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It is funny how one of my most memorable journeys was technically a failure. The roughly five dozen ethnic groups of the Athenaeum are a sort unlike any other in the world, with precious little written about their manners and habits. I had the opportunity to travel in but a few of their lands, and live with just one host family in my short time gathering research for the Scholasta.
This is still a time in my life that I recollect fondly. To be at the start of my career and filled with a sense of purpose again would be more valuable to me than the half shelf of tomes I have authored since. Travel fills some missing piece of the sentient experience. As much as you gain, you will always leave a piece of your mind behind to recollect the memories of sounds and smells so far removed from your urban life of muddy canals and taxes.
Archivists have been no strangers to conflict with humans throughout their storied history. At the time, The Athenaeum was in one of those rare instances of peace between the various religious kingdoms and the neighboring Solar Hegemony. The rulers of the Athenaeum were allowing in Scholasta members on a cross-cultural exchange, but none of my peers were willing to risk it. I was a lone, hungry Novitiate staring at a potential feast for the mind. Think of the treatises I could pen!
Some in our order travel for archeological digs, and others for language translation. My discipline was anthropology. I recall my mentor Akonartes stamping my travel papers with his eyebrow raised, commenting, "Haven't we been turned back from the Eltayans enough times already, Mara? No matter how far they let you pass, it won't be far enough, girl!"
The conditions were too tempting not to make the attempt. While one can travel to any corner of Dema and find Archivists on their path of Zenyecröt, visitors into the interior of the Archivists' homeland are a rare occurrence. When questioned about the wintry Athenaeum, most Archivists will simply smile and say, "Cold." Well, it was time for me to find out for myself.
It took some haggling to embed myself within a caravan of Featherfolk spice traders that were seeking to turn a profit in Snow’s Edge. This well-defended choke point has kept the Archivist hermit kingdoms to the north from being influenced by outsiders for centuries. Most travelers stop here to visit the bustling bazaar that has sprung up around Snow's Edge. I moved through without lingering.
Flashing the official seal of the Scholasta still meant something formidable in those days. After explaining my purpose and being registered by the Aegic border guards, I was escorted some hundred miles north. I was then made to wait in the hinterlands of the central highlands for many weeks. This desolate, wintry territory seemed to stretch for miles in all directions. The extremely sparse population of the few villages I visited was in stark contrast to the rumors I kept hearing of hundreds of thousands bustling about in the great metropolises of Aegis, Etherea, and Luminos.
While I waited in vain for a visitor’s pass to their cities to clear, it ended up being some rural Archivists of Etherean loyalty -- the Zhavit ethnic group -- who allowed me to live amongst them the longest. This people is the window through which we will now peak.
Even deeper in the Eikva Plateau, where flatland bled into forests, I became the guest of a local Archivist family that, by all accounts, was the Zhavit people’s closest analogue to royalty. The word in the Eltayan language for a local ruler or administrator is indistinguishable from the Mundane term for a king. The Ruscolna family ruled over a domain dozens of miles in circumference, with about 100 Zhavit families providing tributes of furry cattle called basci, each about the size of a small Monturyn virse.
Zhavits are known for being fierce fighters compared to their neighbors like the mound building Wozh, or the mourning throat singers of the Fyut. A Zhavit has been on the front line of Frostmace Adepts in every battle the Athenaeum has ever fought, according to their martial legends. I can still hear their battle chants as more than fifty Archivists met in the palace courtyard each afternoon to practice Pwanoszt, arms a flurry of strikes and parrys. The Ruscolna family’s few thousand Zhavit subjects answered the frequent calls to arms in service of the religious Zdarlyti Council in the city of Etherea hundreds of miles due west.
The Zhavit homes in the Ruscolna domain were short, squat affairs made of the white timber harvested from the neighboring taiga. Accented with bright paint colors bordering on garish, they stood in stark contrast to the solemn bronze-domed fortresses of stone that dotted the far skyline in every cardinal direction, maintained by a staunch line of spears from the great power of the Aegis military.
For all their supposed fury in battle, I know of no other folk that are so dedicated to peace of mind and meditation, or to conversation so friendly yet brief. They are Water-embodied in thought and deed. No idle chatter escapes their lips. Every movement has conservation of energy. The early hours of Zhavit routines begin with elaborate prayers as they spin their intricately carved mantra wheels called Vom that are embedded in nearby rocks or poles. They then venture up to the nearest peak in order to spin the largest Vom, before returning in time for breakfast. A simple wooden staff is carried to ward off young frost bylaks.
This, I was told, was a way to appreciate the sustenance of the meal. Meals generally contain basci milk and the odd bits of frost potato. A rare treat reserved for special occasions is salad. Odd, yet understandable given how hard the earth beneath them freezes nine months of the year. The herbs and seasonings of their cuisine are meant to increase savory tastes far more than any kind of heat or spice. The most treasured seasoning came from a rare ground root that tasted something akin to sage. If the elders feel fortune has been kind to the community, they will forage in the forest for enough spearmint to flavor an otherwise bitter tea called sog. Enough is boiled in cast-iron cauldrons the size of a wagon to sate whole villages for a week.
Alcohol is not prohibited, but the manner in which Archivists interact with one another while imbibing is novel. While relaxation is the goal, among the young men, the ability to maintain one's absolute composure while partaking in heavy, heavy drinking is considered a sign of pride. I have witnessed two feuding Archivist lads stare deeply into one another's eyes while downing pint after pint, radiating disdain, until both parties fell asleep at their seats. This cultural approach makes tavern brawls notably rare compared to other regions of the world, and ensures a thriving business for local brewers and distillers.
This sparse cuisine and lifestyle was followed by the Ruscolna family themselves down to their lowliest subjects. The 'royal' clothes were only more ornate than usual if they were related to prayer rituals. Otherwise, the attire they attended regular business in was the same woolen fabric as a cart puller or ranger. The line between Archivist ‘nobility’ and peasants is thus blurred to a level of practical equality not even equaled by the Solar Hegemony in the immediate aftermath of the Levigo de Sola.
What, then, made the Ruscolna family take up the mantle of running this area of the snowy outskirts of the Eikva Plateau if they were given no luxuries, plaudits, or comforts for the high station? Their royal labor appeared to be dependent on a strong sense of duty. It is unto their line to maintain the records of Zhavit births and deaths, the supplies going to Etherea proper, and storing Class D through B grade Eldertech in their beautifully tiled forty room ‘palace’, which was open to even the meekest of Archivist to visit.
The eldest son of the family, Domovoi, was responsible for leading the dances at many winter festivals, where dozens of orange-faced Archivists in green textile robes would twirl for hours, their twists meant to reflect how their people were in a fixed spot while time spun around them. He mistrusted my intentions from the start, giving me the proverbial cold shoulder whenever I asked about the history of these dances. He violated my theory of universally friendly Zhavit conversation. Domovoi was first in line to a throne that I, an outsider, might threaten, no matter how academic my interests. I was kept at what he felt was appropriate distance from his organizing of more advanced martial training for the local banners.
The patron of the Ruscolna family, Velim, was polite yet stingy in his conversation. A ponderous, lanky man, he started each sentence by stating his emotional intent. This practice fell out of common use generations ago, but no one could accuse Archivists of following rapid trends.
Most of Velim's matters as priest-king were given to spiritual study when not occupied with running his small realm. I found it much more fruitful to talk to his youngest daughter Azha.
Azha was unsure what her age would be in our Imperial calendar, but estimated herself to be around eleven years old. Inquisitive and talkative as many children are, Azha and I would ride a great furry ursan mount out on to the glacial plains and through dormant forests. The ursan's thick, peaty musk was all we would smell of for days afterward. Ice crystals hung in midair between the blue branches in those wonderful woods, sunlight glinting in a pattern that cannot be equaled by the most kaleidoscopic Solasii cathedral.
I was fluent in a pidgin dialect of Eltayan taught to me by an Archivist family living in Mundi. After Azha got over my Mundane accent trying to replicate the beauty in the language of these somber, empathic folk, I would entertain her with the latest gossip among the initiate class at the Musaeum as we threw potato scraps to the tusked ruwals barking at the edges of thermal lakes.
In turn, Azha would recite folktales like elderly, curmudgeonly Perunir helping Indrika, Queen of the Animals, banish the scaly Great Zmey who once feasted on the sun. I would braid her long silver hair in between sips of home brewed sog, and try to tease out the burning questions I had about the cities I was being denied access to. How many Archivists lived in Etherea? What food did they eat to sustain their numbers? How did they go about their days?
It was the third week before Azha broke her vow of secrecy to an outsider like myself. Azha, being local royalty, had the opportunity to visit the great urban center once before. With word of tension with the Solar Hegemony escalating again, I would have to satisfy my curiosity with these secondhand reports.
Oh, the imagination of a child. I would like to believe that visitors from other Athenaeum regions trek through the Pilgrim’s Pass, a winding basalt mountain route with a three thousand foot drop, ascending through multi-colored crystal caverns as flocks of vanka birds fly above in great V formations to trail the great sky whales.
And then, supposedly, you see it. The Pilgrim’s Pass opens up to a panorama of a city under constant construction for a thousand generations. The Valley of Etherea - supposedly more than a million souls crammed into every nook and alley in a city carved of primordial ice.
Etherea, Azha said, is a domain balanced on waking and sleeping states, with half to two-thirds of the population in their peoples’ hibernation ebb state in any given year. The waking population tends to the infrastructure of the city, shoring up the hundreds of ice-statue lined pagodas, sapphire shrines, and hexagonal temples with a single snow lily left on each step.
A major Etherean industry is regularly testing Eldertech unknown to the other five regions of the world, kept in religious reverence so that their ancestors' creations do not lay idle. It is then carefully archived and stored in their vast sanctums deeper into the city. The greatest piece of Eldertech is supposedly a tower-sized generator that produces an unlimited supply of bland but nutritious food that sustains such vast numbers.
The itinerant Eremites and Cenobites and Abbots who have ventured hundreds of miles from their homeland on quests to gather Eldertech relics will allow themselves to shed a single tear upon spotting the great Basilica of Zenyecroat looming above the bethels. Their warrior-monks cannot hope to walk every pace on the Million Step Path, but they still return after decades, having wandered as far as they could in service to the day when the future and the past close on themselves in a circle, and their generation can fight a final battle with fate to ascend to paradise.
Apparently, such grand vistas were not of much interest for any of the rural Archivist ethnic groups like Zhavits or Fyuts or Wozh-kin. Provincial folk like the Ruscolna family and their peasant charges dwelled exactly as they needed to, as far as they were concerned. The mastery of the self according to the Zenyecroat creed was more grand than any need to see the seat of their ponderous religion. Every rural Archivist, no matter the ethnic group, believes that no exterior sense of awe could equal the satisfaction of inner peace and a quiet life. The irony of such ‘quiet’ lives nevertheless building magisterial settlements like Etherea and Aegis, tinkering madly on Eldertech in Luminos, or striking off to travel Dema at large under the most profoundly dangerous conditions, is apparently lost on them all.
After barely five weeks, the time arrived when the High Zdarlatyi Council ordered the expulsion of all foreigners from the Athenaeum once more. My visitor’s protection would end. Yet, surely investigating Etherea was the real concern for a scholar like myself to seek out! I could not write an account of the Athenaeum without stepping foot in one of the great domains. But how to reach the city? My efforts led me to travel in the company of one Emissary Flavius.
A tale for another letter. Oh, to turn back time and never follow that man on his doomed attempt to contact the Archivist Archbishop Zaydir! No wonder we are infamous in their realm now. I returned to the Scholasta after that Flavius debacle with two frostbitten fingers, my half a dozen notebooks, and a small assortment of Eldertech trinkets and homemade Archivist baubles.
As with so many of the great cultures filled with breadth and depth, I am left with the sense that I did not truly visit the Athenaeum. I merely passed through it once, and was lucky to know a people that we are so quick to judge as foreign and profane. Nowadays, my writings go in place of my footsteps. Perhaps a copy of this text will reach back to young Azha. She must be a grown woman by now, in line to lead her people if Domovoi has been slain on the endless battlefields the Hegemony has wrought.
I hope the coming of Empress Celina’s human legionnaires in their fur-lined armor did not disrupt the Zhavit people and their leaders in the Ruscolna family. The Eikva Plateau is reportedly under occupation ever since Aegis was burned to the ground by the legions. If I learned anything about the Zhavit psyche, it is that their people will resist the hardest. There is no reason for the Fourth Eltayan War to disrupt dozens of Archivist ethnic groups like the Zhavits who view their struggle as timeless.
I wish Azha and her family’s kingdom good health and a safe walk on their Million Step Path, and peace to all in this world in flux.
- From the letters of then-Novitiate Mara Tancred, in her travelogue, "My Walks Through Dema", Chapter 17. Musaeum Chronicles.
Curious about the other cultures of Dema? Set sail with the Wakewalkers of Clan Kahr as they hunt titanic sea monsters on The Wild Hunt. Learn about The Athenaeum's oppressive dystopian rivals, The Solar Hegemony. Or check out the rest of the blog here.
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