Saturday, February 25, 2023

MSF: Kara Koren and the East

To the inhabitants of the Hespermont, everything east of the Magelands tends to blend together. The great plains of Kara Koren, with their herds of megafauna and bison-riding nomads, are treated as a distant monolith; simplified out of practicality in the common fate of far-away things.

But of course, Kara Koren and the eastern lands are just as diverse as their western neighbors, and they shall be our subject today.

(This post is built off of this old setting I had written some time ago. Not initially MSF, but it was easily integrated.)


The Lands Under the Sky

In the west, Kara Koren borders the Magelands and the Eostremont. To the east its boundary is the Brown River, past which is Ghan. To the south it touches the Thermodon Plains, the Blackwine Sea, the Heartlands, the Empty Quarter, and the uppermost foothills of the Tiger's Spine. To the north there is the great tundra of Vaal Gahn and the lands of the Udoretz, and further still there are ever-frozen Dhuam and the nameless floes at the crown of the world.

It is singular in neither geography nor climate (possessing in turn steppe, savanna, desert, taiga, forest, riverlands and hill country), but on the whole it is vast and flat. Large cities are found mostly in the Twin Lakes region, along the major rivers, or near those aquifers that can support them. Political alliances and confederations are fluid, often subtlety defined, and guided by the ease and necessity of movement (and thus to the outside world, often either coalesced into generalities, or pulled out of their surrounding contexts and portrayed as more independent than they are. The Twin Lakes and the Hollowhorn are still considered the representative polities of Kara Koren, as leftovers from when the Second Empire extended the status of foreign state to those two parties alone and lumped the rest into barbarians. The malice might have faded, but the issues of categorization's influence on imagination remain)

Regardless. Listed here are some places of note from across Kara Koren.

  • The Twin Lakes - Called Dawn and Dusk, the Twin Lakes and the rivers that feed them have served as the basis for the larger sedentary civilizations of Kara Koren for millennia. Presently, the leading confederation is the Belted Hunter Tent (traditionally, chiefs would gather in tents with the stars painted on the interior roof for everyday tasks, and this has carried over to modern governmental practices.)
  • The Hollowhorn - A long-dead volcano rising out of the steppe like a sleeping god. A sacred place for all the peoples of Kara Koren, the villages at its base are appointed neutral territory where wars might be ended and differences settled. Here the great Greybeards hold council and the wisest among them are permitted to climb the mountain; few even among those might descend into the dark of the lava tubes and visit with the Last King as he sleeps and dreams.
  • Grand Zaratan - A turtle 200 cubits across trawls a lazy circuit around Dusk Lake. He is more ancient by far than any of the peoples now living there, and even the sages who lead his cult say that he descended into misty senescence long ago. A tiny temple is built on his back, and fishermen will pull their boats beside him and light a candle for his intercession.
  • The City of Teeth - An ancient walled city with a deep aquifer. Has been used as a trade stop for centuries by travelers on the Long Road. But the wells and caravanserai are all outside the walls, and the traders avoid its ivory-tiled gates even as they hang open. Those who enter the city, naturally, do not come out.
  • The Endless River - A river that flows in a irregular loop some fifty miles across, having neither source nor mouth.
  • Ödtyqat - An immense canyon system just north of the Heartlands, carved by wind and water over millions of years. Famed for its incredible beauty. Its genius locii, the King of Many-Colored Stone, permits only a few visitors to make the trek down into the bottom of the canyon.
  • The Graveyard of the Great-Grandmothers - The oldest and most sacred resting place of the steppe mammoths. Humans are not permitted within miles of the site, an edict enforced by a seven-generation curse. Folktales persist of the Oliphaunt Sage having once paid his respects there.
  • The City of 1000 Skulls - For reasons long forgotten, the cliffs and boulders of these hills along the river have been carved over generations into vast skulls. Many are large enough to serve as houses, though the inhabitants have a tendency to carve whatever stones are on hand, down to tiny pebbles, as further decoration.
  • The Temple-Mound at Annu-dath - A prehistoric burial complex, covered over with soil and built atop of again and again until it became an artificial hill visible for many miles around. Many long millennia after the complex was sealed, the stone doors opened of their own accord and revealed a pallid, blind creature not entirely alive, that stood in the shade of the gate and declared "All are welcome; come and see". It beckoned to the darkness beyond. Word has spread far and wide. The depths are calling, and their call has been answered. Pilgrims of the blade and torch, delvers and the desperate, trudge towards Annu-dath. There is a command in their souls to go deeper.
  • The Sage's Tree - A gnarled desert pine along the roadside, held by tradition to have learned the secrets of the universe from the sage Walks-on-Shells. Whatever secrets it learned were clearly not the ones it was seeking, as it's likely the most bad-tempered tree in the world. A right bastard, that tree. My cousin saw it clothesline a camel once, just because it could.
  • The Cornflower Bond - A confederation of maize-barons and water-guilds on the Long Road. Relatively new on the scene, having formed after the War.
  • The Circadean Papacy - From the carapace-encrusted basilica in Ris Tabol, the pontifex chitinous leads the small and zealous flock in worship of the enormous insects that cyclically rise from the earth. A persistent (if generally harmless) irritation to the Thermodon amazons who fight the fucking things.
  • The Nameless Towers - Dozens of square-based towers built of seamless stone. The builders are unknown, as are the inhabitants, if any; wizards of antiquity or monsters, as people presume. There are no doors, save the images of them painted on the east-facing sides in fading blue.
  • The Orrery of Ksanesklas - A hilltop observatory commissioned by the great warlord in his waning years. It has been maintained and expanded in the centuries since, and currently houses one of the largest telescopes in the world as well as an animated model of the known solar system, each planet rendered in beautiful detail on stone spheres the size of an ox.
  • The Laughing Nation - We cannot stop here. This is clown country.
  • The Salt-Bone Sea - An inland sea that dried up long ago. Salt-mining settlements pepper its margins, and occasionally some mad-brave souls will mount and expedition to the islands of the interior. Those that come back often return with carts full of fossils.
  • The Burning Place - A mine that caught on fire and simply hasn't stopped burning.
  • Land of the Bison Lord - You will know him by his silver mane and enormous horns, and if you are wise you shall pay him homage and back away slowly.
  • Sarraganda, City of Tents - A migratory city, a superfluid state. Caravans come and go, nomad tribes might stay for a season or so, the sea of bright-bannered tents crawls slowly across the open grasslands.


The Twin Lakes Civilization

Little of this civilization has survived to the modern day: Oral histories from the peoples of the region have thus far lined up with what archaeology has been able to confirm: the Twin Lakes Civilization was a sedentary magocracy, its founder was a sorcerer king most commonly known as Takal Nûn, it collapsed due to unknown reasons (sudden climate shift, mass famine, and rebellion being the most common theories), and that those peoples who migrated into the region after its collapse destroyed many of the remaining traces (considering the remnants to be cursed in and of themselves.

There are ruins to be found through the Great Lakes region and its river system, a few remaining irrigation canals, and some submerged structures beneath the Dawn Twin. From these remains, it is believed that the TLC organized itself around palace complexes - fortified civic and economic hubs with linked agricultural communities surrounding them. The largest palace complex is found underneath the waters of Dawn Twin, and a dozen other major sites have been identified - the largest being those located on the shores of both lakes or at river / canal junctions further abroad.

The TLC had developed writing by the time of its collapse, but the script remains undeciphered. Inscriptions were especially targeted during the post-collapse period, and the TLC language did not appear to have any link to the language families that now inhabit the region. The scripts currently used likewise have no connection.  

Those artifacts that survive are primarily worked stone, bone, or clay. Metallurgy of gold, silver, tin, lead, copper and bronze are relatively common, with bronze implements mostly limited to weaponry and orichalcum devoted to wizardry. Rarest of all and exclusive to weaponry is a brittle crimson metal with veins of black that, when specially treated by magical craft, was equivalent to steel. Shards of this material would be embedded in bone clubs as a weapon for elite warriors, commanders, and government officials.

It is hypothesized, but not yet confirmed, that the Twin Lakes Civilization experienced at least a partial Hell Emergence Event. At the very least there existed a sizable sorcerous class skilled both in biological shaping and the building of devices, which might have lead to widespread industrialization had the TLC not collapsed.

The sorcerous artifacts and arcane detritus of the TLC have traditionally attracted the attention of wizards, who in turn bring their own sorcerous artifacts and leave behind their own arcane detritus, and this (plus some exaggeration in the telling and focus on novelty) is much of why the lands of Kara Koren seem to have so much strangeness within them.


Peoples of the East

To the peoples of the west and south, everyone who lives in Kara Koren is buruq. This is technically true, if only because "ruq" is the root word for "person" in the most widespread plains language family; "buruq" is used as an endonym primarily in the Central and Great Lakes regions (the major cultural contacts with the Eostremont and Second Empire), but its wide spread does not mean it is exclusive.

As anywhere, there is great diversity among the peoples of Kara Koren in appearance. Most commonly their skin is brown or reddish-brown, with the shades lighter in the west and darker in the east, and their hair dark and tightly curled. Light hair is uncommon but not unheard of, and more often found in the west near the Eostremont peoples. Descended as they are from neandr and anakim peoples in the distant past they trend towards both height and broadness (enough so that peoples of slim stature are noteworthy for the difference), though they are not so large as the amazons or the wudu-wasa.

There are eleven (generally) agreed-upon culture-regions across Kara Koren, each consisting of many smaller culture-groups. They are very loose categories and typically only used by anthropologists from elsewhere (as the inhabitants of Kara Koren, having more pertinent knowledge of things, divide cultures up according to more locally-relevant criteria). References to "Korenic peoples" should not be used as indications of a singular Pan-Korenic culture: instead, it is used here in accordance with scholars of the region to refer to groups that either have a representative seat at the Law-Calling, have a common institution of Hollowhorn pilgrimage, or practice folkways according to the Horag Chat, the Way of the Great-Grandmother Mammoth, or the Practices of Greater Sky.

But the eleven will do for now. They are:

  • Western - Abutting the Magelands, the Eostermeont, and the northern Blackwine Sea. Groups from these regions will typically demonstrate a blend of cultural traits from their neighbors. Mostly settled agriculturalists.
  • Central - Those groups that inhabit the central plains of Kara Koren. Most are seminomadic or fully nomadic, living off and with the great variety of megafauna that call the plains home. The common image of a buruq nomad riding atop a bison in his colorful quilted coat and great furry hat is specifically from the peoples of this region.
  • Great Lakes - The largest group of sedentary peoples in Kara Koren. The descendants of those who migrated to the region after the collapse of the TLC, merging with the descendants of the remaining survivor-underclasses who remained.
  • Southern - Those groups that abut the Heartland. Still carry a certain amount of artistic / architectural / linguistic influence from the Second Empire.
  • Southeastern - Those isolated groups that live in the deserts that border of the Empty Quarter. Generally have little overlap with the other regions.
  • Mountain Peoples - Confusingly used for two culture families with no connection to each other. The first being those groups that live on and around the sacred mountain, which are the smallest by population. The second being the Korenic inhabitants of the northernmost reaches of the Tiger's Spine.
  • Northwestern Taigic - A region inhabited primarily by the easternmost Dayrdani peoples.
  • Taigic - General category for all peoples who live south of Vaal Gahn, east of the Dayrdani lands,
  • The Long Road - The inhabitants of the city-states that dot the east-west trade network.
  • River Peoples - Those groups that live along the Brown River or one of its tributaries. Has become generalized to include most groups that live east of the Great Lakes watershed.
  • Isolates - Culture groups with no apparent connection to any of their neighbors; if there are any connections to other groups, they will be greatly diverged in place, time, or both. Nomadic members of this group are occasionally split into their own category

Finally, a brief list of some isolate peoples.

The Hairy Men - They live beneath the hills in tangled earthen warrens. Men and women alike are covered in soft, deep brown hair from head to toe, and they go about unclothed otherwise. Their lives are, as much as can be observed, peaceful and simple - their inner depths remain well-hidden from the outside world.

The Pale Men - Stocky build, pallid skin, hair black and thin. They came from the far north, seeking to introduce civilization to the southern peoples. Their cities of black metal are like cathedrals, like hives of insects, smokestacks vomiting into the sky. The gates are open - come inside, and they will teach you their ways. They are humorless at large, and do not care for the gods or stories of gods.

Enemies of the Pale Men - None know who or what drove them south from their bitter forests; the Pale Men say nothing on the matter, and so we are left with hearsay and supposition.

The Bloody Men - Their bodies are striped with the scars, scabs, gouges of self-flagellation. They strike with violence at all other peoples of Kara Koren, demanding tribute - gold, herds, worked metal, slaves. They have no cities nor villages, nor even domesticated animals - they ride zoanthropes the size of horses, lank-haired man-things with limbs like that of a spider and jutting jaws filled with too many teeth and hands with cracked, blackened claws and yellowing, rheumy eyes. 

The Burned-House People - Perhaps once a generation or so, they will set fire to their villages and move onward, carrying only what they might take with them on their backs. When asked why they do this, the answer has always been "it is to set things right" - though in their dialect, the act of "setting things right" derives from the same root as "exorcism" in neighboring languages. 

Yamnaya - A people that live in the place called Eight Pits, located in the north-west of Kara Koren (that is, a little ways northeast of the Magelands). The pits are smooth-walled and seem bottomless, though their sides are pockmarked with hidden chambers and secretive passages carved out over generations. it is said that in the distant past the Yamnaya emerged from the pits to the surface world; now it seems that they have begun the gradual process of returning to their subterrene complexes.

Pan-De - The baluchitherium is the greatest of all Kara Koren's beasts, and it is the Pan-De alone who have learned how to domesticate the king of all creatures upon the earth. They are a nomadic people by necessity, following the migration paths of the great creatures they tend. They are merchants, mail-carriers, bearers of news both good and ill. If you find yourself in need to translation or safe passage, seek out the Pan-De; they might provide both to you.

Kûnnurat - Takal Nûn's empire is the earliest civilization known to practice the guided breeding of slave-soldiers (a practice which wizards have returned to with depressing regularity). All of Takal Nûn's warrior castes either died during the collapse of his empire or further mutated into more divergent forms (both outcomes from the sudden loss of the sustaining enchantments that kept them bound and shaped), save the Kûnnurat. The ages have softened many of the tendencies that they were once engineered with, and cultural outlets have handled the rest (diverting the advanced aggression and musth periods of the men into grand sport-wars fought amongst their clans).  

Beast Men - They wear the heads of goats and the hides of dogs and have forgone the speech of man entirely. They kindle no fires and build no houses. There are no women among their number, nor children, nor do they sire by rapine: Instead, it is said that they couple with demons of the earth during the dry season, and new among their number rise full-grown from the mud come the rains.

Men of the Moon - Silver-skinned and hairless, taller than a strong man by half. Their eyes are like obsidian, their voices are like flutes. They are accompanied by short, four-eyed men swaddled in extravagant silks.

Those Who Are Not Men - Seen only ever at a distance in the twilight: dark forms thrice as tall as an ordinary man, standing in groups of two or three, their eyes like the last embers of the sun. That is all that can be said.


  1. Commentary time: since I found myself with a vaguely-defined fantasy Central-Asia, I decided that it was best and play around with it - both in providing more cultural variety than just "fantasy Mongols live here". Also featuring a re-do of my old post about the altai (fantasy prehistoric human species as a stand-in for orcs), as in retrospect that was entirely too simplistic for such a wide expanse. So the altai have become the Kunnurat, buruq gets a tweak in definition to be more broad-reaching, and I find this interpretation much richer and more worthwhile.

  2. I like the evocative places. A city of skulls which would look great on a hand-drawn map. That turtle which totally reminds me of a swimming shrine/temple on a flooded dam basin I once visited in Thailand. that circular river as both a physical anomaly _and_ a reliable means of semi-local transportation. And the city of teeth reminds me of ruins I have actually visited in actual Mongolia. Very cool post!

    1. The fact that (besides the pit mine) the correlations are not intentional is a wonderful little coincidence.

  3. Very nice! Is this going to be become a continental map at some point?

    1. There's sorta-kinda one alread ( but I'm less satisfied with how that is. Maybe someday I will commission a proper map maker for one, but I fear I would immediately start changing it. Such is the risk of a map