Religions Part 3: Cosmology and Metamyth

When designing a fantasy world, you should be focused on the areas that will be the stage for your story; the cities, the ancient ruins, the castles and the bustling port cities. But, eventually either your audience or the conditions of your story will beg the question “What lies beyond?” The realms beyond the material and how they connect form the cosmology of your setting. This cosmology will usually be a side note of your worldbuilding, places people rarely go, and maybe only tenuously believe even exist. But, there are a few major questions about a fantasy world that can only be answered through exploring your cosmology. And, for some types of stories the cosmology of your world can become critically important, as your heroes travel the multiverse and plumb other realms for their secrets.


How did your world come to be? Was it created? If so, by who? How? Why? By answering these questions you can create a starting state for your world. The most important cosmic factor in the early stages of worldbuilding can be the story of how your world(s) were created, how they function, and how they’re structured during creation. Aside from setting the stage for your world to come, figuring out how your world was created can inform all sorts of things from how magic works, to what cultural traditions exist, to what the surface of your world looks like.

On the other hand, this is also a question you can leave for later, or simply never answer. It’s okay for the origins of your world to be murky or unexplained, as long as you understand that there will still be theories about creation, even if they aren’t correct. In fact this might even be the more “genuine” way to tackle the problem, as real world people also developed their ideas of creation by observing the world around them and working backwards in this same manner.

Creation myths take many forms, but there are repeating motifs of rebirth and sacrifice that seem to find their way into the creation myths of most if not all people. For example, it’s common in creation stories for various gods to give up parts of themselves, or to be sacrificed entirely to create the world. In Norse mythology the world is built from the corpse of the Ur-giant Ymir. His flesh became the earth, his blood the ocean, his skull the vault of the sky, etc.. If this is the case in your world, the gods that supplied parts of your world may have magical influence on the areas where their body parts lie. Alternatively, there are similar but less gory “egg” myths, where the universe was a cosmic egg which cracked, creating the first life and usually leaving the shell to become some part of the new-born world.

The Roman Mystery god Mithras emerges fully formed from a world egg.
Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Other times, a god appears out of the chaos and fashions the world whole-cloth. As opposed to the (re)birth analogy of egg and divine-dismemberment myths, these myths often invoke the archetype of an artist or craftsman fashioning or discovering something. These worlds might be very ordered, as the creator deity can be very picky about how they design the world. In these types of situations Chaos as a cosmic force antithetical to creation may be present, typically represented by a serpent, water or the night sky. It’s similarly common for creation myths to talk of the land being lifted out of the sea, a sort of “birth from chaos” motif halfway between the others. For example the pan-Polynesian folk-hero Maui is said to have lifted many islands from the seafloor using his magical fishhook. In Japanese mythology, Izanagi uses a spear to lift the world out of the primal ocean.

Sometimes a pair of deities are born from the chaos, or from the world egg, and these two populate the world by reproduction. These primordial couplings may be stable, or they may be destined to fail, with the fallout of the breakup setting the stage for the mythologies going forward. In Greek mythology Gaia, the Earth and Oronos, the Sky fell in love and had many children, the Cyclopses, the Hekatonkheires and the Titans. But Oronos hated how ugly some of his children were and locked them away in the Pit, Tartarus. Gaia grew angry and plotted to overthrow Oronos with the help of the Titans, eventually exiling him back into the sky.

Still, other cultures strongly believe that we are not the first world created, but rather one in a series of worlds. Either through a pre-ordained cycle of ages, or simply by bad luck, the earlier worlds were all destroyed one by one, and this one is simply the latest in the chain. In this case, the new world may be built on fragments of older ones, or may be built of a different material entirely, representing a successive improvement or incremental change in the design of the world.

Different stories will have different thematic focuses and needs, so sometimes this sort of background information is unnecessary. It will depend heavily on the scope of your story whether this all remains theoretical background information, or becomes very important plot relevant lore.

Realms & World Structure

Just about every culture has its own version of Hell, or Heaven, a sort of afterlife that exists in another space. Many mythologies feature even more worlds beyond that; purgatorial realms, lands of fire or ice, magical paradises, abodes of the outsiders, holy lands, elemental planes, divisions of the sky, etc.. If these realms exist, or are believed to exist in your world,  they will become richly entwined in the mythologies of your world. They will be the places where the gods and monsters live and were born, and they will be places visited by heroes on their great quests.

Yggdrasil, the Nordic World Tree is probably the most recognizable organizing motif for a world in the West.
Oluf Bagge, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

How the realms are divided is an important question when it comes time for the gods or heroes to traverse them. In some myths, the other realms are close at hand. They are under the earth just below our feet, they lay at the end of such-and-such river, far-far away in a mythic land, or at the top of a sacred mountain. Sometimes the realms are bound only tenuously; there is a path, like the Bifrost or Yggdrasil, or they must be entered through dream or astral projection. Other times, the realms are sealed completely, save under particular circumstances or to particular deities. Setting up these boundaries and connections will be part of the process as you add new realms to your cosmology.

Paths that provide access to other realms are called Liminal Spaces, and though they are varied in form, essentially every culture acknowledges these spaces in some form as the doors that open into inexpressible realms.

A liminal space can be as simple as the threshold of a door, especially one that delineates a boundary. The door to a church or a temple is an archetypal liminal boundary, which separates the mundane world from the holy realms of sanctuary which can be found within. The transition into this space is usually acknowledged by washing of the body, especially the hands, feet and face, a symbolic cleansing ritual which allows the person to properly breach the threshold and enter into the holy sanctuary, rather than failing the transitory rite and remaining in the mundane world. But, something like a forest or ocean can just as easily form a liminal space. While passing through these places it is easy to become lost, and that sense of dissociation with continuous space makes them perfect catalysts for liminality. Be careful when walking through the woods at night, because you may find yourself somewhere else entirely. If you notice a ship with green lights at night on the sea, kill your lanterns and do not respond to its signals. These are fantastical superstitions, but they are fitting because they acknowledge the mystique of these places, and assign to that feeling a certain power to transport things from other realms into our own. That power which we grant to certain spaces, to carry us away with their mystery or majesty, and with them to manifest things in our own realm, is liminality; and establishing what spaces have this property in your world can be important for all sorts of magical and esoteric purposes, as well as for figuring out what path your heroes have to take to enter your outer realms.

Most ancient people at least tried to develop a sense of how the world was organized. The ancient Greeks theorized that the world was composed of successive layers, beginning deep underground or in the underworld, eventually coming up to the surface of the earth, and then rising into successive layers of air, ending at the dome of the stars. The Norse instead had the World tree, which held the worlds together and kept them stable. The theme of the world requiring a stabilizing force is common, as is the idea that if these forces ever ceased the worlds would come crashing down. For further examples we can look to Atlas holding up the weight of the heavens, or the world-elephants of Hindi mythology. A good organizing principle for your world or for a particular belief system of your world can be a distinguishing aesthetic and thematic choice that helps keep them memorable.

However, these gateways and organizing principles are just frameworks for the really interesting parts, the stranger outer realms of your world. The variety of realms expressed in world mythology really are staggering, but here I’ll try to summarize a bunch of types and give some examples.

The Afterlife or the Underworld

Just about every culture has either an afterlife, or at least a belief in something after death. Afterlives are usually very different cross-culturally, unless those cultures have been in contact long enough to assimilate or syncretize their beliefs. Most seem to make a distinction of sin and punishment, whether it be sentencing to Heaven or Hell by Saint Peter, or having your soul devoured by Ammit for being heavier than a feather. But some dodge the need for an explicit afterlife by the inclusion of a philosophy like karmic-reincarnation, where the dead are reborn anew.

The most common spaces to place the realm of the afterlife are either underground or in the sky. The association with the dead being below our feet may have to do with a metaphorical link to burial rites. Those that bury their dead see the underworld as somewhere “below”, those that burn their dead, or dispose of them in other ways may see things differently. Even those that bury their dead may do it with the idea that one day they will need to rise again, because the grave is not their permanent resting place. Regardless of the thought process involved, when people die, something must be done with the body. Once a preferred method is established in a community and becomes tradition, the culture will begin to enshroud that burial rite in religious metaphor and deeper meaning, and this often involves an understanding of how the “soul” should be directed to receive a healthy, happy afterlife.

Mythologies often directly address the afterlife in their stories. It’s not exactly uncommon for a hero to descend into the underworld to bring someone back to life, though it is uncommon for them to have any success in this endeavor. In Norse mythology Frigg meets with Hel to bargain for the life of her son Balder, and obtains an agreement that Balder would be returned if every single thing in the world wept for him. Frigg was unsuccessful in her quest, and so Balder remained dead. In Greek mythology Orpheus went to Hades to bargain for the life of his wife Eurydike, and by the mercy of Persephone was given the chance to lead her soul back to the surface, but only if he never looked back on the way out. Just like in the Norse myth, Orpheus fails the task set for him by the Lady of the Dead and is forced to return to the world brokenhearted.

Afterlives are often vividly detailed in myth with fantastical elements befitting their importance. Places of punishment are often associated with fire, disease and rot, while places of paradise are bright, warm and full of life. Many mythologies take the time to detail the arrangement of cities and lands in the underworld as well, speaking of places where particular monsters or demons reside, detailing the walls and gardens of the death-god’s palace, and adding districts and realms reserved only for particular classes of people. People are naturally curious about death, and will ask all sorts of questions about what it will be like when they get there.

Realms of the “Other”

Some mythologies have special realms where certain spirits or creatures live. In Norse mythology there are the realms like Niflheim, Svartalfheim and Jotunheim specifically set away for some of the magical races, much like Midgard is set aside for humans. These other parallel realms are very common in fantasy where they frequently form either the ancestral homeland of the elves or another race, or as the place that magic is drawn from. You could even implement another world like this as a way to avoid having multiple countries or continents, instead having a series of sectioned off worlds full of fantastic denizens. While in fantasy these worlds are generally very different from ours, being lands of extreme cold, eternal light, wide oceans or what have you, your versions of these worlds can be very earth-like and full of more conventional characters.

As a sort of extension of this idea, your world may be part of a larger multiverse. Magic: the Gathering, and many comic books have multiverses made up of these other realms which are composed of different sorts of magic or other energy and often have unique creatures inhabiting them right alongside the more conventional races of the setting. In many settings, the multiverse is also an expression of time, fracturing into endless permutations representing all possible timelines for all worlds.

Keep in mind as you add more realms to your world that you are also stacking on complexity. Only add and design worlds that you really want or that you plan to use, and keep everything else in the dark until you need it. Even one world is a lot, and especially in high-power fantasy it can be difficult not to get lost in the weeds on realm design. The details of these places should be among the last things you work out in your worldbuilding unless you have a specific use for the information now.

Mythical Lands

Prior to the understanding that the world was a complete sphere, people had all sorts of ideas of what the world must look like beyond their lands. A common staple of ancient worldviews was the idea that the world got stranger and more mystical the farther you travel from your homeland. Historically, it was easy to make things up or exaggerate things you saw in distant lands, as no one existed to fact check you. Marco Polo’s journey to China returned with stories of dragons, cameleopards and all sorts of other nonsense that was accepted in the West for hundreds of years before global communications finally started to correct the misinformation.

People may also attempt to extrapolate what they know about the world to create an idea of what lies beyond. For example, a common motif in world mythology is a land in the east where the sun physically rises from, possibly corresponding to a setting point in the west. Heroes often journey to the palace of the sun far away in these lands as part of the boon-seeking part of their hero’s journey. Cultures may believe in a frozen land beyond the north, as the Greeks and Romans did, or a land of searing fire in the south as the Norse believed would appear at Ragnarok at the behest of the fire-giant Surtr.

Hercules binds Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. Amazonia was a mystical kingdom thought to be in Asia Minor or Libya where warrior women ruled over the men of the society; which to the Greeks was a quite fantastical idea.
Joseph Kuhn-Régnier, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The major difference between these lands and the realms discussed earlier is that these places are felt to exist in the physical world, simply farther away than anyone would ever reasonably travel. Gods often live in these lands, if they are physical beings, and monsters are also frequent travelers here.

Elemental Planes

Elemental planes are getting more and more common in fantasy these days. The basic idea is similar to the Nordic outer realms, but aligned to the cardinal elements of the world. D&D and its derivatives assume your cosmology include these planes and reference them in some of the rules, which has contributed to the proliferation of these types of planes. What’s nice about using this type of realm is that they reinforce your elemental system if you want that to be a defining aspect of your setting, and they simplify the design of your outer realms, leaving you more time to explore other, more important parts of your world.

Fire, water, earth and air are the four classical elements of the West, but there are other elemental systems in the world to draw inspiration from. Chinese mysticism assumes five elements: water, wood, fire, earth and metal. Video games, especially CRPGs and Diablo-likes often have a system of three elemental damage types, electricity, ice and fire. Many JRPGs use some combination of these other elemental systems but often add light and dark as well, much like how D&D and similar d20 systems often include positive and negative energies. Which elements you choose to include, and how your realms reflect the qualities of those elements are up to you, but the choices you make will reflect the inspirations and expectations you are bringing into the setting.

Planets and Stars

Among a wide array of native cultures of North America there was a belief that people had descended from the stars, and that the ancestral home of mankind was somewhere among the heavens. In other cultures, planets associated with the gods were sometimes imagined to be their distant abodes, or their bodies drifting through the heavens. And even in ancient times there was speculation about what it would be like to travel to the moon, and what we might find there.

Before the launch of the Mariner 2 probe in 1962, some scientists were of the belief that Venus lay within a habitable zone of our sun, and could support a swampy ecosystem. Modern understanding of astronomy, surface imaging and seismographic data of the planet itself, indicate that Venus likely never had the proper conditions for life to survive there; but, even as late as the 1960’s a mythos of a shared solar-system was alive and well.

Stellar and planetary worlds verge on the realm of science-fantasy, but if that flavor is something your world can accommodate, it allows you to illustrate your cosmology through the things visible in the night sky, which is pretty cool. Your other planets could be mundane realms which are bound to the same laws and functions as your setting’s “homeworld”, or they could be more classical style planes and realms; highly magical and difficult to get to without the aid of a divine being or a liminal portal.

Dream Realms

The closest most of us will ever get to living in a fantasy world is the occasional memories we have of our dreams. Dreams are sort of an enigma, even now with the benefit of modern science. It’s still unclear what, if any, evolutionary pressures led to dreaming, or if it is the result of some sort of convergent coincidence. The interpretation of dreams and their meanings is still a hot topic, but it’s also an ancient one.

Some ancient peoples assumed that dreams were gifts from the gods, and practiced oneiromancy, or fortune-telling through dream interpretation. Others assumed that dreams must take place in another realm, one which is altogether stranger and more magical than the waking world. For these people, it wasn’t much of a stretch to assume that if the dream world existed, that the things they experience there must somehow carry over into the real world. Healing through dream journeys was an especially common fixture of societies who for whatever reason lacked robust herb-lore and couldn’t properly medicate through foraging. For those societies with access to psychedelics, there was often a conflation of the dream and psychic realms. For many the medicine-man figure of their community acted as a sort of psychic psychopomp, who would lead them on journeys through these other realms for therapeutic purposes.

The nice thing about dream realms is that be definition they are fluid, inconstant places. Most worldbuilding done here will focus on structure and cosmology, because each dreamer will be subject to the random whimsy of subconscious expression. On the other hand, you could instead make dreams in your world more concrete and consistent, like a parallel set of lives between two continuous worlds. In any case, if your world or mythology has a dream realm, remember that people dream every night. This realm may have a disproportionately larger effect on the thematics of your world than other realms, because people will be interacting with it so often.

Metamyths and Narrative Motifs

Many authors have found that when they construct a world, it benefits them to have that world convey a specific philosophical view-point. Often this is not done as a direct allegory to real life, but rather serves to illustrate a belief or narrative theme of the story being told.

An excellent example of worldbuilding-narrative assonance, is Frank Herbert’s Dune. [Spoilers for Dune in this paragraph.] In Dune, the planet of Arrakis has been designed on a narrative level to help Herbert convey the social and environmental messages he wants to highlight in his narrative. The fact that Arrakis is a desert planet allows Herbert to properly frame the Fremen’s water crisis and ecological management solutions while also reinforcing the message that ecological disasters disproportionately affect the poor and disenfranchised. The harshness of Arrakis in general and the Fremen’s extreme adaptation to the Shai-Hulud and other threats there allows Herbert to make a contrast with the Sardaukar, and illustrate the narrative pattern within Dune that only great adversity breeds greatness, and that success and power conversely breed weakness. He then carries these themes throughout every level of the book, reflecting again and again on the injustices wrought by the wealthy Imperial interests against the people of Arrakis, and repeating the theme of power breeding weakness in his representation of the Atreides line vs the Harkonnen line, and the ultimate displacement of Imperial power by the much more hardened and enlightened Paul.

For people who haven’t read Dune, a historical example is the personae of Roman comedies. The word persona originally referred to the masks worn by actors in the comedies. These masks were iconic. The designs and the characters were consistent enough across the Roman world, that a person from Roman Egypt and a person from Roman Britain would have been able to watch a play together and find that both of them were familiar with the characters almost at once. Aside from the visual element, the mask represented a specific function for the character within the narrative of the play. The roles were so common and ingrained that they had names based on their story function, like the adulescens who is a noble young man who has fallen in love with a woman of lower birth, and through the course of the story will earn her love, and in the end reveal that she is actually through some happenstance a noble woman, fit for him to marry. It’s actually that specific, and there are around a dozen of these which all have similarly complex and oddly specific quirks and character arcs.

A Greek Tragedy mask, probably a leukos aner, meant to be worn by an actor playing an older man, like a teacher or worried father.
George E. Koronaios, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

My point here is that if you are creating a world for a narrative driven work, it will likely benefit you to design your world to reinforce your narrative themes through repeating patterns of settings and characters. This would include in some cases creating stock characters or archetypal character-forms for your world which appear again and again in different contexts, with the purpose of tying disparate narratives into a single cohesive whole. Or it might involve telling the same story structure over and over again with the characters and factions swapped out. When you apply these narrative motifs to your world in a way that integrates them into your in-universe cosmology, you are creating a system of metamyth, or a mythopoeia. When these themes exist only out-of-universe as a tool to help unify your story which doesn’t extend to the internal worldview of your characters you are instead creating a narrative framework, or meta-narrative.

For a modern example of an enormous narrative framework, look no farther than Hollywood. If I say “Racing Movie” or “Spy Thriller” or “Christmas Rom-Com”, you know exactly what films I’m talking about, even if you can’t actually think of an example. In the racing movie you have “The Team”, which consists of at least three people, one of which is a very attractive woman/love interest for the main character, who is either hot-headed young upstart, or an older possibly bald man who “got out” and has now been pulled back to the scene for whatever plot contrivance necessary to kick off the story. Probably a murder. I could go through the rest, but you get the idea.

In Hollywood, these motifs are mostly just a fast way to crank out movies. But, when you take the time to craft your own systems of meta-narrative, you can actually suggest quite a lot about a character very quickly with few words and just a couple overt cues, once your audience is familiar with the framework you’ve constructed.

The most common metamyth in all of fantasy is the Triumph of Good over Evil. The hero, the villain, and the structure of worlds that feature this metamyth are almost so second nature that you almost can’t utilize it anymore without a nagging feeling that you should try to be a little more creative. Part of the reason this narrative feels so stale these days is because it’s based on an older worldview that doesn’t speak to modern audiences as well as it did 100 years ago. Namely, the Triumph expresses the narrative theme that “goodness”, which was often aligned with religiosity in the past, is an absolute and perfect force that contrasts an “evil” associated with a devil or irreligious figure. Good will always win, while evil is a self defeating and doomed force. In the context of a broadly Christian society the metamyth was well accepted, and was a reassuring and powerful message about the strength of faith. In an increasingly atheist society, the message seems childish and undeveloped, because broadly the worldview being expressed seems too simplistic and unselfconscious.

Look at the stories you like and ask yourself why you like them. What about them speaks to you? The themes and struggles of the characters? The way the world feels? The ideas that the author is trying to convey to you? If these elements jive with the world you’re building, you may be able to include them in metamythic constructs of your world. By iterating on these narrative elements you can create a consistent narrative core that runs through your whole world, from bottom to top. It will not only help the setting feel unified and well thought out, it will also provide a seed for all the stories and characters you will produce in your world. And, just like modern Hollywood or ancient Roman Theater, you will want several of these meta-stories and meta-characters so that it’s easier to genuinely mix up the formula while still adhering to the same roots.

Your use of meta-narrative structures can be aided greatly by having a robust symbology associated with your world. Numerology often ties into metamyth as an organizing principle for the world. In Taoism, where the world is viewed as a cosmic balance between the dual forces of yin and yang; dualism is then reflected in the understanding of all lesser systems. If the world is made of two balancing forces, then these forces should be everywhere, and more to the point, nothing will have three or four essential forces instead, the number 2 has to carry consistently through everything. Imagery and symbolism can prop up meta myth as well, acting like the Roman persona masks by using imagery to mark people subject to shared mythical roles. By using common symbols to draw parallels between your characters you create archetypes specific to your world, which just like the “natural” set of character archetypes will help you quickly convey large amounts of information about a character without overt info dumping.


Once you understand your realms, your world’s creation, and its mythic structures, you are basically prepared to answer any of the high order questions about the cosmic echelons of your world. More importantly, these answers may often feel like they come as natural consequences of the systems you’ve set down beforehand. However, developing these features of your world can easily distract you from the more grounded parts of your world and the stories that take place there. Unless you have a particular need for lore on one of these features, your time here is best spent by briefly outlining your bare essentials now, and coming back to tweak these things as your actual story becomes more developed in its themes and needs.

Religions Part 2: Divine Archetypes and Motifs

Selghast and Voulmar

The streets of Oltuyr were in shambles. All along the rows of neat plastered-brick dwellings, the awnings hung torn from their poles and the family market stalls were emptied, overturned, and broken. The shadows of men darted through the smoke that filled the avenues between the houses in choking billows. There was a roar all around of voices distant and near. Yelling and crying, screams and the baying of every hound in the city. The avenues were stained black with tar and a rising wet heat that smelled like a burning latrine.

There were dead men too. One great one the size of a yak lay face down in the gutter, a sword lodged between his ribs. On the raised curb, away from the grime, two smaller bodies had been arranged under a blood-spotted awning.

Selghast clenched his jaw. It served to make him appear stoic, but also kept his mouth from hanging open at the awful reality before him. The long white haired elf drew the sword from the ribs of his former master and wiped the blood on the giant’s muddy robe. He gazed sternly at the back of his master’s tawny head. There were ways this could have ended without the man’s death. Selghast didn’t feel any better, but it felt settled now at least. A life for the life he had stolen. Selghast couldn’t spare a glance for the others, it would shake him, and he still needed to be strong.

“Where to now?” One of the group behind Selghast asked. There were twenty or so of them, some still in their tattered nightclothes. The man who spoke was a red haired elf of heartier build, Arbus, the baker.

“Gather what you can from the house. We’re going to the castle to drag out Voulmar.”

The group of assembled elves looked half-nervous and half-blood thirsty like a pack of hungry dogs.

“If you don’t want to come, get out of the city. Go to Arna, or one of the villages. Things are only going to get worse here.”

Some of them looked up to the sky which seemed to burn with the city. Others looked at the two shapes under the awning. The pack silently broke apart, as many of the elves slipped back into the house to pilfer what they could from the wardrobe and pantry before starting their journey.

Arbus stayed, and half a dozen others armed with knives, a rake and a maul made from the butter-churn. A sorry force if they met with any resistance.

“We’re with you, Sel.” Arbus said with a weak smile, raising his churn slightly.

It was a heavy task to smile at a time like this, and Selghast repaid him with a poor grin.

“Thank you.”

The group didn’t have to worry about resistance. The whole way to the castle the carnage was the same, broken streets red with blood and filled with anguished voices. But, empty of soldiers. The only giants left were deserters, unarmed families escaping the violence. One family had a child as tall as any of the men, but still with childish features and the bewildered fear of the innocent. They left such unfortunates to pass without a word.

They passed a manor where a giant noble and his soldiers had barricaded themselves. But as they drew near, they saw the gathered crowd begin to throw brands over the wall. There was panic from within as the manor burned, but the crowd in the street began to cheer with joy.

Throughout the city, everyone else had moved on or hunkered down. Selghast could see people peering from the windows, but the shutters all snapped shut when he met their eyes.

As they neared the castle, a crowd began to form. The streets became packed with elves who all moved with purpose, and the voices on the wind became angry, but harmonious. Like an army of ants they poured through the streets, all bound for the castle that lay just above the city on a cliffside.

Voulmar’s manse was decked in bronze and built half into the dark stone of the mountain. The siding was a fine dark wood, and the roof was shingled with enamel tiles of yellow and orange that gleamed wickedly in the smoky twilight. The path leading to it was intentionally thin and winding to hinder an army’s approach. But, Selghast doubted that the designer of the path had been imagining an army of slaves when he designed it. Still it did its job, and well before they reached the castle, the crowd was pressed tight, and all forward motion ground to a halt.

“Seems we weren’t the only ones out for Voulmar’s blood today.” Arbus said, craning over the interminable line to the castle.

“I should think not. Had you heard none of the rumors? Every elf in Fannur has been talking about it in his cups for months. The men could hardly hide their excitement.”

“Bakers don’t gossip.” Arbus replied dryly. “We’re honest folk.”

“Mhm.” Selghast humored.

“So by agreement then? Today is the appointed day?”

“More, or less. When news came in that the capitol fell, it probably started. Then this morning the air was different. The first fires I think had already started then.”

“The fires were burning before first light. I noticed it when I went out to smoke after I put the first batch of loaves in the oven. By the time I went out for my second smoke, dawn had come in flame.”

As they stood and spoke, three men began to cut through the crowd behind them on horses.

“Make way!” One of them called ahead.

Selghast at once recognized the voice.

“Llud! It’s you.”

The elf who had yelled trotted to a stop before the group and removed his bucket-like helm a bit too large for his head. He was severe looking, with a graying auburn mustache and a shaved head that accentuated just how round he was for an elf.

“Sel! I was worried about you. I’ve seen Uswydd kill slaves for less than insurrection.” He said with no humor.

“As have I. So I was very cautious when I gutted him.” Selghast deadpanned.

That drew a wry chuckle. “So, who’s your friend?”

“This is Arbus, the Antels’ baker. Arbus, this is Llud, one of my co-conspirators I suppose you could say.”

“You any good with a sword, Arbus?” Llud asked.

“No, but I can swing a maul built for a giant.”

“Good enough. You two should ride with us. We’re going to the gates.”

The giantish draft horses didn’t so much as whinny as Selghast pulled himself up to sit side-saddle behind Llud, and Arbus scrambled into a similar position behind the second horseman. The crowd didn’t part quickly, but it parted fast enough that the horses could canter through the lines of standing men in single file.

Sel was struck by how thin some of the elves around him were. Some fared better, looking washed and well enough fed. But most were like incumbent ghosts, with visible lash-scars under their tattered clothing. Every ounce of whatever energy was left in them was tied up in a fervent anger. Sel felt their rage bubbling in his stomach. It was his as well.

“Sire? I’ve received reports from the guard that the fires haven’t abated. Also, I called for your council to assemble. But only three of them have arrived so far.”

King Voulmar couldn’t look at his steward. He stood by the fire in what he hoped was a relaxed and confident pose. If he turned to meet the steward’s eyes, his own would betray him. Fear, unsurety, panic. The giant King’s heart beat like a racehorse. His mind struggled through seven thoughts at once.

“How many men could I field in a day? What levies in a week?” The King asked, vainly grasping the marble mantle above the fire.

“There are four hundred men in the castle, but the rest won’t be back from the capitol for at least another week and a half.”


“Just that many, Sire. The castle guard is the only force left to the kingdom.”

“Then hire mercenaries, private armies, place a levy on house guards!”

“Sire, I can’t just…”

“I want a thousand men marching here to raise this insurrection within the week! And I don’t care how much it costs, bankrupt the kingdom and sell my crown, but by the gods, bring me something!”

Silence hung over the gilded drawing room. The only light in the room was the fire burning low and dark, and half concealed behind the King’s looming shadow. The golden trim and plate glittered under the light of the guttering fire, and in the gloom the vague shapes of golden lounge chairs looked like the piles of a dragon’s hoard.

Voulmar had drawn the heavy velvet curtains the night before. He had seen red lights on midnight clouds of smoke rising from fires in the city. His city. Burning like a Qardagh grove. Bottles lay strewn about the woven rugs that covered the floor, evidence of the King’s evening engagements. His head was pounding, but the buzz had faded. And, now he needed to think.

“And, bring me water.”

“Yes, m’lord.”

“It’s ‘sire’ now.” The King repeated emptily.

“…Yes, sire.” He heard the elf leave the room.

Voulmar collapsed heavily into the nearest chair. It was twice the size of any other chair in the room, but it still groaned as the wood twisted under the King’s weight. Two elf-sized couches served as rests for his tired feet.

When Voulmar had joined the Fannur Kings in rebellion against the Empire he had thought he was being handed a great opportunity. Independence was the dream of every little Prince, wasn’t it? To make the laws to fit one’s own people, unbeholden to a distant tyrant. So he had bought in, risked everything for the chance to make Oltuyr free. And it had paid off. Plefed lay in ruin, the ancient walls sundered and breached. The throne was crushed, and the Empire as it had been could never be reassembled now.

Now, now that he would pay anything to see those Llergeidan banners on the horizon, coming to keep their peace. But it was all well out of his hands.

“A week and a half…” He repeated to the golden room around him. The castle keep would hold, at least that long. Four hundred men could hold the walls as long as the food held out. There was nothing to worry about. But still the hairs on his neck prickled nervously.

There were voices outside the door. A moment later the elf steward and the captain of the guard filed in.

“…I saw spears and knives in the crowd.” The steward finished.

“Sire,” The captain reported. “There’s an armed mob at the gates.”

Voulmar felt a tide rise in his gut. He sat up.

“How many?”

“Most of the city, from the looks of it.”

“Rouse the guard and fetch my armor. I’ll go meet them.”

Voulmar let the tide of his restlessness bear him along. He went to the mantle first, and fetched down his sword from where it was displayed above. It had a bronze core with a blade of amber that scintillated in the dim firelight and was as long as a man is tall. As his servants departed to do his bidding, he fastened his sword belt and strode out the door in a trance. He felt confident, or felt like he needed to be confident. So he marched down the stone halls of the keep with purpose and tried to keep his head up for anyone who was watching. But if he held out a hand, he was sure it would tremble, so he held the hilt of his sword in a death grip instead.

The stone halls were dark and cold. Whoever had been supposed to light the torches must have fled. Like the cook staff the night before, or the maids the night they had received news of the Imperial fall. It seems the elves had known this would happen. If by some shared link or by secret meetings in the dingy taverns of the city, the elves had spread the word everywhere before his victory had even come. The night that the Empire fell, this mob had been set loose, even if they only now found their way to his door. If he had known months ago it might not have made a difference. But he couldn’t stop thinking about the little moments and failures. If he had been wiser or kinder, or more like his father, would things be different?

Voulmar stood suddenly at the bottom of a spiraling staircase that led up to the forecastle. He wiped his face of cold beading sweat and took a breath, then mounted the stairs. He emerged into a day of smoke-choked skies. The sun wasn’t even vaguely visible, instead a red hue of diffused fire-light gripped the world. It was dim as twilight, but it wasn’t even noon. And the wind that swept up the cliffside from the city smelled like ash and death. Voulmar suppressed a shudder.

Men and elves lined his walls in rows, bows down, but ready to defend him at a moment’s notice. The show of force made him feel a little better. Then he stepped to the edge of the wall and looked out over the mob, and his breath caught in his throat. The sound of them hit him all at once. How many times had he stood here addressing the same crowd? Then, they had sat in respectful silence. But every voice and hand was raised now, bearing their hatred for him in blades and venomed words. When they saw him they did not quiet. They suddenly surged, like a wasp nest struck.

Voulmar stood dumbfounded. He didn’t signal for them to calm so he could speak. What man could believe he had the power to quiet them? It was like the fury of the sea itself had come to dethrone him and now raged at the castle doors. Voulmar stood. And, he waited.

Eventually from among the turbid crowd a single voice rose, and he called for quiet. He sat on a horse, behind another man who had the reins. A young elf with uncouth braids, a long face and piercing silver eyes. His gaze caught Voulmar’s, and without a doubt Voulmar knew he saw the truth. Voulmar could not hide his fear from this man.

“Voulmar!” The silver-eyed elf cried so he could be heard. “Come down and leave the castle. If you surrender now, we’ll let you leave with whatever you can carry. You can go back to the Empire and leave us here to ourselves.” There were murmurs among the crowd. Voulmar doubted they would let him go now, no matter what this one offered.

“Who are you?” Voulmar asked, fear mingling with rage. “I am King here! My family has ruled this land for three hundred years. I fought for this land! I would die for it.”

“I am Selghast. My master was Uswydd Antel, who is now dead by my hand. Now, I’m free from him and I’m here to claim freedom for all of my brothers and sisters.” There was a cheer amongst the crowd that silenced all thought for a moment with its sound.

Well, at least Voulmar knew why Uswydd hadn’t come when he summoned the council. It would have crushed him if the Antels had defected to save themselves. Though, perhaps they should have if this was the result of their loyalty.

“Uswydd was a friend.” Voulmar said, trying not to let the grief or the other swath of emotions flooding him come pouring. “My father…”

“Uswydd was a slaver and a monster.” Selghast cut back. “And your father was no different. There are people here who remember how your father put down the slave revolts. We won’t weep for a murderer.” The crowd cheered again.

Voulmar gripped the parapet and leaned out over the crowd. “Enough! You’ll gain nothing here! Go back to your homes and forget this folly. I am the King now and you cannot take this from me!”

At that, the crowd flew into a rage and began to beat at the doors so furiously that the whole wall shuddered. Stones and sticks came hurtling up and over the embrasures along with bottles and rotten fruit that shattered and squashed in the courtyard beyond. Voulmar chanced to catch the eyes of Selghast again, and once again found himself transfixed by his steely gaze.

Voulmar stepped back from the edge until all vision of the crowd receded and sat down hard against the wall behind him. He sat there reeling as his guard went to work around him, fortifying the castle for a siege. At some point Voulmar realized that his captain of the guard had arrived with a servant bearing his armor.

“Sire, your armor is ready. But, we have this under control, you needn’t trouble yourself with this mob. The guard will keep them at bay.” As he said so a salvo of bottles sailed over the wall and crashed into the courtyard.

“I didn’t ask for your opinion, Captain. The night is young. I’ll don my armor and wait out the evening in the drawing room.”

The Captain gave him a quizzical look but said nothing other than, “Yes, sire.”

Evening once again saw King Voulmar in the drawing room, drunk. But this time the giant was armored, and stood at the windows, curtains flung wide, with a wild look in his eyes as he watched the city burn. From his doorstep to the horizon, fires. Burning everything he had ever known. Burning in defiance of his will.

As he stood there, he could hear distantly the crowd at the castle gates calling for his death. Wherever he went in the castle he could hear it, even if only in a whisper so soft it could be his imagination. He could hear it now, the cry of ants barely louder than the thumping of his heart. But even without hearing the words, he knew what it meant. Voulmar took a drink.

He stood at the window drinking and watching the smoke until the moon rose and was well on its way back down.

Near dawn, there was a noise at the door, and Voulmar didn’t turn.

“Sire, the crowd has left for the night. There are a few guards, but if you were waiting for the right moment…”

“The right moment to what?” Voulmar spat. “To flee like a cowering mutt? To hand my birthright over to them without a fight? No, if they’ve left then I’ve won the night.”

Voulmar could still hear the whispers of their cries for blood. Were they really gone? Or did his steward mean to lead him out into the throng? Voulmar shot the elf a suspicious look. He was pale as a ghost, and he looked pointedly at the floor. Guilty, Voulmar decided.

“Is the old witch still in the castle?” Voulmar asked.

“Miss Frei? I’m not sure. But I will go check her quarters.”

“Hmm. And, don’t come back without her.”

The elf backed out of the room, bowing deeply with his eyes on the floor.

“And, before you go,” Voulmar stopped the man. “Look at me.”

The steward raised his eyes incrementally so his gaze fell on Voulmar’s shoes.

“Look me in the eyes.” Voulmar took a step away from the window and saw the room grow dark under his looming shadow.

The elf looked up and just askance of Voulmar’s face. Voulmar waited. Finally, the elf’s fervent eyes glanced at Voulmar and were caught.

The steward saw madness in his King’s eyes. And Voulmar saw the deep and uneclipsable fear that he desired.

“Never speak to me again about surrender or retreat.” Voulmar said, voice dripping with venom.

“Y…yes, sire. Of course. M…my apologies.”


The elf practically vanished from the room.

Voulmar turned back to the window. The fires were dying now. Before morning they would stop. That would be the first step toward returning things to normal. After that, he would set about crushing this rebellion and retaking his right.

Starting with the upstart Selghast.

Voulmar gazed out the window a moment more and then threw shut the curtain in disgust. The King waited in the darkness, slouched in his enormous chair for the witch to come. Propped up in his drunken stupor by armor he had never worn before.

She came in silently. The door opened and shut in the darkness and the old woman’s doddering shape came into view.

“Sire. What is your wish?” She crackled.

“Give me the power to crush this rebellion.”

“Does my King not already have the power to do so?”

“Tomorrow. I will end it tomorrow.”

“If you simply wait, your armies will return from the capitol and they will quell this rebellion without the need of magic.”

“I have been questioning loyalties as of late.” The King let the barb hang in the air.

The silhouette of the woman gave no indication.

“The armies will not remain loyal if they return to find things like this. I see now that they will join that mob and beat down my gates. When they return, I plan to show them the aftermath of a short-lived and bloody rebellion. That will keep these ingrates in line.”

“So what would you have me do?”

“Give me the power to defend my throne.”

The witch seemed to ponder for a moment. “It will be painful.” She said, making toward the dying embers of the hearth and stirring them. She added logs as she spoke. “I will need materials. Fine ones fit for remaking his highness’ body anew.” As the fire re-took, it cast a glow over the room, which glittered in the gold and amber fixtures. The King himself shone in mirrored bronze armor from neck to toe. The elven witch revealed by fire-light looked more sunken and ancient even than she was. Her expression was sad. Or, maybe she was frightened too.

“What cost is too great for a King?” Voulmar answered.

In a dingy bar below the castle, the co-conspirators drank and caroused. The fire, confined properly to the fireplace, was cheery. A few casks of booze that had survived the riots had been rolled in and flowed freely into the raised cups of the comrades.

Everywhere, elves danced and sang. Heady marches and rebel songs, too bold to be whispered even a week before now roared out. They all knew them, though they’d never heard them full voiced, assembled, as they were meant to be. Men were drunk not just on the beer, but on victory, freedom and a new life.

Selghast wished his heart was with them.

Arbus, Llud and Sel sat together at a rough table pocked with knife-holes set away from the fire and the general cheer. They drank, but only lightly, and kept their wits about them.

Sel drank to ease the urge that demanded he climb the path to the castle and dispose Voulmar at once.

He felt sharply that it wasn’t over yet. As long as the keep stood, their efforts were nothing more than a rebellion. Until the King was dead, there could be no liberation.

“Relax you two, it’s a party.” Arbus said. “What’s the point in planning all this if you can’t even enjoy it?”

Llud and Sel shared a look.

“I can’t believe they can sing like that.” Llud replied. “My stomach hasn’t stopped doing flips since we rode back down here. It’s all I can do to keep down a few sips. I feel sick.”

“What about you, Sel? You looked sour on the ride back too. The nerves got you?”

Sel shook his head. “No, it’s more like, I get the sense that the worst is yet to come.”

At that moment, the door of the bar swung open, and an unseasonal chill swept in along with a man in a heavy black cloak pulled tight around him. The lights in the bar dimmed as the flames shuddered in the breeze. A lull fell over the roar of the party, suddenly muted.

Then the stranger closed the door, and the cold fled. The fires bounced back to life and the chatter returned to a clamor.

The black cloaked man stopped only a moment to scan the room, and then walked straight to the back corner where the three friends sat. He sat down at their table unbidden, leaving his cloak and hood on. Though they peered into the pit of his face, all they could see with his back to the glowing room was the suggestion of an elvish chin with a wispy beard jutting from the dark.

“Selghast?” The man asked.

“Yes, I am Selghast. And who are you?”

The man cocked his head at the other two sitting at the table.

“They’re good friends.” Sel replied. “As trustworthy as I am, and far more so than a stranger.”

The man considered for a moment, then leaned in as far as he could and spoke in a whisper that died almost on his lips in the bustle of the tavern. “My name is Telian, the Captain of the Castle Guard.”

The man sat back, and the three stared at him, unsure of what to say.

Now more assured, the man spoke less quietly. “He,” And he made a motion to the cliffside above where the castle, and it’s King lay. “Is going mad with fear. He’s confined himself to the castle’s drawing room and stares at the fires daily. He paces like a beast in the darkness and has taken to ruling those who remain with threats. His time has come to an end, so I’ve come to help end it. There is a hidden cleft in the rock above the path to the castle. It leads to a cave that connects to the inner courtyard by a false wall. I will show you where it is, so that the head can be cut off this beast once and for all.”

There was an uneasy silence at the table once he had finished.

Finally, Llud spoke. “It sounds like a trap.”

“I know, I know. You have very little reason to trust me, but I’ve come because I’m the same as you. I’m no giant or noble. I was a lucky slave with a strong arm that… that he picked to bear the weight of his duties. Your freedom is mine too.”

The whole time the man spoke, Selghast’s heart had been picking up speed. This was the chance that his soul demanded. With no more great bloodshed, or a protracted siege, a prospective battle with the returning armies, a chance to end this. In his heart of hearts, he needed this to be real.

“Show me your face.” Selghast said.

The man hesitated, but then, carefully pulled back his hood just enough to reveal his face to the table and no others.

It was indeed the Captain of the Guard, Selghast recognized him from the wall of the keep. More than that, he recognized the man. His eyes were sunken-gray with lack of sleep and mingled fear with a supplicant gaze. Selghast locked eyes with the man, and though he squirmed he didn’t look away.

“Can you swear to me you’ve come to us in good faith? Can you meet my eyes and swear that to me?”

The Captain looked deep into Selghast’s eyes, and Selghast looked deeply back.

“I swear to you, I’ve come to end the monster called Voulmar.”

Beneath the weariness, the panic, the pitable begging gleam, Selghast saw within the Captain a resolve. A resolve that Selghast felt was in harmony with his own.

“I believe you.”

Selghast drained his cup and stood from the table.

“Go to sleep my friends. I’ll need you well rested and sober in the morning. I plan to make it the last dawn Voulmar ever sees.”

By guttering torchlight, Selghast, Arbus, Llud and Telian stood before a wall that choked the mouth of a stony cave. Behind them, a small band of co-conspirators stood huddled in silence.

They had emptied the armories of the city’s old elite, and stood all fully armored, gripping gleaming spears of amber. Telian wore his captain’s armor, less the helmet and cape.

The old captain reached forward and pressed against the stone wall. With some effort, it ground outward, and opened into the dawning courtyard of the inner keep. They were blinded for a moment by the eastern light, but when their vision resolved not a man of them said a word.

Within the courtyard, dead as if from a great battle, lay the castle guard. Perhaps a hundred corpses were strewn about the courtyard. Some had their armor wrenched back and heavy ragged gashes beneath, like they had been caught in a sawmill. Others were crushed like grapes within their armor and more had simply burned away to ash and bronze slag. The stones of the courtyard had been pulled up and thrown through windows and facades, and some men lay broken on the eves as if dropped there from great heights. But there were no sounds. There was no wailing of the dying, or the life of embers among the ashes. It was not the chaos of the city below, no battle had been staged, It was as if death itself had visited this place.

“What happened here?” Telian spoke in a whisper.

He stepped alone into the courtyard and gazed around in horror. Reeling, he fell against the wall, a look of uncomprehending sorrow on his face.

The others stepped out to join him, but none moved to comfort him.

“Sel, this place has been cursed.” Arbus whispered. “We should leave, and go back down to the city.”

Selghast shook his head. “He’s still inside.”

“Sel, I don’t think anyone is still alive in there.”

Selghast looked to Arbus; he saw his own fears reflected on his friend’s face. So he steeled himself before speaking to keep his words from betraying him. “Do this with me.”

Arbus looked pained, but he nodded after a time.

The doors of the entrance hall had been flung wide, and a hot wind rose from inside. Selghast was the first to mount the staircase that led into the maw, and it seemed to steel the men, because a clatter of armored footsteps followed up behind him. Their footsteps urged him onward, so even as his fear begged him to leave the cursed place, he mounted the steps, and stood before the darkened door.

Beyond the door was a wide corridor lined with columns. A fountain had once stood in the center of the room, but now was reduced to rubble. Dribbling water seeped up through the fine woolen rug and pooled around the shattered basin. Enormous bloody footprints marked the path of something which seemed to have entered the dining hall at the end of the corridor. The doors there were shut, but a red light danced through the gap beneath. It was stifling here, like a sauna with no steam.

As the elves marched down the open corridor, they stood ready, on edge. Their eyes darted to shadows on the wall, and the curtains flapping in the breeze.

When they reached the dining hall door, Selghast felt as if he stood before one of Arbus’ ovens. His heart pounded with fear, but lacked no resolve.

The wooden door was warm under his hand as he pushed it inward.

The braziers were burning wildly all along the far wall. Two long stone tables took up the space between. A marble throne sat among the fires, and all around it was curled a steaming mass of molten gold and heaps of blackened stone. The air rippled around the pile like a rock in the summer sun.

Then the pile shifted as if to collapse, but by some magic instead it rose up. It uncoiled its long body from around the throne, and spread wide two wings of melting amber. It raised its head and leveled its hateful, glowing eyes at them.

“Selghast.” It rumbled.


“Kneel to me before I kill you, and I will spare your families my wrath.”

Nothing moved, save the sway of the molten dragon’s tail.

Voulmar screamed as he lunged at them. The elves all scattered seeking cover among the tables.

Selghast ducked forward, avoiding the snatch of Voulmar’s blazing talons. He landed behind and scrambled back to his feet. Voulmar turned around and reared back, wings raking the vaulted ceiling. He came down with the full force of his body behind a claw. Selghast jumped clear, but a spray of hot rubble scorched his skin and sent him skating along the floor. He crashed into one of the tables, insensate.

There was a yell from one of the men, and then the dragon. The floor shifted and rumbled.

When Selghast shook himself free from the haze and the tangle of broken chairs, he saw the dragon lift and throw one of the stone tables away so he could get the man beneath. The dragon breathed, and the man was washed in a flameless heat that choked him before he could scream. He ignited like a struck match, then fell over dead.

Selghast drew his sword, his spear already lost in the chaos. He ran at the dragon from behind as Llud and Telian stepped up to draw its ire.

“Captain Telian, you dare? Traitor! Regicide! Mutiny!”

Voulmar raged at Telian, but the man was light in his armor. He sprung back a step, and the cobblestones beneath his previous spot exploded in a shower of molten debris. He struck out with his spear, and Voulmar snapped it in his iron teeth. Telian jumped back, and a wave of heat that shook the air followed after him. He ducked and dodged his old liege for three, tense, eternal seconds.

In the blink of an eye, Voulmar shredded Telian with his molten claws.

Selghast responded by planting his sword firmly in the dragon’s gut from the side.

Voulmar wailed in agony. He seized the other elf, Llud, around the chest and lifted him in the air. Still grasping Llud he whipped around and pinned Selghast by an arm and leg with the other talon. Where they were touched, they burned and the claws cut deep. Both elves screamed.

“Selghast!” It bellowed with the rage of a mountain. “I have crushed your pitiful rebellion, just like I crushed the Empire! And next I will crush you, and everyone you’ve ever loved until the mere whisper of your name strikes fear into the hearts of…”

Arbus struck out at Voulmar with his spear and caught him below the jaw. The dragon lashed out with it’s tail and threw him against the wall.

Still wailing, Voulmar half-collapsed in agony over Selghast, crushing the wind from his lungs, and searing deeply the flesh of his chest.

Under the dragon’s weight it was too hot to breathe, but seeing no other chance, Selghast lifted his sword in his one free hand and sliced the dragon’s neck from chin to nape.

The dragon rolled over and over as it and gurgled with agony, crushing the other table and coming to writhe against the far wall.

Selghast’s arm and leg were ruined, so he dragged himself over to the dragon. When he came to its side its eyes were open, and it breathed shallowly. Without wasting another thought, he fell upon it and cut its head from its body. He threw away his smoking blackened sword and fell upon the ground beside the head. The breathing of the beast went silent, but its eyes still watched him.

There was no sound in the great hall, save the gentle crackling of Voulmar’s cooling body.

“Sel…ghast.” A voice whispered.

His head whipped up, expecting a friend who had survived the carnage.

Instead he found Voulmar’s draconic head still glaring at him from the floor.

“Selghast,” It spoke again. “How cruel to see your victory turned to naught. Curses, curses.” It’s mouth worked as if to bellow but all it could do was choke. “All for naught. All the gold and amber in the world will not buy lifeblood. I take solace only in your agony.”

“Then you are a monster, Voulmar and your new form and condition suit you. There is no agony in my soul.”

“Your name will be forgotten elf. I will forever be the Last King of Oltuyr.”

“But, my work here will remain. The time of the giants is over.”

For the last time Selghast looked deeply into Voulmar’s cooling metal eyes, and there he saw no humanity. There was rage aplenty, and animal panic, instinct and fight. But within Voulmar’s eyes, Selghast saw nothing of himself or of his comrades at all. And that thought alone was enough to give him peace.

The dragon lay there gnashing its teeth and cursing in wrath; until, with a resounding crack, the cooling metal of Voulmar’s head split in half.

Then he was still.

Selghast lay back his head on the crushed stone floor, and allowed the light to bear him away into sleep.

Cultures Part 1: Subsistence Strategies

The art of designing fantasy cultures is incredibly complex. From art to language to technology, belief and magic, there are hundreds of factors that should probably be considered when trying to create a culture that feels self-complete. Most of us don’t have time to do all of this, so we take shortcuts, focus our attentions and keep our audience looking at the parts that are finished. Today, I want to talk about a single aspect of culture, but one which informs so much else about how a group of people live and think; Where do they get their food? This may seem like an easy question that could be a footnote in the tomes of ancient history and epic quests that you want to be working on. But, focusing on how your culture eats will tell you a lot about what their days look like, what their years look like, and what their outlook on life might be.

Anthropologists have identified five of what they call patterns of subsistence. These are; Hunting-and-Gathering, Pastoralism, Horticulturalism, Agriculturalism and Industrialism. Each of these strategies is indicative of significant social trends, like the development of class divisions, the distribution of labor and the overall health of the people. By using these patterns as guidelines we can make strong predictions about our people based solely on the methods they use to feed themselves. I can’t speak directly to the science of this; but even a simple understanding of these categories provides an excellent set of basic templates that can guide us toward making fictional cultures that feel grounded in our experiences with real world cultures.


Rawpixel, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

All of the very earliest human cultures were hunter-gatherers. Of all of the patterns of subsistence this one is the least like a technology and most like a “default” state for humans, though this pattern still relies heavily on inherited knowledge passed down through the generations. Hunter-gatherers are small tribal bands of 70-150 people who do not domesticate plants or animals for food. Some are nomadic, moving to follow the rains or the migrations of game animals. Others, especially those in abundant environments may live in a single village for generations. In these societies long term storage of food is difficult or impossible, and so they live mostly hand to mouth. Hunts might only take place once a week if large game like elk, moose or buffalo are available, or a few times a week if only smaller game is present. Large tribes can afford the high energy, high risk hunts for enormous game like the mammoths, elephants and rhinos which can feed the entire tribe for days. Gatherers, who often work alongside the family or tribe’s young children, can produce enough food from the local vegetation to feed their families in only a few hours a day. The result is that hunter-gatherers have the most free time of any of the subsistence types. While some of this free time will be spent mending things and improving the campsite, most of this time is spent socializing, resting for the next day of work, or creating art like textiles or songs. Doing extra work is inefficient, because it burns calories and can only provide a short-term benefit due to the lack of storage. In a fantasy world, things like frost magic for consistent food storage or plant growth magic may alleviate these limitations and allow uncharacteristic population booms among hunter-gatherer tribes.

In the real world, these groups almost always have extremely elaborate poetry, or textile work, or word games; things to pass the time while they rest. Stories, especially parable, myth and oral histories are also usually highly developed in the sense that they are usually remembered verbatim and sometimes involve elaborate performances like dancing, singing or audience participation. Some linguists even theorize that the emergence of “click” consonants in the Khoe languages of southern Africa may have come from a word game involving the replacement of certain sounds with clicks that eventually became the dominant way of speaking. Even if this theory doesn’t hold out in the end, the fact that it’s a consideration should illustrate just how important some of these practices can become to a culture.

Another interesting commonality of these societies is a tendency to be highly egalitarian. Even in groups with “chieftains” or similar figures, there is usually no one with absolute authority over the group as a whole. Discussion takes place for every major decision and generally nothing is done without a broad or unanimous agreement. Even medicine-men and similar medical-religious figures will generally live as normal members of the tribe, hunting and gathering with the rest, and only assuming their “higher” role when they are needed to help with a ritual or cure.

Hunter-gatherers are also deeply in tune with their environment. In fantasy, it’s easy to perceive this as a sort of magical attunement with the natural forces; but in the real world, it comes down to deep knowledge of the local flora and fauna. When tasked with naming local plants, children in hunter-gatherer communities can often name hundreds of different varieties, and can identify the edibility of most of these. By adulthood, they will likely know every single plant that grows in their range by name, and will know most of their properties and uses. Hunters can identify animals by tracks, smell and sound, and will be tuned to even slight changes in the area, like the stirrings of birds or unusual motions in the brush. These aren’t magical talents, these are simply people who have been practicing these things in a single environment all their lives and who have become experts at their craft.

The size of these communities is self regulating. The more people there are in a village the farther people must go on foot to meet everyone’s needs, and at a certain point they will burn more calories looking for food than they gain from eating. At this point there will either be a famine that drives down the population, or some or all of the tribe will be forced to move on to new lands. In the early days of your world, there will likely be plenty of places to move to. But, as the years march on and your map fills in your tribes will increasingly be driven to conflict over expansion and emigration to new lands. War for tribal communities is devastating, as their populations often cannot sustain the loss of so many people. The death of a single generation of men in a population of 100 could leave only a few young boys as the stock of the future tribe. A genetic bottleneck like this could easily lead to the death or assimilation of the whole tribe in just a few generations. The result is that many tribal communities will avoid war at all costs, even staging mock battles and intimidating performances to ward off their enemies instead of fighting them directly.

When designing hunter-gatherer societies for fantasy, you can tweak all of this to your liking. If a tribe lives in a magical garden-like land, then maybe food is never a struggle for them and they can support a vastly inflated population. If your people can teleport, this presents a new style of “nomad” that could jump around a few well established camps, or even teleport abroad to hunt and be back for dinner. The specific conditions of your world can provide endless variations on this lifestyle, just like the specific conditions of our world produced thousands of unique cultures that lived this way and continue to live this way.


Shepherds are a familiar sight in many places all over the world. In highly developed agricultural and even industrial societies pastoral communities exist on the periphery to provide important resources to the cities. But, for some people herding is the only way they have to provide for their families. Pastoralism is a nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyle, wherein the family group travels with their flock to keep them in fertile grazing grounds year round. This lifestyle requires a vast amount of open, unoccupied land for the nomads to travel, but this land can be fairly non-arable as long as there are a few edible grasses around. Thus, this lifestyle is most common in extreme environments where the land doesn’t support agriculture or gathering. Or, it might be more accurate to say that pastoral communities are often pushed out of more favorable lands by agriculturalists, and forced to subsist on the lands that don’t support farming.

Pastoralists almost always have a home range, a territory that they mostly adhere to, which they are familiar with the seasonal shifts of, and which they can protect from outsiders who might try to move in. Defense of this territory, even in the off seasons, is very important. If another clan comes through and grazes your winter pasture in the summer, you may very well starve when you get there and find too little has grown back. To make this worse, the enormity of these territories make them difficult to defend especially with such a low population density. Thus disputes over land and water rights are common for pastoral cultures.

These people may either be entirely nomadic, or semi-nomadic. Nomadic tribes likely live in some kind of sturdy and easily movable tent, which they strike and rebuild as they move from pasture to pasture. Semi-nomadic people will have one or more static sites where they stop for some part of the year. Usually these static sites will have a small group that lives in the area year round, maintaining it for occupation when the herds return. These static sites might have some gardens with a few domesticated plants, but if they ever develop into full-scale fields, the community is set down the path of conversion to agriculturalism. A common pattern of semi-nomadic living involves a single wintering site which is occupied year round by the women, children and elderly of a clan, while the men drive the herds around their spring, summer and autumn pastures. These arrangements are usually highly weighted in the favor of the matron of the home. As the master of the house year round, the woman-in-charge is usually the defacto or even de jure matriarch of the whole clan. This arrangement is somewhat more common in cultures that ride animals, as life on the trail and constant riding can be harsh enough to lead to miscarriages or other natal problems which could easily become fatal in a pre-modern society. Of course, people find a way, and many cultures manage just fine dragging every member of the extended family along on their endless march from camp to camp.

Photo by Tomu00e1u0161 Malu00edk on

A fun factor of pastoralism as a worldbuilder is getting to decide which animals your culture keeps. Usually keeping flocks of wildly different animals is much more difficult than having a single staple animal and perhaps a few working animals like dogs and horses. In the real world there were pressures to domesticate certain species over others; mainly milk, wool, meat, leather and value as a draft or pack animal. But, it’s more or less arbitrary which specific animals were chosen when as a worldbuilder you have the option of hand-waving what wild stock was available to your original people. Some default options for herd animals include cows, goats, sheep, yaks, horses, llamas, elephants and camels. However, in a fantasy world you could choose giant pigs, deer, birds, bugs, or even some magical monstrosity. Real world pastoralists to my knowledge never domesticated predators as their stock animal, but who’s to say your people can’t have herds of bears or dragons that “graze” on the local wildlife of an area before moving on to let the prey replenish itself.

Pastoralists are frequently just as technologically advanced as their neighbors (unlike hunter-gatherers who often suffer from a disparity in technology). But, pastoralists often lack the population to effectively fight against larger groups. Pastoral lands have the lowest population density of any sustenance strategy. When other cultures come knocking, pastoralists are often left with no option but guerrilla warfare. Their land’s enormity suddenly becomes a way to obscure their position, and their advanced knowledge of the geography puts them in an excellent position to ambush attackers. Depending on the environment in question, pastoral communities may be able to simply slip away deeper into the mountains or canyons and be lost forever until they choose to be found.


Horticulture is usually a catch all term for labor intense small-scale cash and food cropping; namely, gardening. But when anthropologists use this term, they mean something a bit different and more specific. Horticulturalism as a survival strategy is the process of scouring and burning wild spaces to encourage the quick growth of certain favorable crops. Horticulture in this sense differs from agriculture because no planting is taking place. Instead areas are burned and left ashen to replenish on their own. This requires less labor than agriculture, but also requires more land, as most plots must be left empty for years before they are productive again and will have lower yields overall. However, slash-and-burn horticulture is also much less harsh on the soil than large scale repeated mono-cropping, thus more sustainable. Horticulture requires long growing seasons or perennial growth in order to have a high enough turn over to remain effective. For this reason it is most common in tropical or equatorial climates.

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When it comes time to harvest the land, the people go through and gather all the edible plants from the area in much the same way a hunter-gatherer would. They pay no mind however to the sustainability of their harvest, as they plan to burn it all soon anyway and start over. What they gather will depend entirely on their environment but will likely include fruits from trees and vines, edible tubers, berries and other plant matter. Burns are also an excellent opportunity to hunt, as all the activity leading up to the burn and then the fire itself will drive any creatures from their hiding places. Once a burn is complete, the soil might or might not be turned to help the ashes permeate the topsoil and to promote root-growth.

Horticulturalism is relatively rare in our world compared to other survival strategies. It was practiced by some Austronesian cultures, and brought to several of their island nations as they traveled across the Pacific. The indigenous people of Madagascar still practice these controlled burns in some communities. Some theories are that Horticulturalism is uncommon because of its inefficient land usage relative to agriculture, specific environmental requirements, or because horticulture has a tendency to quickly evolve into the domestication and planting of crops.

Like hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists are masters of their environments and are capable of identifying essentially every plant available to them. However, they are more likely to have gaps in their knowledge, as some of these plants may not be common in burned out land, or may not necessarily be useful. These gaps will be small, and they will be made up for in a deep knowledge of seasons and the passage of time. Keeping seasonal time helps them plan and time burns properly to coincide with peak periods like the driest and wettest parts of their year.

From a fantasy perspective, there are all sorts of ways to take such an evocative lifestyle. Perhaps this is the way your elves express their close bond with the land, by keeping it young, healthy and fruitful through rejuvenating fire. Maybe you have dragon-kin who ritually burn their forests for a yearly hunt. The exact realization of these burns and how the land recovers could be very interesting in a world with pyromancy or bio-magics to aid in the re-growth.


Fulcran Vigouroux, ed., Dictionnaire de la Bible, 5 vols. (Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1912)., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Agricultural societies have been the norm in the Western world for the better part of three millennia now. We are all familiar with agricultural societies and their quirks, but they’re still worth examining in detail. Agriculturalism is the practice of domesticating plants. Wild grasses become grain and hard crab-apples become delicious fruit through the process of selective breeding over generations. But, agriculture isn’t born fully grown. Simply domesticating plants is only the tip of the iceberg, and the real social changes arising from agriculture come from irrigation, plow technology and storage techniques. These things allow the production and storage of surplus goods, and thus of material wealth. Pastoralists have material wealth as well in the form of herd stock, but unlike a herd of cattle, grain and gold in a vault do not need to be fed. Almost as soon as the surplus arrives, feudal systems, fiefs and clans pop up to seize and centralize all the wealth. This centralization of wealth leads to the development of social classes, and also (if they haven’t already arrived) of cities.

People move to cities to find economic opportunities not available in the countryside. Skilled laborers like blacksmiths and potters can find enough clientele in cities to keep their business afloat, and their presence there in turn makes the city a destination for people from the country to come in for supplies. Markets form around the craftsmen and the center of wealth in order to capitalize on the business they drive into the area. People can only go so far to get to market before the added cost makes the journey unprofitable, and this effectively creates a gradient of value around the city, where nearby land is highly valued, and more distant land less so. Only relatively rich people can live in the city at all, and the richer one is, the more central they can afford to be. Meanwhile, people with poor-paying and menial jobs will be moved as far to the periphery as possible, creating a smooth grade we are still familiar with today; urban → suburban → farmland → pastureland.

Social classes develop from disparities in power between those who have wealth and those who don’t. And the economic factors that drive farmers out of the cities function to also segregate the population by wealth. The people with surplus grain can leverage their wealth into favorable deals and better equipment going forward. Continued investments of excess wealth compound and eventually elevate one or more families above the rest of society. With the subtle or overt threat of force of arms, and the direct power granted by control over the food supply, someone will eventually declare themselves “king” or whatever local title is roughly equivalent. At this point it’s down to personal preference and worldbuilding how exactly the culture develops. But, the class conflicts caused by agriculture must be dealt with because at least in our world they appear to be universal.

The types of crops employed by agricultural societies will heavily shape the appearance of their populated areas. Think of the ubiquity of Japanese rice-paddies or the sprawling corn fields of the American Midwest. Mono-cropping, the practice of maintaining large fields of a single plant, has a specific look to it for each crop and this will change the appearance of your countryside in a dramatic way. Additionally, specific crops require different processing techniques which will inform other visual aspects of your world. Traditional grain crops must be milled, meaning wind or water mills will be present in just about every settlement. Excess chaff from grain production will be going somewhere, either to be eaten by domestic animals or to be made into roofing material like thatch. Food must be stored, meaning silos, grain-houses or caves dotted here and there, and often manned by guards since in pre-modern times a grain silo may as well be a bank. Most obviously, staple crops become the foundation of the food culture in an area and will determine what and how your people cook and eat.

Fantasy worlds raise many possible options when it comes to agrarian societies. Magic can make anything viable as a staple crop if you want. Maybe you have bird people who primarily eat peppers because they can’t taste the capsaicin, or a group of halflings that only eat giant pumpkins because you find it goofy and fun. Lots of people get very up in arms about what crops are and aren’t available in certain periods, but unless you’re writing historical fiction, your people can farm ornamental flowers for nectar if you really want them to. The important takeaway is that whatever they choose to grow, it will be a monolithic presence in their culture, and will absolutely drive the shape and vibe of your settlements.

Sea Cultures

Okay, this one isn’t in any textbooks, but I would feel like I left a gap if I didn’t at least mention it. Most anthropologists consider fishing a type of hunting when talking about subsistence. The two practices differ in technique, but don’t shift the distribution of labor all that much. Most cultures still live on land, and whether they’re gathering or farming on that land will determine if they are classed as agriculturalists who supplement their diet by fishing, or hunter-gatherers who happen to mostly hunt fish. But this leaves a few options unexamined.

Some people, like the ancient Hawaiians, would build large artificial lakes or gate off lagoons from the ocean. Fish could swim into the lagoon through the gate, but upon feeding and growing there, would become too large to fit back through the bars. By keeping their schools fed, and only culling the proper number of fish, they could effectively farm fish in these ponds. For our purposes, this strategy of subsistence looks different enough from the others that it’s worth mentioning. Aquaculture like this prevents overfishing of the wider waters, but it requires vast tracts of sea-front or land set aside for flooding, and will never produce the same sizes or types of fish as deep sea fishing. Fish farming this way was almost never the only food source available to a people. Agriculture was a common partner to this system, as fish could be supplemented on overproduced crops, and each of the systems could serve as a buffer if the other had a bad season. If your people grow rice or wetland potatoes, they could even keep their fish in their flooded fields, allowing the fish to fertilize the crops as they grow.

The ‘Ai’opio fishtrap, Kailua Kona, HI
W Nowicki, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Nutritionally speaking, you can almost survive on just fish alone. But there are a few vital nutrients unavailable from fish that have to be supplemented somehow. The big one is vitamin C, which causes the infamous piratical disease, scurvy. Many navies of the world are known to have supplied their sailors with citrus fruits to cure the disease. But the natives of North America found that pine-needle tea would cure scurvy as well, in fact it was a better source of the vitamin by far, and was easier to pack and store. This little quirk of dietary requirements is what caused the British to be called “Limeys”, and is the reason that the word for orange is some form of “la naranja” in almost every place the Portuguese and Spanish navies visited during their explorations.

If you wanted to take another step further, you could create a completely seafaring people. Maybe they grow plants on their ships somehow, or they just trade for their vital supplies at some landlubber port. Fishing can easily provide food for a crew’s worth of people indefinitely. Another big consideration if you go down this route is repairs. Your people must be able to drydock somewhere, unless magic somehow allows them to replace or mend wood without sinking the ship. Floating islands solve all these problems in one go, as they provide a place to grow plants and would already be self maintained by whatever magic or ecological system you’ve worked out for them. Plausible seafaring cultures in fantasy are totally possible, and exploring them can lead you to some interesting conclusions for your world.


Industrialism came along in our world with the advent of chemical fertilizer and new irrigation techniques. The ability to artificially replenish the soil allows massive yields, and inventions like the combine harvester did away with the most intensive portions of labor. These factors combined transformed the shape of our society in the blink of an eye. We went from 90% of every person alive contributing in some way to food production, to the polar opposite; Less than 10% of the population does all of that work, and they’re doing it on less land, in shorter growing seasons. Suddenly our society didn’t have to spend all of its effort on meeting its basic needs. So, what did we do with our new found freedom? We expanded empires, colonialized, and had some of the most devastating wars to ever occur in human history. However, once this era of instability died down, technology granted the new world powers a new golden age of thought, science and art.

Industrialism only really developed once in our world, though it did so on a global scale, with the sharing and capture of technology between nations fueled by the birth of globalism. Because of this, it’s hard to say much about post-industrial societies. There seems to be a trend of heightening class disparity already seen in agricultural societies. Likewise, the exponential growth of population and the proliferation of new ideas and technology also seem to be core factors of industrialism. The defining characteristic of industrial societies however is that shift in the portion of the population involved in subsistence. Arguably any society that has a very small percentage of its population involved in primary production is industrial, even if you don’t see the typical signs we associate with the word, like factories and smokestacks. Elves who have attained an attunement with the forest to provide for them, and thus spend all their time reading and singing, have entered a sort of pseudo-industrial state, and will likely reap the benefits and dangers of that change. Perhaps such a society decides that the world would be better off all living under the auspices of the forest, even by force; Or, the additional freedom to pursue philosophy leads to division and ultimately a rebellion against the old social order. Maybe tree-gods don’t like science, and so when the first great thinkers appear among the upper classes of the elves during this golden age, they are exiled for their “heresy”.

The point is that while industrialism has a certain look in our world, this doesn’t mean that every industrial society needs to go through the same exact stages of development as ours did. In fact, the development of many of our core technologies in the modern world, like antibiotics, vulcanized rubber and internal combustion engines likely wouldn’t develop or at least would look very different in any other world. Keep in mind that industrial techniques often spread easily, and it is likely that any culture that encounters these sorts of technologies will try to copy them if they can. Give a very good reason if you plan to have a single industrial culture that never spreads to its neighbors.

An interesting thing to note is that industrialism can fail. Before the bronze age collapse, which saw the death of every major Mediterranean empire in the span of 60 years, there were signs of a coming industrial revolution. Scientists, or early thinkers at least, were studying subjects like steam propulsion and chemistry, which given the time may have led to the same sorts of fertilization and plowing techniques that wouldn’t actually develop until almost 2000 years later. Though historically speaking, this is mostly just an interesting “what if?”, for a worldbuilder it suggests some options for how you plan out your history. Maybe you did have some sort of industrial society in your world’s past, but before they could really get going something came and wiped them off the map. It’s a common trope, but it’s based in real events, and provides lots of detail that makes your world feel like it has an extended history.


So, with these five or six subsistence strategies, you can categorize almost any method your people use to feed themselves. Figuring this out can tell you about what your culture’s priorities are and what things they spend their time doing. Societies structured around a specific way of life are a very good starting point for a fantasy race, as the structure gives both you and your audience a core idea to orient around. You might choose not to use this list for all of your races, but at least something here probably got your worldbuilding gears turning, and that’s what I’m here for.

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