vaecrius: a crude scrawl of a grinning, blazing yellow sun. (hier kommt die sonne)
[personal profile] vaecrius
A rewrite of this, as a response to this.

Next: After some more exposition, a random encounter ends in violence.
Whoever is not in his coffin and the dark grave, let him know he has enough.

*

The sleepers dig unclothed in the pit. Naked and unashamed, they span the little abyss with their forms, waist deep in mud. Groundwater and rot, all too easily smelled by the masked men behind. They have been digging for a few hours now: one could see the tiles, the cobblestones, the foundation and a few old soil layers, then where the water table begins and the sleepers slowly work against boulders and packed clay.

A banner is erected on the ledge behind them: the rich azure, silver and gold of the Empire flickering in the wind, warning off any who dare intrude into the business of the Atharan crown. Atop rests its eye: blinking imperceptibly in the early afternoon sun as it stares through the air around them, the psionic scanner picks up only a few crows, as they occasionally dodge a bored Imperial soldier's slingshot. Its display is perched on a convenient boulder propping up the flagpole that the sleepers had dug up early on, and is not very ergonomic in any way; but whoever had put it there, it seemed wrong to move it afterwards.

It is before this little altar that the men's leader stands bowed, sun-crossed blue cape limp over his shoulders as though asleep, half watching, half staring blankly past, the ethereal screen. Nothing bigger than a crow for miles, save the squad and the one in black standing next to him directing the sleepers. The one in black occasionally asks him for an update; he tells her about the crows. They have long since tired of trying to speculate about what had happened to this place - at least until they have found their buried quarry.

For the past hour there has been nothing worth being seen. Then the one in black grimaces, rubs her temples and walks closer to the sleepers. There is a small commotion as the one in black redirects them, cursing something unintelligible about boulders.

The sleepers dig around it. Another two hours pass as the pit must be widened. After much repositioning and straining and three attempts at a haphazard pulley system set up by the squad engineer, it is lifted up.

It is not a boulder.


**

The shadows writhe against the cobblestones, given brief and violent life in the early morning twilight as a sword flashes and sends pieces of a sleeper to the ground in flames. The sleeper slaps its polearm uselessly against the stones for a moment before the fire renders its limbs inoperable.

Two more in view. Sergeant Bathtis turns to his left, sword low to keep from blinding himself with the glowing blade. The other sleeper is pressing against the mercenary necromancer next to him, who is failing about attempting to parry its halberd with her pistol daggers; a quick reach past both their weapons sends the sleeper's head rolling to the ground, eyeless sockets spewing tongues of flame.

The necromancer ducks and rolls out of the melee, picks up her war shovel and without stopping cleaves the other sleeper from crown to collar. It is a brutal, savage and wholly professional blow: with just enough damage to the pattern of the sleeper's face and head, the form that gives the corpse its image such that the magic could work on the flesh and bone, now becomes untenable and the spell is broken. It drops, a twitching heap.

Sergeant Bathtis walks over and gives it another slash and burn anyway, just to be sure.


***

The squad regroup. Casualties: lacerations on Corporal Hotha's face and arms; puncture wound on Private Garrang's thigh requiring a tourniquet. Supplies lost: powder and two bullets from each of the necromancer's double-loaded flintlocks. Sergeant Bathtis' fire crystal is still well into the orange.

They secure the area: at twenty men all told, they fortunately have very little ground to cover. The village is a tiny hamlet of about 15 households and a shrine to El'Aidhinn that also serves as a town square and the location of the hamlet's only well.

Was; served. Most of the small huts have collapsed in the fires, save for a few left standing where the sleepers had been placed to ambush the squad. The typical crystal and marble dome over the consecrated well lies in pieces around it; the well itself appears to be filled in with broken masonry and covered with charred wood. The surrounding shrine remains standing, though all figures and images have been smashed or stolen. Charred husks of ritual scrolls lie strewn around the square. Generically obscene messages are written on the walls, but nothing that identifies who is responsible.

This hamlet is not on any of Captain Sarkamen's maps, nor does the necromancer know anything about it. They could leave now, and none of their masters would know or care; between the people who have expressed genuine concern for the locals and those looking for an excuse to whack something EVIL!, however, that prospect holds little appeal for anyone. A search, accordingly, is ordered.

The place appears to have been a small outpost for rural pilgrims on their way to the Blue Temple in the mountains to the east, with a small permanent population tending the gardens and the well. That population is not to be found anywhere in or around the buildings; between the gravel roads, the yellow grassy fields and the burned wreckage and debris there is no way to tell whether the remaining villagers had fled or were captured or in either case where they went.

It is only when the necromancer notices a shuffling, scraping sound emitting from the well only whenever she walks past it that they learn just how thoroughly this temple to this god of light, purity, crystals and water has been defiled.


****

Removing the dead from the well took some planning. First, Captain Sarkamen ordered a couple sweeps of the psionic scanner, which picked up further activity deeper down the well, but later reconnaissance by Skull-Chicken-Spider (the necromancer's portable minion) revealed nothing but more corpses.

The first several corpses climbed out with little trouble, the fourth onwards bracing their arms and legs against the opposite sides of the well shaft and slowly shuffling out. Then the remaining corpses spaced themselves out and the small pieces were removed: infants, children, the adult mutilated and dismembered. The necromancer had to focus to visualize the scene within, coordinating those stuck in the well to get them to pass each of their fellow dead (or portion) up to the top of the well. Once that was done, a second (but easier) sweep with Skull-Chicken-Spider had to be done to ensure there was nothing further to be retrieved. It took three of these sweeps before the remaining corpses could be directed to climb out.

Listening to Lieutenant Azagh break down crying somewhere behind her when the first dead baby was brought up did not help her focus, nor the small commotion immediately following. She idly wondered if the situation could be improved with more women in the squad so there would be no designated "the girl" who would receive special attention from this sort of thing.

They could not locate any survivors. No one who could withstand the smell long enough to rappel down the well could find any hidden areas at the bottom. The psionic scanner still shows activity at the well's position.

The only option is to dig.

They have eight shovels and three mattocks: two of each with the squad, plus the necromancer's war shovel, and the rest scrounged from the corner in the gardener's shed that the attackers seem to have neglected. Lieutenant Azagh is having the men draw straws as to who must dig first, when it is brought to her attention that the necromancer is already handing shovels to the corpses.

Some vocal objections and debate ensues. This is the sort of debate that involves words like "disrespect", "barbarism" and "black and twisted heart" on one side; on the other, "cost-and-effect", "superstition" and "no one's using them anyway". Pursuant to a direct order by Captain Sarkamen for everyone to calm the fuck down, they do not escalate past "batshit evil gogo voodoo" and "pathetic weak womanly tears" (and Sergeant Bathtis is given no opportunity to comment on the irony).

Everyone having so calmed the fuck down, the necromancer (who being officially a "consultant" to the Atharan military appears rather happy to take on that role for once) advises that it is customary among the Tobhá (and some Xhel) that, if a necromancer has reanimated a murder victim for whatever reason, and to the extent that doing so would be helpful, the victim (or, rather, the reanimated corpse of the victim) may participate (or, rather, be used) in any investigations that may lead to the discovery or capture of the perpetrator. In this case, whatever (or whoever) is at the bottom of the well may bear relevant information; in any event, it has not been shown that it (or they) would not.

Engineer Sergeant Grullo gives an estimate, one using the sleepers and one without. With, they might get this done within three hours; without, before dusk.

A compromise is reached: if at any time any digger is unable to continue, keeping in mind they may be required to keep watch or perform other tasks that night, they shall immediately swap out with someone who is ready to take over.

By the third hour only the sleepers remain.




17 June 3266

From the remains of the buildings and the sleepers, combined with the findings in the well, the squad have settled on a tentative best guess at the hamlet's demographics:

14 households
55 people total
31 men
18 women
6 children

The men include a few boys of fighting age, and of those men all but two (one apparently in his late seventies and the other missing one leg) were among the sleepers from the ambush.

All the dead had been stripped naked, the remains of their clothing being found in several fire pits hastily set up in the area. Most items of value were stolen, with anything too large to carry easily being smashed. The fire pits also contain the remains of a substantial amount of paper and parchment - deeds, books, records, sacred and scholarly texts: it is not clear whether there were any specifically targeted records or these simply represented whatever reading material the perpetrators had no time or taste for.

Lieutenant Gitimurka's findings: predominant causes of death: extreme trauma to the head; exsanguination by large chest wound. Almost all the dead appear to have been killed while fleeing or fighting, or in any event in great haste. Any mutilations or other indignities to the bodies only appear to have been inflicted afterwards.

Time of death: between 2 and 7 days before our arrival. Lieutenant Gitimurka does not have sufficient training to account properly for the extent to which the well concealment would have hindered decay and insect development.

Agent Tsuga suggests that we may err in favour of the earlier date despite the lack of insect activity on the exposed bodies, as the reanimated bodies' movements would have hindered more typical signs of decay; conversely, these bodies have also shown significant wear and tear from birds. Corvid fecal matter found within the houses (which Agent Tsuga confirms were found to contain human tissue) suggests they have been here for some time since the hamlet was abandoned.

No markings or tattoos on the dead that could be used to confirm any common allegiance. (The cult of El'Aidhinn forbids tattoos.) They appear to be an unremarkable mix of local ethnic Tobhá and Xhel.

It is submitted by Lieutenant Azagh that this is the work of the 144th Auxiliary. In support she cites several lurid stories about atrocities the Empire's elite "Black Rider" company have been known or alleged to have committed in recent months, and parallels between it and what was observed in this hamlet. In response, it is submitted by Agent Tsuga that, based on her personal experience working with the 144th, the only true parallel is the brutal and gratuitous violence: there are no signs of torture or enslavement, nor that one man they typically leave to tell the tale. Captain Sarkamen interjects to point out that most of the specific indignities to the bodies appear to have been inflicted only after death. In any event, it is submitted by Captain Sarkamen that HQ would never countenance authorizing an investigation against the Black Riders now when said company is at this very moment proving invaluable in quelling the uprising in the northeast.

Some debate follows. Lieutenant Azagh calls for a motion to prepare a report to the general with a draft press release, and obtain an Imperial warrant for the immediate termination of the 144th. It is submitted by Captain Sarkamen that such an action would be useless without much more incriminating evidence that is simply not available. No motion is made.

Captain Sarkamen congratulates everyone present for not forcing him to pull rank, with a reassurance that all constructive input is welcome.

It is submitted by Agent Tsuga that this is the work of unknown amateurs, most likely one of the numerous "face-painting chicken-fucker"[sic] death-and-rebirth cults that have sprung up in the recent years, many of which are known to harbour grievances against the priesthood of El'Aidhinn. She advises that it is common knowledge among professional reanimators that the age, gender and biological infirmities (notwithstanding structural defects such as missing limbs) that a corpse had in life will not materially affect the physical capabilities of the sleeper produced from it: economy of scale would dictate that the ambush should have contained almost the entire village. In response, it is submitted by Sergeant Bathtis that the remaining corpses were used to fill up the well, and further that the men still generally have better reach and upper body strength as well as natural aggression. It is countered by Agent Tsuga, with some comments about Sergeant Bathtis' intelligence that are not recorded here, that she had just said that biology was not an issue, but the point about reach is ultimately conceded. While Agent Tsuga's theory is not ruled out, it is set aside for want of information.

In response to harsh metallic clanging noises emanating from the excavation site, Agent Tsuga excuses herself from the meeting while simultaneously attempting to propose a motion involving avenging her war shovel upon the glacial erratic gods. She refuses to clarify and the motion is not made, or in any event not seconded.

It is submitted by Sergeant Bathtis that this is most likely a deliberate provocation by Xhel agents to frame the 144th. In response, it is submitted by Lieutenant Azagh that the best evidence available shows that the perpetrators took steps to conceal their identities, something rarely done by the Black Riders. Anyone attempting to imitate the 144th would not have taken such steps. While Sergeant Bathtis' theory is not ruled out, it is set aside for want of information.

Various other ideas are submitted but quickly dismissed for want of support. It is moved by Sergeant Bathtis that a proper report be made respecting the evidence available and delivered to HQ once the search for the psionic positive has been concluded. Seconded by Captain Sarkamen and carried.

For want of anything better to discuss, the meeting is adjourned.

The minutes of this ad hoc, non-binding meeting as recorded and chaired by Captain Tyr Sarkamen are concluded.


†*

The sleepers stand around the fruit of their labour, shovels raised beside them like gleaming ensigns to let each other know where they are. They tend to no particular formation, milling about like some pack of strange beast that had slouched towards some gathering of tourists looking for scraps.

Samaëlle glances over at the pit, then at the sleepers, before returning her gaze to the sarcophagus laid out in the square. She fidgets with the dented, filthy war shovel in her hand. For the last time, yes, that muffled rattling is absolutely coming from inside that thing.

Korba twirls his sword; he sits down; he gets back up; he sheathes the sword; he draws it again, looks at the fire crystal (one of the washers is a bit loose) and stands once again at ease with it drawn. Would be bad to distract any of the musketeers with the flames or any misplaced shadows just yet. Everyone is tense.

Timín slumps against the remains of a wall, hand in his coat pocket. The flask of 40 proof. Nectar of the very gods. Soon, soon. So tired. So many dead bodies. Is physician not mortician you fucking bastards, is not good work. Maybe sarcophagus empty and he can rest.

Ania kneels behind the boulder, tri-wand braced and loaded and ready to fire. Two musketeers flank her for support. That sarcophagus is most certainly not empty. Hopefully the tri-wand need not be used: inside may well be the incriminating evidence the squad needs to eliminate the Black Riders once and for all. This tri-wand might even be used against a couple of them.

Tyr stands in guard, broad slaughter-sword shining scarlet in the sun. The mission has been a disaster, taking so long - still better get this over with now than try to do it at night, or risk having this thing hanging over our heads (figuratively) until the morning. Psionic positive on a sealed and buried coffin can conceivably only mean one thing: sentient undead. Hopefully not hostile; his right leg is still a bit weak from Ania's little friendly-fire incident when they were fighting the Xhel two months back. The girl was never too good at identifying friend from foe in difficult situations.

Raiahadama scratches out a few more calculations in the dirt with his sword. There is definitely something in the sarcophagus, spread out inside of it. The weight had shifted once when they were trying to lift it up. Is it a liquid? Most likely groundwater seeped into it over the years and the psi pos is just some kind of cave fish that got in, grew fat and couldn't leave. Given the location, it's entirely possible for a zoetrophic bacteria or fungus to have gotten in there as well and provide oxygen and food for such an animal. Would be interesting to do a survey of the local cave ecosystems; whatever it is, it seems harmless enough. The trap-finder looks pretty calm about what he's doing anyway.

Rungni taps the stone with his little mallet and listens, grimacing in pain each time the vibrations travel up his arm - then wincing in further pain as his grimace pulls against the stitches on his cheek. It had taken him a while to stop panicking at the bite marks, whatever the necromancer and the doctor both insisted about the ambushing "sleepers". Perhaps he got lucky this time; but being anywhere near this horrid thing is tempting fate. There is a vampire in here and when this opens it will try to kill us. Hopefully the sleepers behind him are coordinated enough and in proper formation to buy him some time to get out of Ania's line of fire.

The sarcophagus is laid horizontally and is no higher than Korba's heart, but it seems to loom over everyone with its presence. Carved around its sides swirl an intricate lattice of vines and flowers. Their significance is lost to Northern-raised barbarians like Tyr and Sam, but Raiahadama, Ania and Korba, as would any educated Xhel or Tobhá who might have seen it, at once remembered the Saavedrae apepnum of legend: that oil-dewed unblemished vermillion raised in the golden garden-rooms of Old Xiniënar, whose mere fragrance could make a man stop his heart for the joy of having smelled it, and start it again that it might smell more. It would bloom but for brief minutes, rising only at dawn's rosy caress, flush with desire for the womb of the morning, never in the presence of one who held anger in his heart: then the rose of dawn would go whither, and as with a sigh the buds would retreat, the long ant-thronged thorns returning to guard as though the flowers never were.

But even barbarians know the design on the lid, flanked even by vines and thorns and a thousand birds: the Imperial sign of the Conquering Sun. Three spokes within a wheel, the fourth reaching downwards beyond to enlighten the earth; in the centre, an empty and perfect circle: within, a space for the Power that no one can see and live. Between the lines is a repeating pattern that no one can quite make out in the fading light. Korba's attempt to decipher it using torch-light only gave him a headache.

The thing must be unbelievably ancient: the men speculated it might even be over a hundred years old! Certainly predates the Disconnect Wars, in any event, for a design to have blended the marks of both Empires so closely and harmoniously. The placement of the Sun is in the same style as contemporary Imperial caskets; most likely some old-stock (Rokomi? Hadzaranthai?) Atharan gentleman is buried here. A diplomat? The spouse of an old Xhel noble?

The psionic scanner, still on the pole and only detecting things above ground, confirms that its positive is definitely coming from the sarcophagus. Rungni finishes checking for traps and gives the all clear as he sprints and leaps behind the tri-wand nest. The good news: the thing isn't trapped. The bad news: without any magical wards, we have no idea what might be inside it now or what might be animating it. Or possibly even keeping it alive.

It occurs to Sam that if the squad could sell this thing on the black market they could all live like kings. For a month, at least.

A low, rumbling voice of an earthquake given words comes out of the middle of the sun-disc, in an old dialect only Raiahadama and Korba and a few of the men could understand: "Sol Almighty, just help me out of here, you nattering fools!"


†**

At long last they had time to bury the dead. There being no priest of any sort around (notwithstanding a few dead clerics of El'Aidhinn), it fell to Sam who was the only person who also had a local interment licence. She opened up the trunk of her horse and swapped her black cape for her white one.

It being completely inappropriate for a Torch of the Black Fire to say any prayers to the likes of El'Aidhinn, and any prayer to the Black Fire almost certain to produce quite the opposite result from laying the departed to rest in peace, she at last turned her mind to the God of her fathers with whatever she could remember from her school days:
O Creator, Supreme Being, One God indivisible,
Lord and Tyrant of all that is,
Singular transcendent One unequalled in essence:
Into You I commend those departed souls
Whose discarded shells briefly commemorate them in this world.

In Your perfect discretion, Occasionally Merciful One,
Have discernment and make this occasion
The opportunity for your rare and precious
Mercy, unto each who awaits their life to come.

Do not exact Your perfect and just wrath upon these heathen,
Who in their ignorance and stupidity only await their reincarnation.
But in their struggle help Your ignorant slaves in their next lives
That they may glorify You without error.

Grant, O Lord, that we may keep this night without error, for the glory of You and the Republic which Your divine Providence protects.
Given the present company, she consciously substituted "Tyrant" for the correct translation "Emperor".

The sleepers dug a few graves for the departed who could not walk, placed them therein, then dug their own graves and lay in them, and she released her spell. She then signalled for Lieutenant Azagh and Engineer-Sergeant Grullo to help her fill the graves.

Lord Ytoroghullatar sat on a boulder and sipped the hot cocoa that Captain Sarkamen gave him, bemusedly (but not without some apparent amusement) watching the proceedings. "Is there not one among you who could teach this false and bumbling priestess the true Atharan prayers for the dead?"

Sergeant Bathtis shrugged, his torch making the shadows leap once for emphasis. "We have the field manual, milord, but she didn't want them. Frankly, we'd be afraid since she's a necromancer that she might explode if she read them or something." He briefly relayed this exchange to Captain Sarkamen who was standing next to them.

Captain Sarkamen continued quietly struggling with the thought that they may have made a terrible mistake. When they had first opened the sarcophagus they found a writhing, stinking, mould-covered mass of black tentacles with the rotten remains of an oak stake lying on top: they almost shot him right then and there, but then he had raised one of those tentacles and on it was his Imperial signet ring. By law, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, Captain Sarkamen had to accept Lord Ytoroghullatar's claim and come to his aid.

He had quickly resumed his human form once they had given him something to eat. Luckily he was very similar in body to Captain Sarkamen and a spare uniform was readily found: size medium, five foot nine and change, mesomorph with little body fat. Biggest differences: much darker, classically Hadzaranthai skin, flowing wooly mane of platinum blond hair and beard, big round face that seemed to smile as a natural default position. No one could even begin to try to guess his age.

Lieutenant Gitimurka had looked willing to swear with hands running up and down a whole stack of goat skulls, after a thorough examination of Lord Ytoroghullatar, that the man they rescued was definitely alive. Both before and after he regained his human form. Whoever pinned him with the oak didn't seem to know what they were doing, or Lord Y was a very good faker.

It was very late and everyone was tired, Lord Ytoroghullatar scarcely the least of all. It was all agreed that they would set up a watch and camp the night in one of the remaining buildings. Questions could come in the morning.

Only one sleep till sunrise, as the saying goes. One Sergeant Bathtis probably wouldn't get to have. He propped up his torch against the wall as he was granted leave to relieve himself behind the house. It was going to be a long night.



*(Potentially) Relevant setting fluff*

Fire crystals
Of course, pure elementalism does not deal with the classical "elements" as such, but only elemental magic power. However, notwithstanding numerous advances in technology there remains a small but strong (and often annoyingly vocal) market for "classical" magic items even among the cultured, learned Imperial elite. Instead of the usual raw mana crystal that can be used to power any wand, some wands take specialized "elemental" crystals which users insist have some sort of efficiency advantage. No one has ever proved there to be any such advantage.

It takes significantly more training to construct a classical elemental mana crystal, and often users of the corresponding wands find themselves "locked in" to a given maker. If that maker dies or retires, a caster's work may be significantly interrupted.


Labels for undead
Ghosts: disembodied escapees from the underworld; most effects psychic or illusory only.

Vampires: sorcerers who have magically retained control over their bodies in a false union, kept alive by feeding off the life-force of others.

Possessed: zombies or meat puppets animated by a ghost that experiences the world from within the body or remains in question.

[below this line there is no consciousness]

Zombies: autonomous reanimated corpses.

Meat puppets: reanimated corpses contingent on the continued psychic input of the reanimator (or someone in the reanimator's place).

More specific, haphazard labels:

Lich: Vampire without obvious means of sustenance.

Draugr: Zombie (or, rarely, possessed) used to guard a tomb or burial mound. OR Possessed or vampire that came out of a burial mound.

Sleeper: Zombie or meat puppet, not possessed.

Golem: Zombie that's been cleaned up, stripped, preserved, reinforced, etc. with an aim to building a durable machine for long-term use, often conflated with actual golem magic (which is much "cleaner" than necromantic golemry and thus more reliable against forces of light - to an extent).


Ethnicities

Rokomi
Descendants of tribal nomads famous for their skill with falcon, horse and bow, native to the northeast corner of the habitable northern continent. They invaded the southern Hadzaranthai lands in the early eighth century, kickstarting several generations of cultural exchange and power struggle that gave rise to the Empire as we know it today.

Another group expanded westwards to the peninsulae and islands of the Hlodon Sea during the few hundred years before the first Empire of the White Horde. Their occupation had never been easy, with a small embattled force constantly subjugating the ethnicities nearby (with a few exceptions that were more or less successfully integrated into the mainstream). Many reforms and revolutions have happened since, resulting in the modern Republic of Kolodos, currently in a decade-long ceasefire with the Qoduz Confederacy to the west (which had been founded on one of the more successful helot rebellions). "Gogo" is an Atharan and Qoduz slur for Kolodonese Rokomi, generally directed at Citizens.

The sacrificial goat skull is the traditional object upon which one is required to swear an oath in Kolodonese courts. It is technically idolatrous under Civil Deist doctrine read strictly, but no one with any say over the matters takes these things seriously enough to alter a practice that has been in place since the days of the nomads.

The Rokomi typically have wavy to straight, dark brown to black hair, with coarse and thick strands, and eyes of any normal human colour, with sharp features and straight or slightly aquiline noses. There is more variety in the south due to intermarriage with the Hadzaranthai. Northern Rokomi tend to be more pale, with a complexion some describe as "stony". They are congenitally prone to magical mutations due to the lingering mana disturbances emanating from the northeast that render the easternmost portion of the northern continent uninhabitable.

Hadzaranthai
The original dominant race of the Atharan Empire. The continuation of an ancient civilization that has seen many peaks even before the establishment of the Atharan Empire proper. Much of it has been neglected if not quite forgotten by their people during the rapid development and economic upheaval of the Teleport Age and the Disconnect Wars following it; recent generations are slowly developing a taste for rediscovering their distant ancestors' past.

The Hadzaranthai are typically brown-skinned, brown-eyed blonds, with round faces and noses, muscular and stocky and noticeably taller than the Rokomi (who are renowned historically as masters of horse, falcon and bow - not fist or sword). Hair can be anything from straight to frizzy, and is very fine. There is a bit of a conflict in their aesthetics, as darker skin has long been a sign of truer blood and better breeding, but the Rokomi love for lighter skin keeps droning on in the background.

Xhel
The people of the Xhel Commonwealth. Distributed among many tribes (though Atharan and Kolodonese anthropologists would consider them separate ethnicities entirely - the Qoduz disagree with this for their own reasons), but generally considered a single people with many dialects.

They frequently stand head if not shoulders above a Kolodonese Rokomi of similar age, gender and background. Long faces, large eyes (of any typical human colour) and sharp noses complement their slender builds. Hair is typically wavy, finer than the Rokomi's and blond to brown not sharply contrasting with their ruddy skin. It is rare for their men to be able to grow large, full beards, and most Xhel go clean shaven in any event.

Tobhá
A loose gathering of many different tribes and nations claiming some generally commonly-accepted-as-identical ancestry. Historically, as an ethnic identity it is probably as much a convenient construction by Atharan and Xhel colonizers as anything else. Named for the ancient port city of Tobhainan.

I know this

if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.

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