with Coral’s ships or her current allies and then provides safe havens for them and markets for their booty. Similarly, merchants who frequently trade with Coral can buy certificates of safe passage that give them immunity from Coral’s pirates for a month. This open tolerance of pirates, among other things, makes Coral an enemy of the Realm. Fortunately for Coral, it has little that the Realm wants and, unless it becomes drastically expansionistic, will not attract any direct retribution. Coral is also famous for its gambling halls, slave trade, drug dens and brothels. Inhabitants of Coral might look down on foreigners, but they are eager to take their jade or to enlist them in their plans for piracy and conquest.
Further south is the Wavecrest Archipelago, a three-island group that forms the largest single Western state, with a population of over 250,000. Its largest island, Abalone, is the biggest island in the West, and all three islands have wide tracts of arable land and a mild, verdant climate. As such, they are not forced to depend on the sea’s bounty to survive, and Wavecrest is the breadbasket of the Western Ocean. The islands are also studded with a number of volcanoes—the largest of which is Hamoji, on Abalone—and these are often surrounded by Wyld zones. Wavecrest is a satrapy of the Realm, so Anathema are unwelcome there.
A visitor to Wavecrest is likely to note the large number of women on the islands. The Wavecrest islanders believe that women are superior at land-based industries, so women make up the majority of blacksmiths, farmers, merchants and so on, while men are generally sailors and fishermen. The archipelago supports a small navy, sufficient to deal with pirates and raiders. The greatest current dangers come from Wyld beasts wandering in from the islands’ Wyld regions and enormous sea beasts and deadly water elementals rising from the ocean near the archipelago’s volcanic islets.
Wavecrest is ruled by an elected president known as the Feathered One. He’s named thus for the ancient cape of office he wears, which confers wisdom, honesty and forethought on all who wear it according to legend. Aided by a council of priestesses and the mayors of the archipelago’s various cities and towns, his most important duties are preserving general harmony and appeasing the volcano gods. If the volcanoes grow active, then any convicts currently in the jails are hurled into the lava regardless of their crimes. Should this fail to appease the deities, the Feathered One himself is the ultimate sacrifice. As a result, the justice system of Wavecrest is extremely harsh, punishing any crime stronger than public rudeness with imprisonment.
Further north lies the Skullstone Archipelago, which centers on Darkmist Island, capital of the Skullstone nation and site of the West’s largest and most infamous shadowland. A volcanic island of gray rock with beaches of fine black sand, its jagged expanse is pocked by small and frigid lakes, and it supports little life other than a few species of blighted moss and corpse-pale lichen. Along the coast lie port towns where the living and the dead mix freely. Built of unmortared stone, with narrow streets and tall buildings, these ports are chilly and dark even on the brightest summer days. At the center of the island lies the necropolis of Onyx, carved from the naked rock of a long-extinct volcano. The other four islands of this archipelago lie on the bordermarches of the shadowland. Bats and flightless birds live in the islands’ pale trees and dark brush, and there are more living souls than dead in the cities.
The local Deathlord, the Bodhisattva Anointed by Dark Water (more commonly known as the Silver Prince), holds power of life and death over the 100,000 living people in this archipelago. He and his deathknights are the absolute rulers of these islands, and both the living and the dead obey their orders. While one or more deathknights appear at all public functions, the Silver Prince shows himself only at the yearly festival held in his honor. He does occasionally hold private audiences with distinguished or powerful visitors, though.
Citizenship of Skullstone extends beyond death. The deathknights judge all citizens of this dread land after death, and while some citizens are raised as mere zombies or skeletons, others are brought back as ghosts to comprise Skullstone’s nobles and courtiers. Black ships are constantly carrying the dead and dying to Darkmist, and many choose to commit suicide there in hopes of gaining immortality as a ghost. The living can gain wealth and prestige, but noble rank and its privileges come only after death.
Skullstone is a wealthy state through its use of undead labor. Zombies and skeletons perform most menial tasks, toiling ceaselessly for the Deathlord and for any citizen with the means to rent them. Much of the archipelago’s wealth comes from the fact that undead divers can harvest the sea’s bounty, undead oarsmen can row galleons without pausing and undead guards protect the cities. Undead servants are an indicator of wealth, and undead experiments fill necromantic laboratories, while undead courtesans partner customers at local brothels. Skullstone does not forbid visitors, and merchants are welcome, but few care to leave the travelers’ quarters near the docks.
Somewhere near the southwest coast of the Inland Sea, at the heart of a vast patch of sargasso seaweed, lies Bluehaven, lair of the dreaded Lintha Family. These pirates are the scourge of the sea, and stories of their depredations go back to the First Age. Bluehaven itself is formed from a living island and the hulls of countless ships, some dating to the First Age, the Lintha have linked with a network of walkways to construct their nest at the sargasso’s center. Supporting a population of thousands, it lies amid thickly twining tangles of Sargasso seaweed on the ocean’s surface, which traps all ships whose captains do not know the few secret paths.
The Lintha Family has been marked by millennia of breeding with spirits, Wyld barbarians or darker things, and it has been twisted by the Wyld energies that pervade the region. Many of the Lintha have blue or green skin, gills or other deformities, and they display them proudly on their raids, exulting in the terror they cause. The Lintha can command giant sea-monsters to serve their will, and between their bloodthirsty weapons and the unwholesome magics that their sorcerers and priests use, few can stand against them in battle.
Because many Lintha are wholly comfortable underwater, they are adept at stealthily attacking anchored vessels or small coastal villages. Alternatively, many Lintha pirates use water shoes that allow them to walk on water, permitting them to approach targets freely in calm waters or over the surface of the sargasso field. The Lintha preference is usually to slaughter all opponents and take both vessel and loot. Mercy is a foreign concept to them.
The Lintha Family not only engages in piracy, but also forms a vast criminal syndicate stretching from the West through the South. This syndicate fences stolen goods in coastal cities and deals extensively in smuggling and the slave trade. It is easy to join the Family, requiring only small pledges or petty oaths at first, but it’s nearly impossible to leave it. Any member who betrays the Family or flees from it is invariably found dead.
On the southwest coast of the Inland Sea lie the Principalities of An-Teng, running from the Western seashore to the Fire Mountains of the South. The land itself varies from arid and dry near the coast to temperate and forested in the middle regions to harsh and brisk in the mineral-rich mountains. An-Teng supplies the Realm with rice and other foodstuffs, and it serves as a vacation spot for Dragon-Blooded. In the First Age, An-Teng was the home to many Solars and their Lunar spouses. During the Usurpation, it became a battleground. Its royal family was slaughtered, and new royalty was set in its place by the victorious Terrestrial Exalted. The country was so thoroughly pacified that it has remained humbled and bowed ever since, with the new royalty glad to obey the Empress’s wishes, and the populace slavishly obedient to any visiting Dragon-Blooded.
The people of An-Teng worship two local deities—the Golden Lord and the Pale Mistress—but they also pay due reverence to the Immaculate faith, to local spirits and to any deities who could prove useful. The matriarchal family unit is the foundation of society, and traditions of respect for age and social standing do a large part to keep the country stable. In case of war, An-Teng can muster armies, including thousands of elephants, but its true strength lies in guerilla warfare, when all the local spirits turn against invaders as well as the human inhabitants. In An-Teng, an ancient dragon chained beneath a mountain turns and grumbles in his sleep, while the corpse-eating kaleyi dance and gibber to the sound of iron gongs and the hidden manses of Solar Exalted are stirred by winds that whisper of their masters’ and mistresses’ return. The land is ripe for change.