And so we come to discuss the Dryth.
The Solons, and all that they have done and will do, no doubt dominate the minds of every being in the Union. Beings of almost mythical power and unlimited wealth, each independent and unique, each equally as likely to be savior or destroyer.
But today is not the time to discuss the Solons. No doubt you have heard ballads enough of their exploits. No, today we discuss the Aigythi, the Dedicated – the armies of the Solons. Who among us has not borne witness to an Aigyth on patrol? Who has not been confronted by one, armor-clad, face obscured by that eyeless helm, and not quavered at their invisible gaze? But what are they? How can they have come to sacrifice so much of themselves to the service of their Solon?
The answer, like most good answers, is a complicated one. It asks that we look at the very roots of Dryth culture and mythology as well as the technical and practical limitations of the Solons themselves (blasphemy, I know, I know – and yet, if I am to educate, I must occasionally blaspheme). Though the Aigythi are a relatively new phenomenon, they are an offshoot of a much older tradition.
The Dryth homeworld, Odryss, is an inhospitable place. Its arid, radiation soaked surface was slow to give rise to complex life. When we Thraad were inventing mathematics and taming beasts in our First Age, life on Odryss existed only beneath the surface, in the deep caverns of the subterranean oceans. The Dryth, it is thought, are descendants of hardy creatures that journeyed from the warm, dark embrace of the deep oceans to brave the harshness of the deserts. The Dryth evolved slowly, but also steadily. No cataclysms or great plagues hampered their process, no extinction level events diverted their evolutionary path. When we Thraad has risen and fallen twice already, the Dryth grew unimpeded.
For aeons, the Dryth were small in number, as their habitat could not sustain a large population. They were a nomadic species divided into small tribes and constantly warring for sparse resources. By necessity the species was hardy, innovative, and independent. Their oral tradition is rife with tales of individual heroism and courage – clever warriors and powerful shamans, doing battle with the gods and nature for the protection of their people. The Dryth cultural obsession with independence and self-reliance stems from these deep-seeded moments, from a time when their ascendance was very much not guaranteed.
This, then, explains the rise of the Solons well enough: individualistic god-heroes, leaders and self-reliant pioneers, dragging their people along in their wakes. But what of the Aigythi? How does a culture that values independence and individualism so highly support such vast armies of people who are, in essence, enslaved to their Solon’s will?
There is a peculiar paradox among the Dryth. For as much as they style themselves as free and self-sustaining people, their admiration for the Solons – the ideal representations of their cultural desires – leads them to mimicry and imitation. This, ironically, leads them to conformity. In their haste to be “as unique as” their Solon masters, they wind up being but pale representations of them. The culture of the Dryth Houses is dominated by this paradox.
The Aigythi are the prime example of this paradox. Individual Dryth, free to make their own decisions, who willingly give up their minds and bodies to serve the Solon. When the Aigythi puts on the helm, his or her mind is open for the Solon to read. The Solon may draw upon the experiences and knowledge of any Aigythi as if it were their own. The Solon may command and even control any Aigyth body as though it were but another appendage. Naturally, of course, the Solon’s mind is not infinite and cannot control all Aigythi at once, but that is of little import. A talented Solon can lead an army of Aigythi with a level of cooperation and synergy other non-collective species cannot dream of, all while retaining a level of initiative and innovation among its members any collective species would envy. The perfect army led by the perfect warlord.
Now, it does happen that Aigythi retire from service, leave the guidance of their master, or even occasionally betray their Solon. Such, though, are rare. A hundred Aigythi might sacrifice their lives to prevent their Solon injury, even when that Solon would never think twice to abandon them should his strategic aims dictate him to do so. It makes one wonder: at what point does loyalty become madness? At what point does the self become consumed by the group or by the master? The Aigythi armies are, I believe, the most potent example of this paradox, and therefore ought to be studied with care.
But enough blaspheming for one day. Come, let us eat.
To speak of the Lhassa seems foolish, as they are everywhere. How can one not know them? They are second only to the mighty Dryth in influence and they, more than any other of the Great Races, dictate the timbre of our artistic and cultural lives. Lhassae fashions fill the streets of any Union world, Lhassae music is more popular than any other, and the Lhassae concept of beauty dictates the self-image of dozens of species on hundreds of worlds. They are slender, graceful, and lithe, dancing on long legs designed for running and leaping, with flowing manes and smoothly furred skin. Big eyes, long lashes, long ears – I, being a squat, slimy Thraad, have them to thank for my species’ perceived ugliness.
It is well known that the Lhassa were once the prey of the mighty Lorca, living in great herds on the broad plains of Hodan’a. What is less well known is how this came to change. They lived in extended family groups (clans) made up primarily of females (mares) with only a few males (bulls). Though they reproduced quickly, life was difficult. Food was hard to come by as the Lhassae clans grew, making starvation common. The predations of the Lorca kept the population further in check. The Lhassa were a harried people, an intelligent species made into victims by another intelligent species of the same world. To my knowledge, this has never happened elsewhere.
The Lhassa, though, were intelligent and innovative. They worked together well, and clans were known to share knowledge and expertise when they met. Though it likely took many millennia, the Lhassa eventually developed agriculture, industry, and the other building blocks to a modern, star-faring society. Of course, what the Lhassa learned so, too, did the Lorca. The Lorca made themselves essential to Lhassae society, acting as judges, tyrants, and even gods in some cases. Though far fewer in number, the Lorca were able to read the writing on the wall as well as any: the Lhassae were growing too numerous and too powerful to be hunted at a whim. The Lorca established elaborate customs and rituals to keep themselves fed and the Lhassa happy with their servitude. This lasted for many centuries, or so Lhassa histories insist. Lorca histories (when found) are somewhat more vague on this score.
At length, tensions between the Lhassa (whose population now outnumbered the Lorca some 1300:1) and their ancestral predators grew to a breaking point. The typically peaceful Lhassa were starving on their own planet, consuming resources at a rate too fast to sustain life. The Lorca, seeing this, increased the consumption rate of Lhassa, which enraged the population. Breaking with their peaceful traditions, the Lhassa turned themselves to war and sought the eradication of the predators who had lorded over them for so long. The Lorca, with Dryth assistance, laid waste to the Lhassa armies, but chose to retreat from the planet in Dryth ships paid for by the Lorca’s vast wealth. The Lhassa were at last free.
This freedom, however, was also their curse. Gone were the old checks upon the Lhassa population. They multiplied like never before. They reached a period in their history where the average Lhassa female gave birth to upwards of 8 pups a year, and the vast majority of these survived to adulthood. Their planet’s environment buckled beneath this pressure, and the only solution was the stars. Vast colony ships were build, attended by fleets of supporting vessels. The Lhassa hit the galaxy like a plague.
The Lhassa were, as much as anyone, to blame for the turmoil that led to the Unification Wars. The Dryth, intimidated by their sheer numbers, made sport of destroying Lhassae colonies and slaughtering Lhassa wherever they were found. The Lhassa, in turn, attacked Dryth fleets and planets with vast armies. Though their technology was inferior, their numbers were enough to give even the mighty Dryth pause. The Lorca again appeared, this time steeped in Dryth military strategy and technology, and once again set to consuming their erstwhile food source. The tales of Lhassae suffering and death were widespread and well known.
The Union and the Law saved the species, and no mistake. Now the Lhassa, while more numerous than any other of the Great Races, have the freedom, wisdom, and space to spread out to support their vast population. When, at last, the period of War comes around each cycle, they fight to keep what they have and to advance their claims, the same as any. For a peaceful people, they are now well versed in the arts of death. They greet it with a poet’s wisdom, laughing at the brevity of it all. The Dryth respect them, the Lorca mostly acknowledge them as equals, and the status quo is retained.
One wonders, though, for how long this will last. The Lhassa continue to grow in number and, should my calculations be correct, there are only so many cycles this growth will be sustained. Perhaps it is simply the tragedy of their species, or perhaps it is their own lack of foresight, but it seems that the future, like the past, will be steeped in Lhassae blood.
You will never know my name, because one has never been given me.
I am known as slop, blob, smack, gobbler – a faceless, eyeless, amorphous thing you relegate to trash heaps and waste sites.
I am one of a species you threw away. You think I’m stupid, you think I can’t understand you, that I don’t care what a waste you’ve made of my life.
But I do. I do care.
I understand you, too. There is a certain familiarity you develop when you eat another species’ trash for long enough. I know what you so-called ‘Great Races’ are, how you have succeeded in conquering species like my own. I know why you think yourself great. The Union has made you inviolate; with each cycle you gain more and more, while things like me have less and less.
You may tell yourself that the more you eat, the more scraps there are for the slops that ooze through your sewers (and that’s what we do, isn’t it? Ooze…slink…trickle…it makes you feel better, doesn’t it, to know that the things you grind beneath your heels have no bones?) Yes, we eat better. That might be enough for some.
I, though, am still hungry.
The good thing about having no bones and having natural textural and chromatic control over my skin is that I can really be whatever I want. Me and some other Tohrroids do it. Always have. We don’t ooze; we walk, we stride, we jump. We weave in and out of your fat, contented societies, hidden more by your inability to imagine us doing it than by our own cleverness.
What do we do, then, as we wander through your world? Well, some just want to hide and live the good life, some want to steal from those who have stolen from them. As for me, I want to hurt you. I will hurt you. Think you can stop me? Think again. I am your servant, I am your friend, I am your wife, I am your children. I can look like anything, I can be anywhere. Put up your guard, hire a food-taster, blood check your retainers every night – it won’t matter. I will eat your bones first, and let you suffocate under the weight of your pointless, meaty mass. Then, for the first time, you will hear a gobbler laugh.
I’m coming for you, Dryth. Make peace with your precious Law.
As usual, I am in the process of putting together a new science fiction/fantasy setting in which to set stories, novels, and potentially a homemade RPG or two. This one is space operatic, so we’re talking giant spaceships, exotic aliens, high adventure, and a healthy dollop of weirdo mysticism. You can read a bit about the world here, if you like. Talking about it, though, isn’t the central thesis of this post. What I want to talk about is the creation of a badass.
Not your basic, run-of-the-mill, loner badass, though. I’m talking one of a whole society of badassery. My world needs a class of super-dudes that every little kid wants to be for Halloween. The dude who gets top billing on all the movie posters. The guy who cosplay fanatics break their wallets to dress as. How does one create such a thing? Well, once you allow for lightning to strike so that your book is the most popular thing ever, the rest comes down to a kind of basic character alchemy. You find stuff that’s awesome and you add it up together somehow. Here’s my process, as it stands:
Step #1: Pick Ninja, Pirate, Samurai, or Marine
Okay, okay – I know somebody is going to start crowing about their Ninja Pirate, so lets just cut this one right off at the start: you don’t get two. You might think you get two, but you don’t. Ninjas are sneaky assassins who study the arts of subtlety and stealth to kill their enemies. Pirates are brash, freedom loving duelists who excel at pithy dialogue and clever tactics. Samurai are honor-bound super-warriors with a stoic demeanor and ancestral codes of respect. Marines are tough-as-nails destruction artists who believe in their survival and the survival of their men in situations that usually overshadow their apparent abilities. You can try adding some of these together, but it quickly becomes a muddle. Pick one to start.
I pick Samurai.
Step #2: Does He Have A Gun or a Sword?
Sure, he can have a gun and a sword, but which is his favorite? Which is the thing he uses most, the thing that defines him best. And by ‘sword’, by the way, I don’t mean it has to be a sword. I mean does he fight with his hands, or does he blow stuff away from a distance? In the first place, you’re creating a group that is up close and personal in their battles. You should expect to write a lot of duels between individuals or small groups. If you’ve got a guy who is worshipping the gun, he blows up big things and guns down hordes of nobodies like its nothing. For that character, combat isn’t a contest of individual wills but rather an environment to be survived, akin to a violent storm or a sweltering desert. You aren’t going to zoom in on everybody they blow away, but you will be following their trail of destruction with a variety of crane/wide shots (to use movie terminology).
I pick sword.
Step #3: Barbarian or Sophisticate?
Is your group of bad-asses on the inside or the outside of the social order/civilization? For example, the Fremen are outside, whereas the Adeptus Astartes (the Space Marines) are inside. The Jedi began on the inside and wound up outside, but they really belonged inside all along. Barbarians are there to destroy or conquer the corrupt society, whereas sophisticates are there to protect the jewels of civilization from the barbarous ravages of the uncivilized. They are two halves of the same coin and, while they may switch sides during the story, there is a default setting to be considered.
I pick Sophisticate.
Step #4: Walk or Ride?
Does your dude go about his business on foot, or does he ride/fly/pilot himself into his incredible acts of derring-do? If he’s on foot, to some extent this means he is a part of the fabric of the battlefield. He cannot leave at a whim – his story has him bracketed by circumstance, trapped in situations he must either resolve or be destroyed by. If he rides, he swoops in suddenly and can depart suddenly, too. He is aid unlooked for, and therefore often operates alone. This is the difference, essentially, between the fighter pilot and the grunt: the fighter pilot has a plush airbase to fly back to, while the grunt hunkers down in the mud and holds on with his dirty fingernails until the job is finished. Most of your superhero types ‘ride’ in some way (Superman’s ability to fly basically counts), while your grittier heroes get stuck in.
I pick Ride.
Step #5: Born to Rock or Tooth-and-Nail?
Do folks who become badasses of this variety become so by virtue of birth (like Jedi or Aes Sedai), or do they choose to become this thing, forsaking all other goals in the pursuit of their awesomeness (Shaolin Monks)? In the first place, they are engineered to be awesome, which gives them a certain aura. In the second case, they are mentally determined and driven to succeed, which gives them a certain grit.
I pick Born to Rock.
Step #6: Magic or Muscle?
What is the secret to their super-ness? Do they have access to unique tools or superhuman talents or, instead, do they learn that the most dangerous weapon is just their own will to win? In the first place we’ve got your Jedi and your samurai and your cyborg super-soldiers. In the second place we’ve got your kung-fu masters, battle-tested campaigners, and your Dirty Dozen-esque commandos.
I pick Magic.
Step #7: Work It All Together
I’ve got myself a Magic Sophisticated Samurai, born to rock while Riding with his Sword. In my science fiction setting, this works out to my Dryth Solon using super-advanced nano-technology and quasi-organic armor to fly through space ripping things apart with his incredible nanite-blades, having become so by being raised from birth to be the supreme arbiter and bearer of his House’s honor and word. Cool, right?
Try this little system with other famous groups of badasses:
Jedi: Samurai, Sword, Sophisticate, Walk, Born to Rock, Magic
Space Marine: Marine, Gun, Sophisticate (or Barbarian, depending on chapter), Walk, Tooth-and-Nail, Magic
The Kingsguard: Samurai, Sword, Sophisticate, Ride, Tooth-and-Nail, Muscle
The Fremen: Ninja, Sword, Barbarian, Ride, Tooth-and-Nail, Muscle
And so on and so forth…
It might be incomplete, but tell me I’m wrong.
“History,” say the Dryth, “is made in victory and erased by defeat.” So it is that our history is a Dryth one, and seems to remain so. We Thraad have purchased our existence with our service to the task of maintaining the Dryth’s narrative of themselves and, therefore, of all of us. I say this in my capacity as historian. Let no Dryth Aigythi come to destroy me – I speak the truth, which is protected by the Law. This I swear.
To business, then.
Once there was no Law. There was no Union. This time, by the reckoning of my people, was between six and six-point-five centuries ago (sidereal). Few records of that time remain, though whether this is by accident or the design of some faction or other is beyond my purview to speculate. Suffice to say that this cluster of star systems now known as the Union was in no way unified. We were many peoples – some say over a dozen developed races – just branching into the stars. Making contact with one another, fighting small wars and forging small alliances. We were each a species apart, each proud in our ways.
It is hard to say where the Unification began. It is evident that the great Dryth Houses were mightiest, conquering as they could, absorbing where they could not. The texts of the ancient Dryth epics attests to their courage, their bravado, their pride. There was Harita Khesimett and his Companions; Doorga Wyrm-slayer, the first Solon; Kashima Yan, Great Queen of Stars. Their technology was great, even then. They were the first to develop slipdrive, the first to master quasi-organics, the first to deploy nano-weapons. It is a wonder that they did not simply destroy us all. It seems as though few were able to fight them; those that were perished.
Wars of conquest among the stars were unrestricted things then. The creatures we now call Marshalls were not bound to serve – they roamed freely, preyed on what they wished (even one another), and they were objects of chaos, not order. Invasion via slow-ship was a long process. Such wars happened across generations and took centuries to prosecute. That they happened at all is an indication of our world before the civilizing influence of the Law and its Union; we were ravenous peoples. We devoured our worlds, boiled over the boundaries set by nature. We had to spread or perish. By all accounts, many species did perish, their names and civilizations lost beneath a blaze of thermonuclear fire or a plague of ravenous nanites.
At the center of this were the Dryth Houses – as greedy as the rest, but tempered in fires other civilizations had not borne. It was there that the Unification began – among the Great Houses, whose wars dwarfed those of the ‘lesser’ races. The first Judge, Harongi Hatto, began to teach the virtues of peace and cooperation to a small group of followers on the Crimson Plateau on Odryss, the Dryth homeworld. The Archon of House Fleer, Ghestar, had him executed for cowardice, but others took his place. As is written in the Preamble, Ghestar’s own daughter, then a young Solon named Jaegai, became an adherent of the Law and cast down her father in single combat. House Fleer was no more; all of Fleer’s Housed converted to the Law and fashioned themselves into what we now call the Temphri. Those who refused were forced to commit suicide, via Dryth custom.
The Temphri, led by Jaegai, called for unity among the Dryth, but found no takers. The other Houses saw no advantage in their conversion. Fleer’s ancient holdings were seized, their vassals subsumed, their fleets laid to ruin. Jaegai was forced to find allies outside of her own species. So it was that she set out for sixteen years, travelling from world to world, from people to people, speaking the virtues of the Law. She made many enemies, but more friends. She called them to her cause, and they joined together. Even many of the great star-beasts we know as Marshalls heeded her call. At last, massing at Carthade, the Union was struck, and the time to force the remainder to submit or join was entered.
The Unification Wars were terrible, but incredibly brief by most standards. Battles raged for four years (or so the tales say) on almost every world in what is now the Union (and more besides, no doubt). Billions perished, but from it emerged a new order. The Law was transcendent – each member species was required to adhere, and it was adapted to fit with their gods and their ancestors. Those who would not sign were cast out, their worlds claimed in the name of the Law and given over to the Union’s use. Exhausted by centuries of rapacious slaughter and warfare, the Law set out the Cycles – sixteen sidereal years of enforced peace, lest the wrath of the Marshalls be incurred, four sidereal years of circumscribed war. So it has subsisted, for these 23 cycles and 11 years. So it seems likely to remain.
There is justice here in the Union – that I know – but it is not justice for everyone. Each wartime cycle sees the Dryth Houses conquer more, dominate more widely. There is no resisting them for long. The Marshalls, now massive and unstoppable, treat the assembled races as nothing more than a tantalizing buffet, prepared for their enjoyment at the slightest slip in protocol. And, of course, there are those lesser races, absorbed into the Union in ages past against their will, never fully integrated, who live beneath us as slaves or worse.
But, ah, I grow irritable. It is late and I am old, my great foot aches and my tentacles waver in the glow of the lamp. Perhaps, as the ancient Thraad thinker Kophis theorized, there is a way to fashion a more perfect world. I cannot say that I know how. I count the blessings the Union has given my people, and I choose to be deaf to the cries of those it has stolen from. What more can I do? Who would rip down the world in blood and fire, only to build anew that which cannot be achieved? Not I, not I.
That is a game for the youth, and I am no longer young.
Author’s Note: This is some primer text for a science fiction setting I am currently developing. I hope you enjoyed it.