One of the things I like to think about when designing a culture is what they dream of. The nobles of Mordheim dream of a united empire, and the Ashkel of olden days, et cetera. In real life, one of our fondest dreams is of flying. From Jules Verne to Superman, we want to sail through the skies, preferably under our own power. So what does a race like the Raptorans, who can do that naturally dream about? What if they looked higher? Astronomers and hunters, the Zara look up and want to fly even higher.
The Zara, the short version:
Zaran life can be summed up in two words. Look up. In war, in peace, in magic, and in love, they look up. Soaring above most other races, they devote their time to the sky and the stars.
The Zara live in the sky between the cliffs and the stars. They fish in mountain streams, hunt in the air, and are guided by the stars. It’s possible for a Zara to spend her entire life in the mountain tops and cliffsides, never touching the soil. This is mirrored in their society, every tribe having three chiefs. A Cliff Chief (Tolka), who manages the affairs in the cliffsides. A Sky Chief (Sorgun), who organizes both hunts and warfare, and a Star Chief (Kozan), who leads the tribe in magic and ritual. These chiefs appoint seconds, and act as the head of the hierarchy, only sitting together during feast days and rites due to the busy nature of their jobs.
There are sub-chiefs as well, almost guild leaders, such as the craftsmen, the healers, the skymages, leaders of factions that sometimes span tribes, gathering in spires, aeries, or cliff-dwellings to decide policy on their own before presenting it to their respective chiefs. There are many tribes of the Zara, each with their own set of chiefs, though they have been known to elect a chief of chiefs in certain circumstances, such as Sorgun Savas when the armies of Xiang marched through their territories, and Tolka Kangal during the great winter famine three years past.
The Zara have two kinds of faith, neither exclusive. There are those who revere the stars, embracing the guidance of the Zara who have gone beyond and drawing strength from the history of their people, and those who revere the air, reminding themselves of the duties to the Lords of Air they have had since the Fall. It’s possible to embrace both traditions, and some do, most religious dictates being held by tribe, rather than individual choice. When Zara war against Zara, they do so in the name of the gods, working to expunge those who have forgotten their compact, in the name of vengeance for forgotten ancestors. Faith is a constant source of tension between tribes, making the Kozan especially important in inter-tribal relations.
Zara believe that, when they die, they ascend and join their ancestors as a star in the night sky, with the exception of the Skypledged, whose spirits go to the Lords of Air to fulfill the ancient compact. Many Skypledged don’t even wait to die, finding ways of travelling to the home of the Lords of Air and serving them in life. Such individuals are thought to be released from the pact in death, and sent to the stars.
Once, before time began, the Zara flew. Mighty mages and warriors, they lived in great cities which sailed above the landscape. The world lived in their shadow. Their ancestors went neglected as they lorded their wealth and splendour over the lesser races. Look up, and you will see the Zara. They had bound mighty air elementals to keep their cities afloat, but their pride and carelessness were their undoing. A sorcerer of the earthbound races undid their bindings, freeing the elementals they held prisoner, and the Zara began to fall. Their greatest city, Ankara, was held up by one of the Lords of Air itself, and when freed, it returned to the Zara not to avenge itself, but to forgive them. It made them an offer. They might fly from their cities and rise on their own wings, but they would never again be city builders, never again would they take another into bondage. Some of them agreed, some did not. What happened to those who declined is the source of much wondering, but those who accepted now soar the skies, the last of the Zara. Look up, and you will see them.
The memory of this is the cause of one of the most important Zaran rituals, that of the earthbound walk. During their adolescence, many Zara who seek a place in the chiefdom will undergo it, walking the earth instead of flying, to show their humility. Being among the other races, rather than above them. While there, they are to seek out something of value and return it to their tribe, some piece of knowledge that will improve the lives of their family members.
Zara at War:
The people with whom the Zara war most are each other, tribes fighting over territory and differences, though the past few centuries have seen a new enemy, the driders who live in the depths of the mountains. Each one a dangerous creature of might and magic, the driders are climbers, occasionally scaling the cliffs in force to seize Zaran goods and even children, raising them as slaves in the caves where the Zara dare not go. The harpies of the grey cliffs, and the gargoyles from the Madjan are often trouble, but their animosity is far less focused than that of the dark climbers.
Zaran warfare is traditionally conducted from above, using formations of footbows and diving charges to descend on their quarry as the eagle takes his prey. Led by the tribe’s Sorgun, they use their flight to drop climbers tio their deaths, and use their numbers to overcome flying enemies.
Magic among the Zara:
Magic, whether arcane or divine, is usually the province of the Startouched, those who honour their ancestors and receive power from them, either by acting as their conduit to the world,or by analyzing their various forms of being in the night. Because of this perception, magic has an honoured place among all the tribes of the Zara, as it has always been an integral part of their lives. Moreover, magic still permeates every aspect of their lives, from assisting weaker fliers on extended hunting trips, to divining the will of the ancestors, to providing cover for their warriors.
The Zara and other races:
The Zara had lived in the mountains for quite a while before they had any contact with other races, an advantage of having dwellings that are difficult for earthbound races to get to. Still, they’ve lived in the mountains a long time, and various tribes have conducted various races. Some of the northern tribes used to conduct business with the people of Earth, though they’ve long since vanished. Those in the south are staunch allies of the people of Water, trading and even enjoying the fruits of some of their scholarship. Those in the east occasionally war with the many tribes of the people of Fire, raining death from above on their multitudinous lines. Other races come and go, though few are welcomed into the spires.