When one pictures berserkers, the most likely figures to come to mind are tall, caucasian, often blond, generally male, and with a tendency to be somewhat crazed on account of consuming particularly potent mushrooms, alcohol, or even crushed henbane if you know your botany well enough. There’s that wonderful chess piece of a man nibbling on his shield, for example. The Berserkers of Zàhn Kwēn, however, are very much unlike this in general. They may be taller than their mountain cousins, but they lack the thin, lithe bodies of the Illusionists who still live in the undergrowth. Genetically they’re more likely to have light brown hair than blond, males and females alike can take the Transformation, and they have light brown skin and epicanthic folds. More to the point, when they enter the Berserker State (Changuyan hāu) it’s not through the use of any form of intoxicant; it’s a natural process, their Gift, and it’s brought on by adrenaline. And it’s less an “I have no fear of death or maiming” and more a “my body is indestructible and I’m itching for a fight” type of situation. It also glows, usually red with purple splotches upon impact, and looks more like carbon fibre (or the surface of a palantír) than anything else; the eyes are normally coal-black, seeming to leach light from their surroundings. It’s a scary look.
That said, it’s not as though they don’t need it. The Zanguenese Peninsula isn’t exactly the most hospitable place in the world. Most of the southwest is given over to an ancient desert, with sparse leaf-grasses becoming more prominent as one works one’s way eastward. These steppes stretch into the north–perfect for grazing animals like horses, but a little sparse to do much with. Along the eastern coast, on the other hand, stretches a lush tropical savanna climate, with the occasional monsoon area–but it’s still in a bit of a pickle, as it’s situated right in the path of the equatorial currents, bringing hurricane after hurricane year after year. On the northernmost tip of the peninsula, as well as on the large island of Nek and in the archipelago-state of Dut Zàhn to the west, lies a relatively small but substantial tropical rainforest. Rivers crisscross the land, but until about eight hundred years ago they were some of the most dangerous places on the subcontinent–for they were (and still are) full to the brim with river lions (telmalycus affabilis), which look like predatory tapirs and are distant cousins to the great leviathansout in the open ocean. Their neighbours aren’t so nice either, to be honest. To the east lies the Whirlwind Empire (named for its heartland, the Whirlwind Plains, an area roughly the size of Kazakhstan with the highest tornado-per-year ratio in the world; the inhabitants either burrow underground a lot or are tough enough to survive potentially being sucked into one of the cyclones, and the natives are of the latter persuasion). To the west lies the near-impenetrable jungle of Akwa, where some of the most fearsome creatures known to humanity still abound. And to the south lies the Collective, where the hives of the Sane People have a tendency to take apart travellers or refugees and incorporate them into their communities one way or another (be that as information, as a power source for their golems, or as dinner).
And yet the people of the peninsula are less warlike than they are mercantile, or at least they see nothing wrong with combining the two pursuits. Attempt after attempt was made over the three millennia of Berserker history to unify the subcontinent through war, and one or two came close, but that was nothing compared to the profits that could be made from trade. The ten nations of Zàhn Kwēn each speak a different “dialect” descended from Classical Zanguenese, and each has carved out its own trading empire somewhere in the world. The largest of these is that of Chān Guy, which has trading colonies all the way across the northern coast of Akwa–as far away as Wān Zàhn on the Omiri River Delta, sharing the space with the Salvians and the Crusaders of Hercua. (The names on the map, as well as the name of the peninsula itself, are all in Changuyan for this reason.) Nowadays the nations still fight, and with the resources from their colonies the fights are getting more and more advanced as time goes on, but it’s less for conquest and more for a show of strength. Still, woe betide anyone who doesn’t fear a global war with Berserkers on both sides…
Tribes in Zàhn Kwēn are divided by phratries, in effect lines of work that one can choose to go into. Someone from the Zi clan (one of the oldest), for example, would historically have been a teacher for their tribe, gathering knowledge and passing it on. Under the empire they could have chosen that profession, but they would also be allowed to branch into the legal system (an obvious jump), glassblowing (not strictly related, but taken under the wing of the judicial class about fifteen hundred years ago and they haven’t let go of them yet), seal-making (essential for business dealings), armour-making (essential for when business breaks down, although it’s mainly made for their mounts), or smithing in general (a good way to keep power concentrated). Nowadays, the lines have become somewhat blurred, with the invention of guilds and the slow switch to a neolocal rather than matrilocal family, but for the most part people stay within their phratry, and go to war or trade as they so desire. Traditionally, men have gone to fight while women have protected the home (be that the yurt, caravan, or housing complex); equality of the sexes has gone back and forth quite a bit over the generations, but has trended towards a more even ratio than in most societies, in no small part because women’s hāu-forms are just as strong as those of the men (and they hit hard). Lines are matrilineal; a man will pass his wealth not to his own children, but to his sister’s children.
Not to be forgotten is the small but substantial population of Illusionists, the original inhabitants of the Peninsula before the Berserkers came rushing in. Their Gift is the ability to reach into the Dream and pull out images as a defence mechanism, and usually occurs in about a third of the population at a time. Those on the island of Nek, and in the country of Deht Dón, worship four gods, keep their women in common-use harems (associated with one deity or another), have compulsory homosexuality, and are some of the most superb sailors on this side of Akwa.
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