"We are Friends to the Helper, and we shut out the immensity."
- Dodol Pritush, of Au-ed.
The Oron'er mountain range, despite its relative proximity to civilization¹ as well as its smallness compared to such far-off giants as the Khokhantipa Range, has perhaps the most mystique out of any of the high places of the world. From its alluvial, red-grassed lowlands and foothills to its highest and driest karst peaks, the Oron'er range has been fixed in the minds of well-to-do adventurers and explorers for centuries. The bizarre weather, legends of foreboding ruins, and natives with unusual customs guarantee it a spot in the outside world's imagination. Of course those intrepid explorers rarely stay more than a day in any place of significant elevation, and hardly interact with the locals while on such expeditions, so the impressions have not been easily shed to reveal their more comprehensive truths. The peoples of the mountains are of chief concern in this respect.
"Oron'er" is a word of uncertain origin, used exclusively by outsiders to describe the mountains and their peoples. It may be a thorough corruption of an Esgodarran word or phrase, but etymologists are in disagreement over a plausible origin.² The native languages are in similar disagreement over what to call their home, owing to a remarkable density of dissimilar language groups and regional dialects on the mountains. There are thirty-two tribes accounted for in the mountains, twenty-one settled in mostly permanent villages and the remaining eleven existing pastorally and semi-nomadically, often in much smaller numbers than their more sedentary kin. In either case of habitation, livelihood follows a strict cycle of movement back and forth between lowland grazing of sheep and collection of water in the winter, and intensive handicraft and foraging during the relatively easier months of spring and fall higher up in the mountains. The interrupting summer is legendarily dry and brutal, and tribes typically hunker down in earthen places where water may be stored for the duration. Outsiders unwisely visiting the mountains in the middle of summer have remarked at the apparent laziness of the Oron'er peoples trying to keep cool, and this stereotype has persisted for some time.
Only the day keeps them away from the outside, however. For the summer nights on those peaks make the tribes privy to some of the most spectacular celestial shows known to the southwest. Comets, meteorite showers, and the occasional green sunset or purple sunrise are known to the watchers on the peaks, and they observe these natural phenomena with religious dedication. Quite unlike several lowland cultures who deem such sights to be omens of nameless dread, the people of the Oron'er Mountains see them as glimpses into the larger truth of the world, and what lies beyond the world. It is something which virtually all tribes engage in, often in wordless or gesticulating cooperation with one another. For though they remain highly distinct in language and aesthetic and material culture, the tribes each seem to share a single major aspect of religion.
The mountain people believe in one god, or at least one god who matters. Its names are as varied as their languages, but for the sake of simplicity in this article it shall be referred to by the name taken from the northeastern Au-ed tribe, most well-known to Ersuun peoples. This name is Tallash, or Tayyash, derived from a contraction between the words "tai" and "yash", meaning "the helper". The worship of Tallash is therefore Tallash Yai, meaning "the law of the helper", or "acting in accordance with the helper". While they lack a formal term of religious self-identification, the Au-ed refer to those among them deemed most righteous and pious as a Pritush, or "friend".
Tallash is unusual, as far as Gods of a monotheistic bent in the wider world are concerned. It is without a more human avatar or identity, and its worshipers have remarkably little in the way of symbolism for it or artistic depictions of it. It is not omnipresent, nor is it omnipotent, nor even omniscient. But it is omnibenevolent, having the interests of the entire world at heart. To follow Tallash Yai is to be kind to strangers, generous to the destitute, merciful to one's enemies, and tireless in the pursuit of compromise between disparate groups (such as other mountain tribes). Everything which may somewhat nebulously be referred to as good--compassion, achievement, peace, well-being, beauty, etc--is an expression of Tallash's nature, brought about upon the mortal sphere through the actions of people. Every act or event of violence, greed, petty malice, and apathy is a shortcoming of the Pritush, and by extension a failing of Tallash to protect its beloved friends from all which is Beyond.
"Beyond" is a concept which is difficult for scholars and knowledge-seekers to illuminate in the context of the Tallash faith, because the Oron'er natives' boiled-down explanations of their own beliefs tend to stop at that point, with any deeper elaboration kept tight-lipped until the nosy and more than likely badly dehydrated traveler finally gives up and continues on their way. To remedy this, we must regrettably turn to a sole and uncorroborated source which otherwise records just such a theological exchange in remarkable detail. I write of course of one of the four commonly dismissed chapters of the travel chronicles of Sarq of Nambar (not to be confused with the modern notable Sark ad-an-Rish, also of Nambar, but several decades Sarq's junior). While Sarq conducted his thorough interviews, the transcription and publication itself was done by his friend and constant companion Isha. Considering her otherwise impeccable track record and her quite vocal stance on the taking of academic liberties in Nambar's sister-city of Deneroth³, it was perhaps too hasty for the last generation of scholars to deem this and other chapters to be entirely fictive for having merely been the first to report on the matter. Despite its common omission from most modern publications of the Travel Chronicles, the libraries of the Ivory Tower are in possession of one unedited copy.
Sarq arived in Au-ed very late in the fall. It was uncharacteristically damp and chilly for the locals and Nambar natives alike, but there was much activity as the various herders and traders prepared for the move down into the milder foothills for the winter. The interview was conducted with one Pritush named Dodol, a respected elder who was said to have surpassed eighty years of age at the time. He was a small and scrawny man, his small size exaggerated even further by how he tightly tucked himself up into a ball in his blanket in the center of the large room in which he and Sarq were meeting. Apparently at Sarq's subsequent urging, a footnote was made using Dodol's smallness in the vastness of his chamber, surrounded by bustling people going about their own business and paying him and Sarq no heed in that moment, as an appropriate metaphor for the state of the world in Oron'er cosmology.
Dodol explained that in the beginning, there was no earth or water, only a sky which was not a sky, because it had nothing else to differentiate itself from. It was a vast gulf of darkness and emptiness, filled not with matter but with sound. The sounds of planetoid flies buzzing about the rotting corpses of still-singing whales, and of laughter coming from things unseen and best left unseen. Then, at some point in that pointless, timeless time, form came into being. Through utter chance, shape and physicality was granted to the void, filling it in pockets and around the edges. Dust and smoke coalesced into worlds and living things, and their primeval blood and sweat became the waters and seas. They existed in base savagery, pack slaughtering pack, mother devouring child, and maddened dances occasionally attracting the attention of the formerly formless things from Beyond, much to the mortal's detriment. But just as random chance created the uncaring and brutish cosmic vastness, so too was it able to create something gentle.
Tallash was once one of those nameless things adrift on the astral winds, fathomless in its intent as it went about business which was oblivious to and dangerously heedless of everything lesser than it, which was everything. Until it happened upon the bedraggled animals clinging fruitlessly to the rock which we all now call home. Detached pity was inspired in it, then sympathy, and then true, heart-rending empathy, which drove it to take the whole of the world in its embrace finally. It nurtured us like children, sheltering us from the outer dark and crooning soft, accepting encouragement to us. We listened--plant, animal, and human alike--and so were raised from our earlier darkness. But we were not illuminated per se. For the Beyond remained a terrible place for things of soft flesh and fragile mind such as ourselves, and Tallash sought to shelter us from it, lest this small hope of order and tranquility be dashed upon the rocks of the deep, dark ocean.
Grief came when newly-named Tallash witnessed just that. One of its kin, passing through on a mindless ellipse of destruction, wrought misery upon the world with claws of fire and tendrils of despair. It was so great a pain to Tallash, to fail in its newly-chosen duty, that it trembled and wept for an eon. Tallash stopped when it had shaken itself to bits, forming the sky above, and the celestial sphere beyond. It shielded us more thoroughly now than ever before, and all later incursions would wound it but not aggrieve it, for it now placed itself utterly in harm's way for the sake of its chosen friends, bolstering its resolve with every fair or foul result. And a compact was made between the oldest Pritush and Tallash, ensuring that when the mortal coil released each life, it would ascend to the vault of the world and merge with the great tapestry of Tallash, joining it in its ceaseless vigil against the outer dark. Every death strengthens its aegis, and every life well-lived ensures a better world left behind than that which was entered into. And so the comets and other heavenly lights glimpsed in the late summer nights are messages from Tallash itself, continued guidance and encouragement from sent by it, our first and oldest Friend.
The core teaching of Tallash Yai seems then to be one of comforting bittersweetness:
The world is a cold and uncaring place, fraught with danger and meaningless loss.
¹ "Civilization" referring here to any and all settled areas characterized by predominantly stone architecture, over-reliance upon underwear, and a predilection toward breeding endearingly useless household pets.
² This is somewhat of an assumption on the part of the writer, since the Board of Interpreters & Linguists has not been in session since the divisive and chaotic Lavatory Sign Crisis two semesters ago.
³ This brief former partnership between cities of scholastic emphasis is typically thought to be best left forgotten in the present, but it still represents an honest attempt by diverse parties to connect the intellectual world in ways which it has not been for over four hundred years. Perhaps the ITU should step away from its self-identification as the "lone shining candle of learning", and examine the evidence of a bonfire burning outside its doorstep.