His quarry had eluded him for hours, but the hunter had doggedly pursued it. The magnificent stag almost seemed to tease him, leading him deeper and deeper into the forbidden thickets of the Sacred Forest, woodland forbidden to all but those initiated into the ancient pagan rites of the country folk. Uninterested in such country superstition, the man pressed on after his prey.
Deep in the forest, he was surprised to hear a musical, high-pitched voice call to him. “You move well through the forest, Westron Man,” said the mysterious speaker.
Looking around, he spotted him. He was small, resembling a slender dwarf more than anything else, but with skin of a deep olive tone and a tangled mat of hair the color of autumn grass. Clad in robes of forest green decorated with rich embroidery of ivory and scarlet silk, the diminutive man had the amused bearing of a king watching his courtiers at play.
“And who may you be, O’ Child of the Wildwood?” he asked. “Are you some spirit come to test me, or perhaps some kin of the elvenkind?”
His laugh was like sparkling bells in the crisp air. “I am all and none of these things, innocent child of an ignorant age. I am Brightdance, a loresinger of the Ancient Brethren, one of those anointed by the gods to bring the lore of the Earth Delvers into the light and preserve the stories of the Forest Lords after their long age comes to an end.”
“A loresinger? You? One of the Lords of the Forest Mysteries?” the hunter asked, confused.
“The ill-informed bards of men tell such stories of our kind, yes, but our people bear little resemblance to the mighty folk of your bards’ fanciful tales. We are those chosen of the gods to remember, chosen of the gods to return the land to a time of harmony, when the Lords of the Forest and the Kings of Stone ruled together in peace and plenty,” he responded, as his hands produced some sort of puzzle, a device of bright silver and gleaming lapis. His fingers danced as he rapidly twisted and turned the strange item’s beads and projections.
“So, your people want to restore the harmony between elves, dwarves, and men?” the man asked, hoping to understand.
The loresinger concentrated on his puzzle as he answered. “Sadly, no. Once this forest covered the entire realm; the children of men played in its shade. Now it has been diminished, cut down by men for their firewood, and their ships, and their farms. There can be no true harmony with the children of men,” he concluded as his completed puzzle changed shape and assumed a new symmetry. Strange and ominous creatures, fanged and lethal, began to emerge from the underbrush on every side.
With a chilling finality, the loresinger’s musical voice sadly asked, “Did you have any tales that you wished to share with me before you are slain?”
The Earth Children
The tiny folk known as the “Earth Children” chronicle the lore of the “Earth Delvers” and the “Forest Walkers”, remembering a time when all races honored the “Great Harmony”. In their vast hidden libraries, they keep the wisdom of centuries safe, drawing it forth to bring harmony between the squabbling races of the land. They dwell in hidden strongholds, deep within the forests or beneath the mountains’ roots. Allied with the Courts of the Elves and the Dwarven Lords, they travel among these larger races, sharing wisdom and collecting it.
Born of the Land
Earth children appear similar to dwarves, but are slighter and tend to be beardless or trim their beards short. Most have long and unruly hair, in any of the colors common to dry grass or tree bark. Their skin varies in color, with olive complexions being common. The darker-skinned among the earth children may have skin tones of a rich leafy green, while the more pale sport golden hues that may even resemble the skin of humanity.
Earth children tend to dress in long robes in natural colors. They decorate these robes with panels of elaborate embroidery and beadwork; particularly precious or well–made panels may be passed down for hundreds of years, carefully cut from damaged robes and attached to new ones. Those familiar with the different families and social groups among the earth children can easily identify an earth child’s lineage and status from the decorations on his or her robes. Each of the motifs used is traditional, with the artist attempting to make the robe’s motifs unique, but still identifiable.
Dwelling in small villages, earth children live apart from the elves and dwarves, leaving interaction with the larger races to their loresingers. These villages tend to blend in with their environment, nestling among the tallest trees when built in a forest or tunneled into the earth when in the mountains.
Each of the villages of the earth children is ruled day-to-day by a council of elders chosen from among the ranks of the loresingers. These elders may not be loresingers themselves, but invariably defer to their authority. They oversee the many cooperative projects of this secretive people, who require their permission for anything that will substantially alter the land around the village. Before a villager can deal with any other race, before they can plant or harvest anything, or before they can alter their home, they are expected to gain the permission of the elders or loresingers. Elders and loresingers are not exclusively male or female; the earth children are as often led by their women as by men.
Earth children reproduce infrequently, only allowing themselves to have children when their numbers have been depleted by war, disease, or other mishap. A long-lived race, they greatly value the few children that they permit themselves to have. The loresingers decide when more children will be permitted, choosing from the prospective parents by lot, then sharing with them the mystical herbs needed for earth children to reproduce. Although the loresingers supposedly choose who will become parents randomly, it is an open secret that these drawings are seldom truly random, with the loresingers often excluding the tokens of couples that they disapprove of. Those seeking to have children without the loresingers’ approval risk exile from their villages.
The leaders and rulers of the earth children are a specially chosen and rigorously trained group known as Loresingers. Veterans of an arduous process of training and indoctrination, these leaders are masters of various magical arts, as well as more mundane skills of administration and governance. Each is a skilled orator and poet, trained to recall vast amounts of information accurately.
When they approach adulthood, each of the earth children is given the opportunity to undergo a grueling ordeal, the Ritual of the Loresingers. A test of their intellect, will, and desire to serve, those overcoming this series of tests and challenges are given the opportunity to apprentice to the masters of their kind, the loresingers. Of the many young earth children that attempt the tests, only a handful emerge victorious. Each loresinger then chooses an apprentice from that select number.
The training of a loresinger is itself a rigorous process, involving the memorization of vast stores of information. Ancient histories and genealogies, the secret lore of various crafts, and an impressive assortment of mystic knowledge must all be retained perfectly. Loresingers are expected to master the art of public debate and oratory, and must be able to perfectly perform the ancient songs that preserve the philosophies and history of their people. In addition to these achievements, they are expected to each master secrets of magical lore that make the most skilled of them formidable mages.
Once they have completed their training, the prospective loresingers are required to apply to one of the sects of the Mystic Brethren for admittance. Until they are accepted into these groups, they are not considered a full-fledged loresinger. Each of these sects has its own particular preferences and philosophies, so some qualified candidates are refused recognition as a loresinger merely because of their philosophical or political ideas, rather than any failure to master their craft or other flaw.
Archives of the Loresingers
Hidden within the heart of the forest and tunneled beneath the most isolated of mountains, the loresingers keep the secrets of both the elves and the dwarves. Even when these two races have been torn by war, the Loresingers were inviolate, free to journey between them and discharge their ancient trust. The hidden lore of two races lies within these secret archives, saved for a future time when harmony will return to the land.
Each of these archives has three aspects: The Outer Archive is accessible to all who ask, the Hidden Archive is only available to those who pass certain tests of wit and will, and the Secret Archive is only open to the Oathsworn, fanatic initiates of the Mystic Brethren. The lore kept in the Outer Archive holds few secrets, for it only contains the information that is available to all and could be used to harm none. Many secrets are stored in the Hidden Archives, but those that seek to access it must pass several tests meant to ensure that their intentions are pure; only those whose purposes serve the cause of harmony will be allowed within these secret halls. The most dangerous secrets are stored within the Secret Archives, the very existence of which is a closely guarded mystery of the loresingers. These strange places don’t resemble libraries at all, for their secrets are closely shielded. The volumes within are magically guarded and hidden: Held by magical protectors, they can be brought forth only with the proper rituals and obeisance. The Secret Archives tend to resemble summoning chambers more than anything else, purified areas to which the volumes of hidden lore can be called when needed. At any other time, the texts are stored in spaces outside normal reality, accessible only by the protective entities that guard them.
These archives are well-guarded, both by fanatic Oathsworn guardians of the Mystic Brethren and by traps and puzzles both subtle and lethal. Those attempting to steal the collected lore within will find themselves beset by baffling magics, beguiling illusions, and hidden assassins. These hazards are in addition to the traps and tricks that test those normally seeking admittance.
The Coming of the Earth Children
The loresingers of the earth children trace their people’s origins to the time of the first elves. In their legends, when the elves first walked the land, they were flighty beings with no regard for the land and no care for the future. The gods of the land, concerned that these newcomers would come to harm, created the first earth children to record and codify the knowledge of the elves and teach them wisdom. So successful were they that the capricious elves were transformed, and became wise and noble beings.
When the dwarven races came into being, they envied the elves their little loremasters. Too stubborn to ask for aid, the dwarves bargained with dark spirits for the secrets of history and wisdom: They gained these things, but at the cost of their joy and caprice. Touched by the dwarves’ sacrifice and suffering, the earth children came to teach these things to them once more. This time, the humbled dwarves accepted their aid; they have been allied ever since.
The Loresingers’ Puzzles
Some of the stranger magics wielded by the loresingers are bound within strange puzzles that they call Arannalachi. These odd devices take many forms: Some resemble small cubes or tetrahedrons, while others look like flat game boards or small locked coffers. The devices’ effects are as varied as their appearances: They have been known to summon little-known denizens of the forest, cause plants with strange curative properties to spring forth from the nearest fertile soil, or even cause brightly colored fields resembling armor to surround the creature solving them. Puzzles of awesome power are said to exist, such as one that supposedly opened a gate to a land of mighty and terrifying demons that would torture all they encountered.
Arannalachi, whatever their form, have a few common characteristics: A puzzle must be solved to activate them, with the more powerful effects sometimes requiring days of effort to solve them. They tend to reset themselves whenever a new person touches them. They are unusually sturdy, but not invulnerable; for example, a puzzle apparently made of pieces of parchment could not be casually burned or torn, but would be destroyed if it were struck by a knife. The more complicated and powerful the puzzle, the more likely it is to have a false answer, a pattern that will cause a secondary effect. These effects are often some sort of “booby-trap”, but not always; a few puzzles have several different powers if they are manipulated properly.
The Mystic Brethren
Many different sects of Mystic Brethren influence the political and religious life of the Earth Children. Although all claim to seek the restoration of the Great Harmony, each group interprets their quest in its own way, often working against each other as each strives to assert its own vision of the true path to harmony. Also complicating the politics of the Earth Children are the groups called the Seekers of Truth, who have forsaken their people’s ancient goals and instead follow agendas all their own.
The group known as The Dark Judgment is one of the oldest brotherhoods of the Mystic Brethren. Despite their ominous name, they are a gentle and forgiving fraternity, who believe that a time of judgment is coming, when the gods will punish those who opposed harmony and welcome those seeking peace among all beings into a new realm. They oppose holding grudges and seeking advantage as obstacles to harmony.
The Ancient Brethren claim to be the oldest and most true of these mystical groups, but each of the other sects disputes this claim. They believe that the pronouncements of their sect’s leader are divinely inspired, so they tend to suffer a great deal of confusion every time their leadership changes. They generally hold to a doctrine that harmony is disrupted by races intruding on other races’ legitimate areas of interest, thus Dwarves should confine themselves to mountains, Elves to forests, and other races to their regions of origin. This sect is generally hostile to humanity, seeing them as aggressive interlopers responsible for destroying forests and upsetting harmony.
The Songbearers believe that open communication and understanding will bring harmony. They tend to travel widely, telling tales and singing songs of other lands and races. They believe that a band of heroes will arise from each race, chosen for greatness by the gods; any candidates that these loresingers meet will be secretly tested for their suitability as racial champions. Teachers and sages are often secretly funded by these folk, who use this patronage to influence them. They are especially interested in placing their members and allies in positions as tutors and advisors to nobles and other leaders.
The Keepers of the Bright Circle are considered heretical by most in the other sects. These zealots have come to believe that open war between the races will ensue before any sort of harmony is achieved. This ultimate conflict will become more destructive and lethal as more potent weapons and enchantments are developed, so they hope to instigate conflicts between the races to trigger this prophesied war before the races develop the ability to completely destroy each other. The other sects strongly disagree with their heretical interpretation of their race’s mandate, but their view has support among many of the earth children.
The Mystical Brethren of the Golden Spring search eagerly for a sign from the gods that will somehow change everything, allowing all peoples to live in harmony. They are very interested in astrology and prophecy, and often sponsor the exploration of ancient sites of mystical significance. They hope to maintain peace between the different races until circumstances change. These loresingers tend to support a virtual stasis of the status quo, believing that change tends to bring conflict with it.
The most prominent band of the Seekers of Truth is the sect known as the Wise Fists. They believe that the gods have given the earth children the wisdom of the other races in order that they can someday seize power over these races. Once in a position of dominance, they can address many of the ills that plague these contentious races, using force to end their squabbling. The other sects among the earth children see this as foolish adventurism and stand against the Wise Fists’ aggressive plans, but some of the most powerful individuals among the earth children have sympathy for their impatience.
These diminutive warriors are among the most potent and fearsome fighters that the earth children can muster. Fanatic defenders of the Mystic Brethren, each band of Oathsworn is made up of the sect’s most single minded loresingers, backed up by the Axaela, stealthy warriors that combine determined loyalty to their sect with intense training. The training of the Axaela emphasizes stealth and caution over brute force; they learn to master subtle poisons, easily hidden weapons, and cunning ambushes. Trained for tireless speed and agility, they are often lightly armored. Their equipment varies wildly; each is encouraged to develop his (or her) unique fighting style. They are often armed with magic as well as stealth and force: Strange powders and oils allow them to virtually disappear or apparently strike through solid surfaces. If the legends are true, the most powerful of these strange warriors are able to stop a man’s heart with a single light punch.
Where the Seed Happens to Fall…
A race determined to hide their presence as much as possible, the earth children practice inconspicuous forms of agriculture. Someone exploring the land around one of their small villages will discover substantial amounts of edible plants growing seemingly wild in the area; villagers living nearby will have been taught which “wild” plants can be harvested and which belong to the earth children. Similar rules apply to some of the animals in nearby forests and fish in adjacent rivers. Those taking from the earth children’s food supply will often have items taken from them, often significantly more valuable than the food that was seized.
One factor that makes this haphazard approach to agriculture possible is the earth children’s strange metabolism, which is able to gain nutrition from many foods that other races find inedible. They find many otherwise toxic mushrooms to be pleasantly spicy, for example. The earth children require little food, so are able to subsist on a diet that would reduce other races to starvation.
The earth children are known for filling tunnels or caverns with rack after rack of humus filled trays for raising mushrooms. They have developed several hybrid fungi that are unknown to other races, and these form a substantial part of the earth children’s diet. The more humble among the earth children often place these mushroom trays in their cottages, as well, so visitors may find themselves wandering among smelly trays full of compost, which may fill any extra space that the creatures have in their homes.
Among some of the earth children, these mushrooms have brightly colored and distinctive patterns on their caps. These mushrooms are skinned and the dried tops are used much like calling cards among humans. More plain mushrooms sometimes serve the place of parchment or leather; although they are not very sturdy, they can be treated to become virtually impervious to decay.