During the thirty-eighth year of the reign of the Red Emperor, Ci Xie, a scholar of the Bailian Province, was called on a journey by the Imperial City. In that time, people didn’t know of the arts of writing; they marked sums of money with beads, and kept them in clay balls. Thus, Ci Xie was burdened with a heavy load.
One dawn on his journey, he sat beside the River Gua to rest and eat plums. As the sun rose, a great quadruped rose out of the river. It had the hooves of a sow, the belly of the toad, the flanks of a deer, the back of a dragon, the mane of a lion, and the peacock’s plume for a tail. It had the barbels of a carp, the ears of a wolf, the eyes of a rabbit, the face of a man. It had the horns of a stag upon its head. Its rear half was blue, its front half was yellow, its legs were black, and its head was red. It had ten thousand scales upon its body; it had ten thousand characters carved upon those scales. Cie Xie was struck with inspiration by the sight, and carved the symbols in the dust of the ground; thus was writing born. So overjoyed was he, that Ci Xie left his burden of clay balls behind and ran to the Imperial Palace before nightfall to tell of his discovery.
In the forty-third year of his reign, the Red Emperor would send for the beast. It was led to the Imperial City, and the characters became filled with an ink of pearl. The Emperor christened the beast Zhâo Wén Jûn, and a stable was constructed for it in the Imperial City. It remained for many years.
In the nintieth year of the reign of the Red Emperor, the beast inspired the Historian Su to begin the Annals of Snow and Leaves.
In the Hundred and third year of his reign, the Imperial University was founded around the beast’s stable.
The Emperor Hu had the beast shod, and rode it to war with the barbarians. Its tail began to droop, and the characters became white.
The Poet Shu Gua wrote of the beast in the eleventh year of the reign of Emperor Pao.
When the Corrupt Emperor Li Shuxa took power, he had the beast chained, that it might not leave the city. The characters became black, and the beast shed the feathers of its tail.
In the fourth year of the reign of the Emperor Qo, the beast shed its horns.
The philosopher Czi Tai Lao came to see the beast in the thirteenth year of the reign of the Emperess Sing.
When Czi Tai Lao died in the first year of the reign of the Emperor Fei Xinghua, the beast’s scales became soft.
Kao Nu Li wrote the Tales of the Twenty Rivers sitting in the beast’s enclosure.
In the autumn of the third and final year of the reign of the child emperor Xu Xuebai, the Imperial city was taken by the barbarians. They led the beast in a cage from the University and paraded it through the streets. It is recorded that beast’s mane withered and fell out, and the colors faded from the beast’s quarters before the eyes of the crowd, and the ink became red upon its scales.
In the one hundred and eighth year of the barbarian occupation, the barbarians declared the capital to have moved to Jaanxi. The beast was led in a cage to the new capital. It shed a scale for every li of the journey.
In the one hundred and fortieth year of the barbarian occupation, the Imperial City was razed to the ground. The sight died in the beast’s eyes, and its legs gave out beneath it.
In the final year of the barbarian occupation, when Lord Na Tou led his army to Jaanxi, the beast regained some of its strength. Lord Na Tou saw the beast, and ordered the University rebuilt at Jannxi.
In the year of the reign of Emperor Pei, the beast began to fade, and the characters became brown.
When Zue Shai sacked the Second University and burned the scholars, the beast rose up against him with great savagery. Zue Shai ordered a pyre constructed, and the beast was burned until nothing was left of it but the brown characters on its scales. They had adopted a texture like silk, and were invulnerable to tearing or fire. They flew like moths from the flame. Zue Shai retreated from the capital soon after.
The Beast appeared again in the year of the Autumn Restauration, as a collection of characters floating around the lantern of the scholar Quen Bei. It was seen in the University at San Ba for many years thereafter.
In the third year of the reign of the Emperess Weng, the beast left the University.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Sang, a traveler from the province of Saan encountered the beast outside the Great Library of Sa Mei, and, seeing a set of characters taking form in the air, fled in terror. He later became vizier to the emperor Du Mu Ailan.
Travelers have reported seeing it since upon the roads in the Imperial province, on the campuses of the Great Universities and Libraries and regard it as a fortunate omen.
- From the Annals of Eight Kingdoms
Haunting the rich, green country which calls itself the Sacred World, the Zhâo Wén Jûn is a creature made of writing; characters of pale, brown ink floating and swirling in mid-air, usually forming the vague outline of a four-legged creature the size of an ox. They don’t stay in one place long enough to be read; at any one point, they may spell out a work of philosophy, or a long, complex poem, or a history of the Sacred World.
It only appears at irregular intervals. It appears in public, walking proudly and sadly through the great libraries or universities of the sacred world in times of great advances in culture; and it appears to those destined to become great philosophers, or scholars, or writers; those who have seen it record that it filled them with an awe that stayed with them for the rest of their lives.
Its appearances are truly magestic occurences; it seems as though the air is filled with moths, all flying towards a single point; it is only upon closer inspection that one realizes that the ‘moths’ are in fact the countless complex characters of the language of the Sacred World, or that they are forming the body of a great, magestic animal. Once formed, the Zhâo Wén Jûn will walk for a while, accompanying a future scholar along the road, or stalking through the shelves of one of the great libraries. And then, as suddenly as it formed, it will break apart, the characters scattering into the air and seeming to vanish as eerily as they arrived.
The Zhâo Wén Jûn is a peaceful, docile creature; it has no need to eat or drink, and it is nearely invulnerable; if anything were to attack it, it would pass right through the beast, the characters simply slipping out of its way; even if one of the characters were caught, it would prove as tough to tear as silk, and invulnerable to blades or fire; it would slip away at any opportunity. It does not try to communicate; one gets the feeling that it could, that the words of its body spell out works of genious if only they would stop their constant flux.
The Zhâo Wén Jûn is, essentially, an elemental of Culture. It is attracted to literary genius, even as it inspires it by its presence- most of the Sacred World’s greatest scholars throughout history have seen the beast at one time or another; whether it inspired them, or whether it simply attracts genius already present, is up for debate.
Its appearances ought to be rare and magestic occurrences, but marred by a certain sadness: the beast is, after all, but the palest shadow of its former glory, and the modern age is nothing but a shadow of that of the Red Emperor.
To Burn the Scholars and Bury the Classics
The PCs are led to the Sacred World by a mysterious, floating message- the Zhâo Wén Jûn breaking its silence for once. It seems that the current emperor is corrupt and repressive, burning books and beginning a wide-scale persecution of scholars who fail to tow the party line. The PCs get caught up in the conflict; will they be able to overthrow the tyrant? Or will the scholars be executed, and the Zhâo Wén Jûn finally fade away forever?
The Rogue Philosopher
The same, only the PCs are already in the Sacred World; a young scholar has seen the Zhâo Wén Jûn, and knows he is destined for greatness. There’s only one problem: he’s a political dissident; he will be executed if he publishes his work. Even worse, he has let slip that he saw the beast within earshot of a local official. He comes to the PCs seeking protection.
Birth of a Sage
In a more friendly political climate, the PCs witness an appearance of the Zhâo Wén Jûn in a remote mountain village where a great scholar has just been born. The village elders know the beast is an omen, but are unfamilliar with the legend- they task the PC with finding out the origins and nature of the beast.
Unfortunately, the only reliable source of information is in the Annals of Eight Kingdoms, the only copy of which is thousands of miles away, in the Capital.