The mighty peninsula between the Inland Sea and the White Sea ends in a rugged cape—a mixture of barren, rocky hills, tundra and sheltered pockets of stunted spruce, larch and willow. Here the White Sea gives way to the Great Western Ocean. Ice covers the sea only in winter, and that ice consists of floes and pack ice rather than a solid sheet.
Here a hardy folk called the Zalvenesh make their livelihood by fishing and hunting whales, narwhales and seals; supplemented with shellfish, edible roots, and berries found in the sheltered upland dells.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this region, however, lies beneath the waves. What is now the narrow neck of the White Sea once held the Spidersilk Dam, a great wonder of the Old Realm. At the time, the White Sea was dry land and densely populated. When the Spidersilk Dam broke, a wall of water annihilated the glittering cities of the White Valley, sweeping their shattered wreckage toward what is now Haslanti territory… and then, in the immense back-splash, carried it back again. The sea floor around the mouth of the White Sea is thus littered with fragments of the Old Realm.
ZALVENESH LIFE Edit
The Zalvenesh live in small villages whose population rarely exceeds 1,000, which they surround with dry-stone walls to protect against the Varajtul barbarians, who threaten the Zalvenesh at all times and roam unchecked in winter. Zalvenesh houses are built from whalebone tightly bound with leather thongs. Each town consists of dozens of these bone longhouses along with tanning huts, smokehouses, a smithy and other buildings.
The Zalvenesh lack sufficient wood for building, so they make their fishing longboats from bone and leather as well. Similarly, every Zalven wears waterproof clothing stitched from sealskin.
A council of retired longboat captains rules each village who deal with most civil matters, making decisions based on custom and arguments from everyone concerned. A captain’s place in the village council, though, depends entirely on whether the rest of the villagers respect his opinion. Townspeople openly mock captains who displease them and, if a captain does not change his ways, the townspeople stand up and walk out of the longhouse when that captain speaks. If most of the town leaves the longhouse, this captain loses all authority until he convinces the populace that he deserves their respect once more.
VILLAGE GODS Edit
The captains, however, are not the most important people in town. Long ago, the Zalvenesh made pacts with a dozen or so small gods of sea and ice. Each village worships several of these gods, but reveres one god above the rest. These gods, the Zal-Kelementi, have no other worshipers. They make sure that every village receives a visit from at least one god a season. In the larger towns, a god might actually live in a temple of ornately carved whalebone and narwhale ivory, and mingle with worshipers daily. One of the Zal-Kelementi certainly shows up for any major festival, at which the god oversees a feast and consumes truly divine portions of whatever intoxicants are available.
The Zalvenesh have a somewhat irreverent reverence for their gods. It’s hard to feel too much awe when you’ve seen your god passed out drunk. Nevertheless, the people highly value the Zal-Kelementi. The gods are their best defense against the Varajtul, the Fair Folk and other uncanny dangers. While the Zal-Kelementi prefer to laze in their temples, enjoying the rustic luxuries their worshipers provide, they are still gods and capable of impressive, intimidating displays of wrath and power. Fortunately for the Zalvenesh, their gods also figured out that oppressing and exploiting the villagers doesn’t work well. Rival gods would step in, offer more protection and kindlier treatment and usurp their worship.
The exceptionally close connections between the Zalvenesh and their petty pantheon also result in the birth of many God-Blooded mortals. Each village has a priest to tend its temple, and that priest is always God-Blooded.
Moreover, the priest’s divine father or mother becomes the principle deity of that village. This gives the gods an incentive to keep producing by-blows. Indeed, one of the chief village festivals is an annual “sacred marriage” (though it’s really a one-night stand) between the god and a selected mortal.
Priest or not, God-Blooded Zalvenesh learn Charms from their divine parents. With these, the God-Blooded defend the village when a god isn’t available. Priests also act as judges and mediators, especially when disputes threaten to split the council of captains. There’s always a contest of power—maybe subtle, maybe overt—between the captains and the priest. The rivalry tends to become strongest when one of the captains is herself God-Blooded, and therefore a potential priest if the existing office holder steps down or dies. When a priest needs replacement, the most powerful Zal-Kelementi compete with one another for the honor of having one of their children become the next priest.
The Zal-Kelementi have little interest in governing the villages. They exert themselves only in matters that affect their worship, their pleasures or their particular purviews.
If anyone tries to harm them or steal their offerings, they causally smite the offender. Otherwise, they leave mortal disputes and mortal laws to mortals.
DIVING FOR ARTIFACTS Edit
Creation would ignore the Zalvenesh except that these folk dive into the icy waters and bring out relics of the High First Age. Perhaps once in 20 years, someone finds an artifact with meaningful power, such as a daiklave or a prayer transceiver module.
Only simple, sturdy artifacts made of magical materials survived the deluge intact, though. More often, the divers bring up First Age trinkets such as adamant table knives, or twisted bits of jade, orichalcum or other remains of wrecked artifacts.
GIFTS OF THE GODS Edit
Outsiders who see Zalvenesh dive naked into waters that ought to kill them in a minute sometimes think the Wyld must have tainted them. Actually, the divers endure the frigid waters through divine blessings. Some divers are themselves God-Blooded. They can spend as much time as they want searching the sea floor, because they are the offspring of a sea god. The rest receive blessings from their village’s god or from God-Blooded friends.
Specifically, the Charm is a form of Endowment. Some gods grant a scene-long immunity to cold or the ability to hold one’s breath, equivalent to the Wyld pox Air Adaptation or Water Adaptation. Other gods endow a mortal with the effects identical to those of Hardship-Surviving Mendicant Spirit and Element-Resisting Prana or Northern Mastery Technique. These Charms have an Indefinite duration, and so, the endowment is more or less permanent, but the god must spend the Essence of the emulated Charm as well as the Essence for the Endowment. Since none of the Zal-Kelementi are very powerful, they can confer these greater Endowments only to mortals who already meet the Survival or Stamina minimum of the emulated Charm.
THE ARTIFACT TRADE Edit
Traders who visit the Zalvenesh sell them medicines, liquor, foodstuffs and goods made from metal or wood. In return, the merchants acquire baleen, bone and blubber, expertly tanned whale and seal leather, narwhale and walrus ivory and other goods from the sea. What they really want, though, are First Age artifacts. Even scrap of orichalcum is a minor treasure, and the divers occasionally make incredible finds. Therefore, traders come regularly from the Guild, Coral, the Haslanti League and the Blessed Isle to see what the divers have brought out of the sea.
A village’s patron god always gets first choice of whatever the divers salvage, so working artifacts usually go to the Zal-Kelementi instead of the merchants. Yet, a god might decide that she wants a trader’s bolt of finest Chiaroscuran brocade to drape about her temple more than she wants a powerbow.
CREATIVE RECYCLING Edit
Sometimes, the Zalvenesh find their own uses for salvaged items. Most notably, divers sometimes find large and nearly indestructible pieces of First Age vehicles and shipping containers. The Zalvenesh incorporate such fragments into their boats. For instance, divers have found dozens of large ovoid shipping containers that snap apart into a pair of curving shells. Each shell easily becomes a nearly indestructible dory, though a god must first pierce the gleaming shell to permit installation of rowlocks or a mast.
DOLPHIN HELPERS Edit
As a final curiosity of the Zalvenesh, tame dolphins aid the divers and fishers. Most of these dolphins are as smart and capable of understanding speech as a four-yearold child. They are also easy to train and become valued companions to divers and fishers. A few even possess fully human intelligence. Together, dolphins and Zalvenesh can catch more fish than either could alone, and the dolphins regard searching for artifacts as a fun game.
These are a final blessing of the gods as the Zal-Kelementi taught their children a thaumaturgical Procedure for transmigrating human souls into animals. When Zalvenesh leaders believe they shall soon die, they may ask a priest to place their soul into the body of a young dolphin. The Zalven thus gains a second life in the sea.
Their offspring somehow inherit intelligence closer to that of a human than that of an animal. For this reason, the Zalvenesh view all the dolphins as part of their tribe, and killing a dolphin is considered murder.
Such transmigrations violate the laws of Heaven, but Heaven has larger concerns than the customs of an obscure tribe at the edge of Creation. What’s more, a Zalven who attains a second life as a dolphin nevertheless re-enters the cycle of reincarnation after her second death. Should the Zalvenesh come under Heaven’s scrutiny, though, their gods could face capital sanctions—even though technically, the mortals perform the transmigrations themselves.