Hundreds of years after the Phoenix Prince set out to unite the Vermilion Lands, and hundreds of years after his successors raised up their new capital, the City of Victory, the unthinkable happened. The City of Victory burned. A rebel army ransacked the imperial palace, an invading army hot on their heels. The Empire’s defenders were dead or scattered. What went wrong?
No one factor was to blame. Foreign invaders played a part, yes. So did the increasing weakness of the imperial government. So did sheer bad luck.
The empire rested on a basic contradiction — holding together so many peoples, over so great a distance, demanded that the imperial authorities loosen their grip. This left the empire a constitutional patchwork, ranging from territories under direct rule, through self-administering vassal kingdoms, to distant, loosely affiliated tributaries. Yet Vermilion power, in the first place, had arisen on the back of a strong, centralised government.
The early monarchs could walk this tightrope, assisted by the pegasus riders, the shared culture growing amongst the Empire’s educated subjects, and held in reserve, the threat of the imperial army. Not every ruler was as capable. Meanwhile, the Vermilions’ surviving neighbours were reorganising themselves along the early empire’s lines, replacing feudal levies and tribal horsemen with drilled, professional gunpowder armies.
These problems fed upon each other. As the borders came under increasing pressure, the imperial army needed ever more funds, and local auxiliaries became ever more important. In some provinces, taxes crept up; peasants sold their land; and emboldened landlords took local matters into their hands. Other provinces strengthened their militias, and wondered why they should look to the imperial garrisons for defence. And in the City of Victory, emperors began experimenting with selling offices, first in the bureaucracy, then the army, and finally, in the elite pegasus corps itself.
Into this tinderbox came sparks: famine, epidemic, and internal strife, as unpaid soldiers and couriers turned to banditry. With banditry morphing into rebellion, and foreign armies penetrating into the heart of the empire, things could seemingly grow no worse — until the emperor died without an heir.
One man stood poised to take the Vermilion Throne: Governor Kho, greatest of the magnates. If he had displayed a ruthless streak during his ascension, well, that was how great men were made. Before the Empire’s assembled dignitaries, Kho prepared to lift the crown — and a musket boomed. Fog condensed into the shape of a man. And before the audience’s astonished eyes, the long-dead founder of the empire – the Phoenix Prince – set the crown on his own head.
Together with the Prince were men and women of equal wonder: Artorius of Cairbrunn, the spirit soldier who had been fighting since ancient times; Tian Kizo, who had summoned them with the rarest of magics; and Kizo’s niece Tian Risa, shaper of Fog and designer of wondrous flying machines. Backing them were enough of the middle classes – urban professionals, frustrated by cronyism; talented but lowly-born officers, frustrated by defeat – to take control of the City of Victory.
The Revivalists promised they would reform law codes, modernise the academies, and appoint honest officials. They made a promising start – clearing the worst of the dead wood, chalking up early battlefield victories with the aid of Risa’s fledgling Sky Corps. Given time, it could have worked. The Empire could have been saved.
Time was what the Revivalists did not have. Had the general commanding the frontier armies not turned his coat, had the satraps committed more troops to the Revivalist cause, had the Empire’s institutions not been so decayed when the Revivalists took charge, Vermilion history might have been very different. Perhaps, had Kho taken the throne, Vermilion history might have been very different. Instead, the Vermilion Throne was hacked to bits. The Phoenix Prince was blasted back to the spirit realm. His would-be successors have torn the land apart.
One reed of hope remains: when the City of Victory fell, Tian Risa disappeared. And now, in caravanserais and around hearths, on the shores of the Sea of Lune and in the grasslands of the interior, strange stories are beginning to swirl. Clouds moving low and fast, faster than clouds should go, and surmounted by unfamiliar machines. A city in the sky, veiled by fog — or perhaps by Fog. Travellers mysteriously saved; marauders mysteriously wiped out. The superstitious whisper that the Sky Maiden, first-born child of the Vermilion God of Victory, has descended from heaven to shield the weak — and punish the wicked.
The God of Victory has fled. His Child, it would seem, has not.
This is the second draft of the fall of the Vermilion Empire. I’m reasonably happy with this version, although it remains subject to amendments (for plausibility, story reasons, etc).
This is a mini-prologue of sorts, a tidied-up version of a scene I originally wrote (and posted) years ago. Enjoy!
The Vermilion Empire has endured for hundreds of years.
But now, its neighbours grow restive, its servants corrupt.
The emperor lies dying. He has no heir.
There is one man, Governor Kho, acceptable to all.
If anything should happen to him…
The Scholar Tian Kizo
Tian Kizo met the spirit in a phantasmal desert, under a blazing hot sun. Around them lay the ruins of battle: swords and bows and guns, discarded shirts of mail. Kizo reeled: from the heat, from tension and excitement, from the vision he had just seen. Then the spirit spoke, and he focused.
“You’ve seen my story,” the spirit — Artorius, that was his name — said. “Your turn. What do you want of me?”
“Justice.” For all Kizo’s rehearsal, all his careful thought, the words came tumbling out. “My son is dead. Murdered. I’m no warrior — but you are.”
“You have no magistrates in your empire?”
“Hah!” It was a short, bitter laugh. “None who would arrest the greatest power in the land.”
“Ah.” That was all Artorius said. He folded one arm across his chest, the fingers of the other tapping on the hilt of his sword.
“Please. Help me.” Kizo could hear the desperation in his voice. “You ended your mortal days when you were betrayed. Murdered. Your wife, too. You must know how I feel. Don’t you want to deliver justice?”
“Justice.” Artorius stretched out the word. “At what price? The world is not a fairy tale.”
“If it were, my son would be alive!”
Artorius held up a hand. “Listen to me. What will happen if I kill your empire’s greatest lord?”
Kizo breathed deeply. He had to stay calm, convince the spirit with his logic. “I have a plan. I can summon another spirit — the Phoenix Prince, the founder of the empire. No matter if this, this man dies — the people can rally to the Prince.”
Artorius gazed into the distance. Kizo felt sick. He could not tell what Artorius was thinking, not under that hard veteran’s mask. This was his best chance, his only chance. To lose it now…
“The world is not a fairy tale,” Artorius repeated. “I’ll be damned if I make it worse. All right, I’ll help you. And the name of this man I should kill?”
Let Kizo never again look forward so much to another man’s death… “Governor Kho.”
From an early stage, the Vermilion Empire benefited from its access to pegasi — a rare and precious resource. The Phoenix Prince relied heavily on pegasus riders as scouts and couriers; with their help, Vermilion columns could march separately, then coordinate and converge on their startled foes.
Afterward, what the Vermilion soldiers won, the imperial pegasus riders kept. They carried imperial decrees, generals’ and governors’ reports, and tax records, forming a web that bound the capital to the provinces and, increasingly, the provinces to each other.
The pegasus riders operated via a network of courier stations spread throughout the empire. A message would be handed to a rider or team of riders, who would seek to carry it all the way to its destination. After each day’s journey, the exhausted rider could look forward to a meal and somewhere to sleep at the next courier station, before beginning again the following day.
The riders themselves were chosen from the empire’s most talented youths and trained for years. They became a tightly knit elite, expected to use their eyes and ears to supplement written reports. Many became heroes, and throughout the empire, children dreamed of emulating famous riders such as Kie of the Grey Wing.
Pegasi were an imperial monopoly. At first, this was for strategic reasons: the Vermilions did not want precious beasts falling into foreign or rebel hands. Over time, enterprising monarchs realised they could make the pegasi pay for themselves by allowing private mail onto the service — for a fee. As the fees grew higher and higher, this spurred demand for alternate means of air transport, and hence, encouraged development of Fog-based flying machines.
The pegasus riders were one of the most iconic Vermilion institutions, and one of the most meritocratic. As such, future generations looked back at the riders’ final slide into nepotism as the moment that symbolised the beginning of the end for the Vermilion Empire.
The Vermilions set their mark on their new conquests, and their conquests shaped them in turn. In the wake of the Vermilion soldiers came officials; and in the wake of the officials came migrants, eager for a better life than what their remote, windblown homeland could provide. At the same time, it soon became clear, there simply were not enough Vermilions to oversee everything. Nor were there enough to replenish the imperial army, as it campaigned further and further away from home.
There was a solution. Had the Phoenix Prince not treated the other Vermilion principalities as honoured partners rather than conquered subjects? Was not the woman nicknamed “the mother of empire”, whose eventual regency had been critical to the success of the fledgling empire, herself a foreigner? And so, the decision was made early on to respect local customs and treat other peoples as equals. It was one of the most momentous in the empire’s history.
When the guns finally fell silent, centuries of peace and prosperity began. Cities grew beyond their walls, and with piracy and banditry (often gruesomely) suppressed, trade flourished across the continent. Merchants criss-crossed the empire, offering rice from the south, furs and horses from the interior, and manufactured goods from the cities. Where the merchants and migrants went, cuisines, art styles, and religions followed. New faiths and ethical creeds gradually developed, often bridging different communities, as imperial citizens sought meaning in their new, expanded world.
In time, Vermilion became the lingua franca of the educated throughout the empire. Client monarchs sent their children to Vermilion military academies, and dressed themselves in Vermilion-style uniforms. The Vermilions themselves embraced the arts, sculptures, and foodstuffs of the rest of the empire; and following the example of the imperial family, they intermarried with the other peoples amongst whom they found themselves. Talented non-Vermilions could be found amongst the highest ranks of the armed forces and the civil service.
At the Empire’s height, a scholar might dine on foods first cultivated in a distant province; sip sugared tea while penning a contribution to a journal; and write poetry to a sweetheart whose ancestors had fought the Vermilions with horse and bow.
Life was good.
A quick note: due to better communications such as pegasi, I envision that most parts of the world would have been — at least very tenuously — connected with each other. This world’s equivalent of the Columbian exchange would have occurred well before the rise of the Vermilion Empire, and compared to our world, it would have been a little easier to get hold of foods and beverages from far away. However, the real boost to palates would have come with the political unity (and improvements to transportation) brought by the Empire.
Next up — the Empire’s pegasus riders.
Once, the Vermilion Lands were known for nothing save the cinnabar that gave their name. Located in the remote west, divided between a patchwork of petty princes, and in thrall to the horse nomads of the interior, only a fool could imagine them as anything but a backwater.
Until, in one Vermilion city along the marches, a particularly great fool inherited the throne. Determined to overthrow the nomad yoke, the new prince embraced pike and gunpowder, drilled and redrilled his troops in the new weapons, levied taxes to pay for his army and hired administrators to oversee it all. He died before seeing his moment, and the tools he built passed intact to his son, the Phoenix Prince.
What his father did for one state, the Phoenix Prince did for all. Heaven had blessed him with wit, will and charisma, and when a succession crisis distracted the nomads, the Prince seized his chance. Over the next year, many of his fellow rulers joined him through persuasion; others, through fear; and the rest, through force — but only after peace had been struck on generous terms. When the nomads next demanded tribute, the Prince replied with steel and shot instead. When the dust settled, twenty years later, the nomads had been broken once and for all. The Vermilion Empire was born — without the Phoenix Prince at its head. Disease did what no nomad could: the Prince died in the hour of his triumph, without ever being crowned emperor.
The Phoenix Prince’s successors shared his talent, not his vision. The Prince was a liberator; his successors were conquerors. The very newness of the Vermilion Empire became its strength: while others had invented gunpowder and professional administration, the Vermilions, free from established convention, perfected their use. Fiercely independent petty kings and city-states, too evenly balanced to amalgamate, found themselves swept aside by the Vermilion tide. Over the coming decades, the Vermilion armies marched a thousand miles east, into richer, more ancient lands. Cities that resisted were sacked. Wealth and art flowed west, filling Vermilion coffers, decorating their parades, adorning their new capital – the grandly named City of Victory.
I have posted a new worldbuilding piece (technically, a rewrite of a draft I originally posted three years ago; since then, there has been a lot of change). It concerns the magic system, so critical to the world of the Ascent, and you can find it here. Enjoy!
No great nation endures. In the end, wealth succumbs to famine; armies, to defeat; glory, to oblivion. For all of history, soldiers, rulers, and prophets have dreamed of breaking the cycle. For all of history, they have failed. Until now.
Scholars and tinkerers are succeeding where the warlords could not; as they uncover nature’s secrets, what was once called “magic” becomes more abundant by the day. In the hands of monarchs, its destructive power could change warfare. In the hands of industrialists and inventors, its productive power could free humanity from its limits.
The ascent of humanity is about to begin.
Welcome to the Ascent, an Earthlike fantasy setting, with no gods, no intelligent species other than humans, and limited magic. Over the course of the timeline, magic becomes more abundant as humans work out how to cheaply, reliably tap into it. Eventually, magic will resemble the nanotech and hovercars of science fiction. The “Ascent” itself is the inflection point, the era when magic (and machines) really begin to take off. Themes include sacrifice, rebirth, the interplay between cultures and civilisations, and the coolness of fantasy flying machines.
My goal is to write a number of stories set throughout the timeline, chronicling the history of this world through the stories of individual characters. To begin, I plan to post updated worldbuilding notes to the “World of the Ascent” link, above (what’s currently there is left over from an earlier version of the setting). It’ll be a long road, and I look forward to seeing where it leads.