Everad, my guide, fits the Vârran mould well-enough. Dour and of few words, his eyes seem to do most of his talking. Dark skin slowly acquired from years of hard work east in the harbours of Amouar sets him apart from most Vârrans, but those talkative eyes are as dark and sunken as those of any Vârran man. Like many of the workers born after the empires’ retreat, he wears his hair long, pulled back tightly in perhaps a dozen bunches, held together by a handmade reed-and-aluminium band on which the disk of Solum is sewn. His frame, though lean, its sinewy muscles clearly visible beneath a body that is almost completely bereft of fat, is a welcome sight in a world where physical ailments, disfigurements and diseases have become all-too common.
I stop a few times during our ascent of the escarpment that once served to divide the administrative and noble quarters above from the workers’ districts below – a large marine shelf that was submerged beneath the waters of the Propontis until around 3,000-years ago. The city stretches behind me, before reaching the boundary with the dark waters of the Propontis. Beyond, the border between sea and sky is imperceptible, hidden beneath a thick morning mist, rendering the vista behind me in murky tones. The harbour is as busy as can be expected of a city that, during its peak 300-years ago boasted a population of around 350,000 souls, though which now would be lucky to claim 7,000. The morass of vacant structures is palpable, doubly so from this height. The rotting frames and toppled debris of ancient imperial structures flank the north and south edges of the city, a labyrinth that is ignored by the hard-working folk of the ‘city’, populated instead by degenerates and other dregs.
It is their ilk that I am looking for today, though not in the ruined quarters, but rather the ruin of the great temple that has stood guarding the city for just over 2-centuries. It was the last effort of a faltering imperial presence there to assert itself amid they dying continent. Construction was begun there in 3795 RM by the Avénethi order of the Fraternal Inquisition of the empire, whose influence in the region was faltering. Begun under great duress from Korachan to acquire resources and funds without denting its annual allowance, the surrounding lands were scoured for resources. With most natural resources spent centuries earlier, they were forced to search elsewhere. Though some veins of granite and other resources were found, they were too few to fuel the great construction effort that was beginning west of the administrative district. Slaves and workers were drafter in their thousand from around the city and other settlements in the region, beginning work on the catacombs and scaffolds that would become the temples most noteworthy features.
The Avénethi fraternity was the last imperial caretaking presence in Vârr and ultimately departed in 3843 RM, some 50-years after construction began. The temple was left less than half finished, a crude and imposing metal skeleton only partially clothed in concrete and granite slabs, all pretence of art or design as yet unrealised, little more than unrealised designs in architects’ plans. Construction on its voluminous dome was only half-finished, with great metal ribs arching from immense columns, meeting in the centre, the sky visible beyond. So big was that dome that once completed scholars envisioned it having its own weather, with rain expected to be a common occurrence, as it was in the superior Bastion of Steel.
But alas, the fragmentation of the Korachani empire had many casualties. The temple was one, and it stands now, a rotting shell; gentle reminder to all that even Korachani dreams lay unfulfilled. Since that time, the raw materials that lay unused at the things feet were taken, used and sold elsewhere. Great sheets of metal skin were ripped off where they could be, leaving the thing a rusted patchwork. Refugees fleeing the predation of militant gangs and their warlords made the place their own, its labyrinthine catacombs and crypts, its passages and hundreds of side-chapels and unfinished ossuaries becoming their homes.
I am writing now in the shade of one such chapel, resting from the ascent before we go in. It is an unassuming protrustion to the temple’s main body, the metal on its door worn smooth by curious or perhaps devout hands touching it over the years. Flanking the door are two niches, designed to house statues or idols of some form, though they were either never placed there or were taken (probably melted down to their constituent parts) years ago. Instead the vacant spaces are now covered in candles and cathadems (lead streamers with litanies and devotions etched into their surface); the prayers and hopes of the Vârran people almost palpable. It is clear that, despite the empire’s retreat less than 2-centuries ago and the resurgence of the ancestral deity known as Solum, that the influence of Korachan is still strong here. The children of imperial immigrants yet live here and, though some are persecuted, their beliefs in the old imperial deity and its saints clearly evident.
The verdigris-encrusted plaque that stands above the door of the chapel is corroded beyond recognition, whatever divinity or aspect the place was once dedicated to now unknown. Inside, I feel confined by the meagre size of the chapel, its oppressive aura attributable to the stench of mould and rust. The walls around me are covered in mostly broken bass carving murals in stone, any features they once held disfigured by the filth that cakes them. The encaustic colours that would once have covered them are long gone, peeled off under the stresses of the regions’ humidity. In front of me are 4 simple stools, at the head of which is a typical imperial statue, the large sword and sword that are common motifs of the old religion prominent. Less-so is the pale face – stark in contract to the brown-and-orange patina the rest of the statue is covered in – barely visible beneath the shadow of a heavy cowl and the grime of decades. The whole thing is chained and bolted to the wall and floors – possibly a deterrent to opportunists. More candles, their grey-brown wax common to this region, line the feet of the statue, more cathadesms poking out from beneath them.
Despite the growing persecution of their kind, it is clear that those loyal to the old religion of the empire remain common here.
I leave and re-join my guide, who is some distance away now, speaking with a local soldier. A common sight beneath the temple. Indeed, the apex of the escarpment, running for at least 2 miles, north-to-south, dividing the ancient coastal shelf from the higher lands to the west, is peppered with pillboxes and towers overlooking the city and sea beyond. Agents of the hierogoths that reappeared in the wake of imperial occupation, their role is largely to maintain peace; a difficult prospect in a city that is rife with corruption and friction between different denominations and religions.
They city’s main religion is the rapidly spreading divinity known as Solum, an ancient deity that was worshipped by the people of Vaern before imperial censors quashed its worship, converting it into a saint of Rachanael in c. 1000 RM. Though subsequent generations of Vârrans were brought up with Solum as an imperials saint, its dogma and belief-systems corrupted by the imperial church, many factors of the deity remained true, most notably the worth of martial strength and its link with wisdom and mental purity. The Church of Rachanael remains stubbornly rooted in places it has converted and nowhere else is this more evident than in Vârr, where even close to 2-centuries of freedom and over half-a-dozen generations born outside of imperial influence have failed to tarnish its strength. Though the church itself has all but died in Korachani lands (the schism of 3705 RM sundering the church in two, an even neither ever truly recovered from) fragments of it persist in Vârr, albeit heavily corrupted and laced with resurgent legends and other impurities that have been handed down the generations. The third and smallest local faith is the worship of the Lyridian Augurs and their divine head the Sibyl of Myra. Beholden to nine mystic beings known as the Abulia, the Sibyl and her servant s the Augurs are farseers of unparalleled power and prestige and are worshipped as deities in Lyridia. Though it goes unrecognised by the augurs, the influence of the Sibyl is clear, for it is felt as far away as Amouar where even in the wake of imperial fanaticism it is considered a heathen practice, its worshippers conducting their rituals in the secrecy of their own home.
As though the clash of religions were not enough, Amouar is a place of various peoples. The descendants of imperial immigrants and Vârran natives are the most common, though many people in the city can trace their lineage to Pelasgos, Rhamia and even Lyridia. I have seen few halfbloods during my stay here, and I can see reason why, for I doubt they would be welcome. The influence of Lyridian xenophobia? The War for the Shadow and the Helix brought saw many Ahrisheni refugees fleeing south, settling in Vârr amongst other places. There are even whispers of witches and sorcerers from the north-east settling the hinterlands Vârr, though I have seen little evidence to support this claim (though given the regions’ distrust of Firmamentalists and their ilk I can only assume that any dwelling here would do their utmost to keep the fact secret. The Prison Carceri has a long history, knowledge of which has spread far beyond the borders of Vârr over the years). This
Though conflict between different religious groups is common, it is downplayed by the authorities, which are trying to bring stability and trade back to the city and surrounding towns. In sharp contrast is the persecution of those deemed not Vârran enough, criteria I have discovered is open to much interpretation and abuse. Indeed, it is only through my letters of marque issued by the turrets of the ruling Heirogoth in western Amouar that I am afforded the comfort of safe travel, and even then the going has been turbulent, at best. This is such a time.
Everad beckons me over, asking for my papers and sigils. I produce the heavy paper and lead seals from my bags, and lift the aluminium sigil around my neck into sight. The soldier is speaking hurriedly, speaking as much with his hand gestures as he does with words. The language is harsh, owing more to the pidgin Korachani tongue than it does to the Vârran language of its natives and other cultures, and dialects differ from district to district within the city itself. The outlying towns and other vassal of Amouar sound like different languages to me. He gestured to a colleague, who lowers his powedergun (an ancient thing, probably dating back to the times of Korachani rule) and looks at the papers. He assures the other soldier (and us in so doing) that the papers are legitimate, and gestures to the temple, as though in invitation to enter.