Flintlocks & Fireballs
The People of Earth And Air
The People of Earth and Air are a hidden culture, concealed in the distant mountains of the Ramaslu Province. As far as anybody in the Empire knows — or for that matter, anybody outside of a very few individuals — there’s nothing more than a few villages of peasants nestling in the foothills, scratching out a living as best they can.
And that’s exactly how the People want to keep it.
The Race Into Recursion
To understand the People of Earth and Air, it’s easiest first to understand how they understand art, and how they understand the world. The best way to describe the art that the Air caste create is ‘intricate’: every detail in a painting is filled in, every minor character in a play is given reams and reams of backstory.
But the Air don’t just create complex, baroque narratives for the fun of it. They do so in order to create the next world: upon this world’s destruction, all that will remain are the echoes created by the art created, and the world that they form.
And this destruction is coming soon. The Air have learned, through subtle clues placed in this world by those who created it, that a terrible evil is slowly burrowing its way through the layers of reality. A shapeless, formless will that turns those it defeats into its servants, no longer craving the Earth’s sustenance or the Air’s creation. A force of mindless propagation, that seeks only to create empty, barren worlds filled with mindless slaves and meaningless monuments to its greatness. An evil built not of Earth and Air but of gold, which does not nourish, and fire, which does not create. And upon consuming a world entirely, this evil begins the slow, hungry process of burrowing into the minds of the people living in the next world.
The servants of this evil can be fought and defeated, but the evil itself is insidious and poisonous and takes many forms, attacking a warrior even as he stands victorious over its agents. But the evil can be fled, for now, and that is exactly what the Air are preparing for. Through their art they are preparing a better world which will survive the annihilation of this one. Given time, there might be a world some distance down the line in which the conditions are right, in which the evil can finally be faced and overcome. But it is not this one. And all that can be done in this world is to buy the warriors of the future as much time as they can to prepare and gird their loins for the battle to come.
For an outsider to look at a village of the People of the Earth, he might very well think that they are a caste of peasants, or even slaves. Certainly, they dress in basic clothes, work menial tasks, and live in terrible conditions. The only thing lacking would be anybody actually forcing them to work.
This is because the People of the Earth know very well the price for not working: they won’t produce enough food to feed the People of Air, so enough art won’t be created, and so the world will be destroyed by evil. In a community as small as the villages inhabited by the Earth, those who don’t pull their weight can’t easily hide that they’re slacking off; nor can they easily hide from the angry mob who don’t want their world dragged down into oblivion by someone too idle to do their fair share. It’s not a system that works perfectly, of course: cliques do sometimes form, and the Air sometimes have to get involved to deal with a particularly troublesome uprising, but by and large the People of the Earth are self-policing.
Then there are the People of the Air: educated, enlightened administrators and — above all — artists. Being an artist isn’t an easy job for the People: to create art is to be a front-line fighter in the war against the apocalypse, to have the hopes of your nation resting on you, the resources of a people funnelled to your needs, as you desperately churn out more and more works of exquisitely beautiful poetry mindful that one poorly-chosen syllable could be all it takes to have a warrior in the next world stumble and fall in an all-important battle.
The Air also take responsibility for guiding and leading the People of the Earth, for maintaining their contentment and managing distribution of goods. But such things are all lesser jobs — drudgery, almost — compared to the work of the artists, or even to the Earth themselves, who are at least working to support the warriors against the end of all things.
The coming of Gold and Fire, and the rise of the Mistwalkers
For a long time, the People had known their doom was coming, but they didn’t know when. They had shored up their defences and worked hard and created more and more works of art, but nothing had happened.
Then they learned that there really was a force out beyond Ramaslu, spreading across the plains, conquering everything that opposed it, and corrupting the lands it took. Now, the People knew the name of the ancient evil prophecied to come, the men of Gold and Fire. They called themselves the Empire.
Neither the Earth nor Air were a martial people. But they were a subtle people. The Air sent individuals to the furthest outlying villages, those who the Empire would find first. They prepared carefully, making them seem like poor, starving places with no resources to speak of and idiotic, barely-literate inhabitants. When these explorers requested guides to the local terrain, the People of Air happily led them through miles of the most inhospitable and barren mountains in the Empire. Sure enough, the Empire overlooked the People in favour of settling more lucrative terrain, and the Mistwalkers as an organisation were born.
Since then, the People have known that the Empire must be kept distracted at all costs; though the Empire can’t be defeated forever, anything that will buy the Air’s artists more time in crafting a solution is of value. The Mistwalkers have trained themselves to understand its ways without falling to the temptations it holds, and infiltrated its society in order to learn the enemy’s weaknesses. There had once been some debate among the Air about how much should be revealed to the enemies of the Empire, but once news of the Empire’s plans to destroy the Arakeshi archives reached the People, the decision for the Mistwalkers to work openly with the rebellion was all but unanimous.
The battle against Gold and Fire
If there were to be any physical confrontation between the People and the Empire, it would be over in weeks. Even if they are sitting in some very defensible terrain, the People of Earth and Air just don’t keep enough of a standing army and they reject the Empire’s technological advances. But so far, it hasn’t come to that — and while the Rebellion lasts, the Empire isn’t going to go rooting around in the far Ramaslu mountains when it’s convinced there’s nothing there but wastes.
No, the real battle that the People are fighting is for the souls of the Earth. There is always some trickle of trade between the outlying villages and the rest of Ramaslu, and while the Ramasluvians aren’t free, the Empire’s technology means they enjoy considerably more in the way of luxuries and creature comforts than the People of the Earth. Tobacco, too, and narcotics are starting to find their way across the border. So far, this hasn’t come to anything: the pressure of centuries of hard social conditioning and the intervention of the Air, when necessary, have silenced dissent. But pressure is starting to build; the People of the Earth are being worked harder and harder to fuel the Air’s final push, and sooner or later, something is bound to happen.
You can read a Mistwalker’s interrogation by an Imperial agent here.