Upon a Star: The Barefoot Empress
To those who read this, do not think this story is like all others spoken before. This is not a knight’s tale where a young hero saves the beautiful princess from the evil sorcerer. This is not the story of a young maiden who falls in love with a dashing prince and lives happily ever after. This is not the words of a bard, of a crier, or of a scribe. This tale is not that of a nameless observer who speaks of a story from his own point of view, like an omniscient Planar who can shape the world to his whim to make the legend more interesting to tell.
This is my story.
Before I introduce myself, let me tell you about the world I lived in. Now, don’t go thinking that I am a mere spirit who lingers somewhere in the pages of this tome. The world did not die, nor did it change into something completely different. Truth is, it is only beginning to usher into a new era, one I fear may be one of conflict – now only between good and evil, but within the Houses.
I may have to explain myself. If you have not heard of the Houses of Bejem, then let me explain. Yes, I am from Bejem, the Island-City born from the nests of dragons and the richest quarries of the world. However, my story is not one of riches and nobility; it is one tainted with greed, corrupted by dark ambitions and scarred by the harsh reality of the world.
Before I begin my tale, let me tell you – in my own words – the tale of the place I uneasily call ‘home’.
In the beginning, Medierth was nothing but the wreckage of a past world – one where humanity grew so numerous that they threatened the land that fed them. In a matter of a century, the population had grown too important and throughout those years, people began to polarize in groups.
Some of the population lived in luxury and complacent idleness, living their daily lives without a care in the world, save for the hunger of the body and of the lust of riches. These select few wielded power through currencies made of paper and ink and strived for profit through means other than physical labor. These humans, I will call them ‘Luxurians’ for now.
Another group of the global populace are those working below the Luxurians, who strive to become like them. These humans, far more numerous, do not have as much riches as the people of the upper-crust they wish to join, but do not have the difficulties of the poorest populations, which I speak off later. These people lived their daily lives in contemplation of the rich, working to mimic them and earn their moments of fame, the profit following suit – or so they believed. Like a herd of sheep, these people were led by governments and laws that kept them safe… but also ensured that they wore the noose like collars. Such people would tilt one way or another or remain as they were: middle-class people, fully complacent in their beliefs that the world was good as long as they possessed riches and yearned for happiness – sometimes artificial, sometimes true, but often never achieved. These people, I will call the ‘Middlers’.
The last population, the ‘Casualties’, are that the Middlers and Luxurians do not see: the poor, the downtrodden, the desperate, the needy… the many. If you were to take the entire population of the world and ration them down to one hundred people, there would be one Luxurian, fourteen Middlers, and the rest of them would be Casualties. These people live in hunger, suffer from thirst, and work like slaves to obtain some minute riches from the Luxurians who take everything from them, and from the Middlers who care for them only as long as it makes them feel better. The moment the Luxurians spread riches around, the Middlers quiet down and live happily in their sheltered lives while the Casualties suffer from the wars created by the former. These people are those who live on the street or in houses made of remnants left behind by the Luxurians and Middlers, feeding off the scraps of the banquet.
According to legends, a group of people – mostly Middlers – had enough of the world’s decay as the Luxurians continued to pollute the air, drain the water from the land and raze the land to feed their own ambitions and give the population a banquet they could no longer hold. Using the same hundred, imagine thirty of them overfed, bloating with food and wine, and five them are so immense in girth that they can no longer live properly. Of the rest, imagine that thirty of them were looking on from the back of the room with little food to eat, while ten of them were so famished that they have nothing but skin and bones, not possessing enough strength to crawl towards the scraps left behind from the gorging of those participating at the banquet.
As I was saying, some of the Middlers – who had enough of sitting idly at the banquet – decided to turn the table over and crash the celebrations. Seeing that the Casualties were beginning to trade what little food they possessed for arms to fight against those who instilled the banquet, they watched as conflicts raged for what scraps were left behind, the world no longer possessing the means to keep them all alive.
What began as conflicts between Luxurian countries became wars of survival as disease and death made the people devour one another – figuratively, of course – as they tried in every way to turn the tide and become part of the Middlers or Luxurians… even if it meant stepping on or selling off Casualties.
Throughout these conflicts, old religions became the standards of the oppressed and the needy. Middlers and Casualties reached out to the Outcriers – those who believed their prophet spoke the word of truth – for salvation, and were only awarded death for their fanatic beliefs, imagining a better world on the other side of the Cycle of Life and Death… one they would never truly reach.
Seeing the wars rage on, the other religions tried to turn away from the battle, only to be forced into them as weapons were raised against them. The cycle came to a point where the most devastating arms of the Luxurians were used. These objects, remembered only in Medierth lore as “Black Eggs”, brought devastation beyond words as people died – no, were erased from existence – in a matter of seconds. Those who survived the end-war spent years living deep within the ground, on the seas, or in the sky… until what remained of food and drinkable water became scarce.
All those saved – mostly Middlers and Luxurians – began to scour what remained of the world, in hope of others like them – survivors. What they found instead was a world far too inhospitable to live in. In their greed, the Luxurians found that their riches could not be eaten: they had become Casualties by their own fault.
The Middlers who saw the old world end decided to rally the survivors and create new cities from what remained… until they decided to bury the past once and for all and start anew. As their numbers dwindled due to the hardship of the new world, they found a place to bury their dead and their past. As a way to remember their shame, these people erected a monument to the destruction of the old world – the Spire – and sealed the way to the marshlands before moving north, thus creating the myth of the Southern Unknowns – a land where nobody returned from.
During an encampment, where a family of survivors rekindle hope of the future, these people discovered that the world, for the great sacrifice that had been done to save it, decided to give them grace by allowing them to tap into the purest of mana, granting them the ability to weave powerful incantations. Deciding not to repeat the mistakes of the past, the blessed few taught the rest of the survivors how to strive using fragments of that power, making sure that everyone had their share.
Because of this, some people began to covet that power and wish for more, but the blessed few knew that it would only awaken old terrors in the new world, so they refused. One of them, in mad vengeance, used his own power to force himself against the mother of the family. Though his punishment was severe – sentencing him to a powerless immortality – the man swore he would make the leader of the blessed few pay… which happened many long years later.
At that time, the leader was trying hard to raise his youngest son, the mother having died at childbirth. Deciding to run away, the boy was found by the vengeful condemned and adopted in secret. The man, having scavenged remains of the past, darkened the boy’s mind by telling him of the past world, and how the boy’s father had sacrificed the lives of so many to save so few. In a matter of months, the man had turned the young boy into a force of revenge and spite, armed with relics of the past that launched fire and metal… weapons that delivered death from afar.
Though many died because of the boy’s warped mind, the father could not bring himself to kill his son, and instead banished him to an island far from any survivors, somewhere in Weepfall – the ocean of tears.
After some time, the father took pity on the boy and came to visit him on the island, where he found the boy struggling to survive in his madness, scraping food from hunt and picking precious fruit from trees. The man, seeing the make-shift cot the boy lived in, used his power to create a house for the boy, now a young man. The father did not know it, but his act of benevolence sparked greed in his son’s heart.
Some days later, the father returned to see his son and listened as the boy complained how the House – which had been created from the earth itself, was too dark and musty, and did not hold well against the rain. To fix it, the empowered man created a new house made of coarse diamonds. Impressed but not satisfied, the young man asked for a house that would not blind him, as diamonds sparkled in the daylight.
For days, the father tried his best to please the boy, creating houses of different jewels – the most important resources of the island – and created one house after another from different gemstones he found. When the tired man, after creating a house made of sandstone, asked his child if it was enough, the boy ridiculed his father by striking the house with lightning, turning the stone to glass, then told him how terrible a parent he was.
Having pieced together that the boy had manipulated him, the man’s wrath consumed him and he ripped the ground beneath the boy’s feet. However, rather than let his son fall, the man channeled his power into his hands and tore the boy’s darkened heart out of his chest before dividing the child’s essence into four parts: the flesh, the mind, the heart and the soul. Still filled with anger, the man threw the darkened heart into the abyss, used his power to create a pure mortal coil for the boy’s mind after ridding it of impurities and reshaped the body into that of the one creature he believed would embody the futility of greed and ambition: a dragon.
Dividing the boy’s soul into three, the man placed one part in the newly-created dragon, one part in his new son, and the rest into the heart – hoping it would redeem it – and plunged it into the abyss, closing the chasm later on. After seeing the blood on his hands, the father realized what he had done too late to change anything. To make up for it, he ordered the dragon to safe-guard the island, then brought his newly-made son back to the others.
Time passed before the father returned to see the dragon. After making sure it would not hurt him, he asked it what it wished for. Knowing that he could not ask for freedom – as people had begun to fear the dragon’s screams, thinking it furious when it was sad -, he wished for someone to take care of him. Seeing how lonely the dragon was, the father answered his wish and created another dragon, one that would become its mate. The two dragons, after some time and effort, mated and had a brood.
As time passed, the dragon children began to take on the aspects of each house they were told to protect, their scales becoming like gemstones. Each house now had a protector… but there was no one to live in them… until a fateful day, where my ancestor was found washed ashore by the dragon of the House of Onyx.
The dragon, curious and confused by the newly-found creature, took it back to the other dragons and asked what to do. Some of them, who had grown suspicious of the outside world, thought it would be best to let her die. Others, as curious as he was of the outside world, wanted her to stay. Deciding that it would be best to let her survive, the dragon tore off one of its smallest scales and placed it on her forehead, using it as a way to cover a wound she had from the crash of her ship. What happened next led to the creation of my people: the scale lost its color and changed shape, becoming a diamond-like gemstone that socked into the wounded, becoming almost seamlessly part of her skull. The onyx dragon tried anew, pressing another scale to her sternum, and noticed the same result. However, the process had awoken the young woman, who was scared of the dragons who helped her survive.
After some time, trying to still her fears, the dragon of onyx, who still bore memories of the old times, made a gambit: to make her at ease, he sacrificed his draconic form through a powerful ritual and took that of a man, one who bore the same gems as my ancestor. The two began to care for one another and bore the first children of Bejem: humans gifted with incredible lifespans and power over the stones that were etched into their foreheads and chest.
As they grew, these new children claimed the houses as their own and learned from the dragons. Being creatures of innate power, the children returned to the continent and enlisted survivors into building the land into a new home – Bejem. Fearing what would happen if the people of the continent came to the island’s shores, the dragons decided to hide within and around the mountains… all but one.
When the dragon of onyx saw the people arrive in such numbers, he became angry and attacked the newcomers, believing his children had brought them to kill their kin. During the conflict, one of the volunteers, a druid woman, used her powers to seal the dragon – who had broken his pact to reclaim his power – within the largest tree of the island, condemning him to isolation for a thousand years. In shame, the dragons – who had watched the conflict from afar – destroyed the House of Onyx.
It took nearly nine centuries before the Bejemi people – who had now created a council-ruled empire – before one of them made contact with the population of the continent... and her fate became a dramatic story for our people.
On a day like any other, one of our Aquamarine ships… oh, sorry. Perhaps I should explain more about the caste system. You see, as time passed, people began to view the stones not for what they are, but for their value. Having forgotten that the gems they bore were from dragon scales, they began to see them through the eyes of merchants. As it went, houses began to grow weary of one another, as some people began to buy or steal stones from the continent’s peddlers to change the ones they bore and become of higher castes. This, in Bejem’s society, is a taboo: if a person is born into a House, he or she must stay within it for the rest of his or her life. Therefore, marriages amongst houses, which had been accepted before, became banned.
The way the merchants began to shape Bejem’s society was somewhat like this: they believed that the more durable the stone, the longer the person’s life, and the greater its value, the higher its rank. Therefore, the House of Diamond became the ruling house. Among the other great Houses were those of Ruby, Emerald and Sapphire, the latter representing what the ‘Middlers’ that I spoke of before. Among the lower ranks were the House of Lapis Lazuli – the tribe of merchants -, the house of Peridot – the farmers – and at the very bottom of the list was the House of Glass – those who only lived to serve.
You may wonder about the taboo I spoke, but there are three great ones:
1- A Bejemi cannot remove the gems on his body;
2- A Bejemi cannot marry into a new house;
3- A Bejemi will not sell the gemstones of the departed.
As you may expect, some Houses do not obey these rules. Many have tried to barter their way into the new Houses, but many of those died because of it. This led to many a tragedy, forcing the Houses to bring volunteers from the continent to populate further.
Now, back to the story… Not mine, but that of another Bejemi woman. On a day like any other, one of the Aquamarine ships – the House of Aquamarine being that of sailors – was attacked on its way to Gullreach by a pirate ship. On board was one stowaway – a young mother and her baby. The pirate captain, thinking that the mother carried precious treasure with her, stole the child from the mother’s dead hands. It was to his surprise that the child, who had been sleeping quietly, awoke with a start. Seeing the mistake of his ways, the man decided to wipe all traces of the event from history – or so he thought – by prying the gemstone from the baby’s forehead and making it into a pendant he wore.
After disbanding his crew and tearing his ship down to lumber, the man wiped the slate clean by taking the child with him to a small mining settlement on the edge of the Citadelan territory – a small port town that would be known as Gullreach. Raising the child as his own, the man made up a story that the girl’s mother was his own wife who had died during a storm on the seas. No one was the wiser, until the girl became of age to be courted. Fearing she would learn the truth, the former pirate refused all the man who came to ask for her hand – her delicate beauty inspiring much awe to the local populace – and decided that, for her safety, she would be sent to the Temple of Prolectae – the Planar-Mother and Aspect of Womanhood – to become a priestess, a prospect she refused.
Deciding to accept only to turn away from the temple at the last moment in an attempt to find a better life, the young woman was placed in a carriage and wheeled to the temple… until the soldiers who accompanied her were attacked by the rest of the pirate crew, along with some local cut-throats – to steal her and demand a ransom to their former captain.
The ensuing battle was not without consequence: though the rogues had all been killed, only one soldier survived the conflict… a man who had fallen in love for the young woman. Seeing her dead body, he pleaded with the Planars to let her live, but was answered by the Planar of the Underdeep, the Aspect of Destruction… Xelnos. While he granted him his wish – the wish that she and his comrades survived -, they lost all memory of the moments of their death, and thus believed that he had slaughtered the pirates and tried to steal away with the young Bejemi woman.
Claiming his innocence even through torture, the man was greeted by Xelnos’ shadow who had claimed the young woman’s soul and learned from it that his hasty wish had a very limited timeline. The soldiers and his beloved would survive… until the moon’s first light in the night sky. Afterwards, his soul, along with all those who died on that day, would become the propriety of Xelnos.
As said in the pact, the young woman died during the night, a pirate’s dagger having slit her throat after stealing into the former captain’s home and slaughtering him. However, the soldier who loved her did not see her burial, for his execution happened moments after the Aspect’s shadow gave him the morbid truth.
Many believed that, because of this, the House of Lazuli – from which the mother was born into – fell into disgrace. Had it not happened, perhaps my own fate would have been different.
To those who wonder who I am, know this: Bejem is not a fairy tale, nor is it a tale where the hero lives happily ever after… for it a place where ends and beginnings are written in stones.
Bejem. An empire on an island. A place coveted by the greedy. A land marked by castes, living in Houses made by Reveen. A place where nobility and slavery are worn on the foreheads and chests of the people. A city where your birth stone dictates your life...
I live in this world. One of betrayal... of ambition... of false hopes...
I lived in its streets... saw its people... felt their pain.
My story is not one of happy endings... But it is my story.
My name? Even I do not know... the truth of my name.