by Chris L'Etoile, Eri Izawa, and Chris Pierson
Toward the end of the Isparian year, the weather shifts across the whole of the Ironsea.
In the Aluvian lands, the days grow shorter. In the northernmost regions, day can last but a few hours. The northern horizon, however, blazes with the annual auroral fires. Mothers tell their children that this light comes from King Borimel's palace in the wastes. According to this children's fable, he takes pity upon the benighted mortals to the south, and so illuminates the sky as best he can. The grim and superstitious Milantans, to the south and east, regard the shimmering sky with fear, thinking of the aurora as the watchfires of Borimel's million snow demons, marching south to wrest control of the summer lands.
In this time of cold, the Aluvians celebrate the Solstice, that day of the year in which the night lasts longest. The Aluvians respond to the oppressive darkness and feeling of isolation by gathering together in good cheer. Illuminating their houses with colorful candles, they prepare the harvest into vast feasts. During the Solstice, all Aluvian towns are warmly lit, and the normally cagey northerners make a habit of cooking hearty food for one another, buying one another strong drink, and sharing both around the hearth . . . accompanied by the funniest jokes of the preceding year. The monastic orders of Tirius the Lightbringer, Solvus Mistdweller, and the Dark Lady Meerthus walk abroad in their dun robes, distributing food and the blessings of their aspect of the Triple Mother.
Travelers in the Aluvian Kingdom will find themselves treated to their fill of food and drink, with no payment asked. For the Aluvians, Solstice is the time of brotherhood.
To the south and west, on the far shore of the Ironsea from Aluvia, the howling storm-winds called the Djinaya begin to gust across the Naqut desert. The Djinaya bring with them a period the Gharun'dim call the Dusk, for the flying sand catches the light of the sun, and filters it into a dim and ruddy memory of itself. Only the boldest and most skilled mages venture out into the disorienting, blinding sandstorms. To aid travelers, the Gharun'dim erect oil lamps along their streets and near the gates of their towns. These burn with a bright, clear blue light that can be seen through the harshest weather.
The Ghaun'dim celebrate the Night Feast at this time, offering shelter and hospitality to any brave enough to go visiting. During the day, men and women shut in by the storms spend their time in prayer and reflection -- prayer for fortune in the coming year, and reflection on the failings and triumphs of the preceding one. As the poet says, wisdom can be found only in quiet places. Each evening, however, the entire populations of Gharun'dim towns dress in their finest garments and gather in the marketplace. Food and drink are shared, and the most accomplished storytellers stand before the assembled host, telling wild tales of magic, whimsy, and romance for the amusement of the feasters.
Those traveling in the Gharun'dim lands during the Dusk will be warmly welcomed in any home, and invited to share a cup of palm wine and a tale. For the Gharun'dim, Night Feast is a time for storytelling and contemplation.
South and west of the Naqut, over the tall mountains, the Sho lands brace as both the water and the air grow cold. The weather can shift with little warning from clear skies to torrential, wind-driven rains that leave towns flooded and in ruins, and on the coldest days, snow falls from the sky and blankets the ground in a thin layer of white. Some say the first pure snow of the year is the funeral ashes of the Wind Dragon, slain so long ago by Shou-Jen.
During this time, the Imperial Capital traditionally threw open its gates, and the last of the fresh harvest was brought forth, after the bulk had been pickled, smoked, or dried for the rest of the winter. But seeing that many used the time purely for culinary excess, Emperor Kou, the founder of the Kou Dynasty, saw that wisdom's touch was needed. Believing that the Four Stones of discipline, compassion, detachment, and humility were the true foods of the soul, he decreed the celebrations must ultimately honor the Elder Spirits and the teachings of Jojii, for without truth, even the best of harvests means very little. He also decreed that the temples must release their students and acolytes during the celebration, not only to reunite families but also to permit them to glean wisdom from their students' studies.
So the temples and monasteries across the land now release their students and acolytes, who travel homeward amidst the first snowflakes to meet their families, share some of their hard-won knowledge, and enjoy days of feasting. Travelers began carrying lanterns and torches, and the waiting towns would welcome them home with a myriad of bright paper lanterns. Children too young for the monasteries especially seem to enjoy the season, when their elder siblings return home and all can engage in the festivities together. Some towns have gone so far as to host parades, celebrating the return of loved ones and another year of abundance. Thus, the Festival of Lights, starting at first as a gluttonous spectacle, grew moderated by wisdom, and came to be the celebration it now is.
The Sho lands are bright and bustling places during this season, with small groups of torchbearers walking the roads. For the Sho, the Festival of Lights is a time to accomplish great things, and reach out to assist one's neighbors.