Taopai

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Taopai
Country Information
Ethnic Groups: Native human (70%), ethnic Pangui (15%), Ethnic Xiunlan (5%), Other foreign human (4%), Half-elf (3%), Elf (2%), Other (1%)
Religion: The Celestial Dragons, Polytheism, Animism
Government: Loose organization based on geography, family, crafts, and interests.
Current Ruler: No central ruler
Population: Approx. 2,000,000


Taopai is a large island in The Far East and sits in the ocean southeast of Panguro. Called "The Land of a Thousand Harbors," it has been a seafaring society since ancient times. Taopai's coastline is very hospitable, with few reefs or treacherous rocks and many friendly coves and inlets. Taopai's natives consider it to be quite literally paradise, thanks in part to its abundant natural resources.

Taopai is an anarchy with a gift economy and a strongly socially-oriented society. The population is concentrated along the coast, with strange magical effects rendering the inland inhospitable. The strange nature of the inland has led to another native name for Taopai: "The Edge of the World."

The word "Taopai" literally means both "The Five Paths" and "The Real Paths," and refers to the mythical exodus of all the world's humanoids from the island. The adjective form is "Taopei," and is used to refer to the people and the native language, which is similar to Nipangui and Xuinlani.

History

According to Taopei legend, Taopai was the birthplace of all humanoid races. The destiny of these races was to set out from Taopai to the five corners of the earth. Most did so, setting off as families. Where they landed, the patriarchs and matriarchs of the families became kings and queens, and nations formed. Those left behind in Taopai were the people too lazy or easygoing to find their own place, so they chose to remain in paradise. The Taopei are not generally proud of living in paradise; instead, they have a rather sheepish and apologetic air toward foreigners, and regard people in other lands as impressive and brave (if a bit foolhardy) for daring to live elsewhere.

Taopai is a very peaceful country, but at times outsiders have tried to take advantage of the island's abundant resources. The Taopei people welcome outsiders who come in peace, but when people come aggressively, many natives will band together to fight them. Taipei armies are rather disorganized, with an ad-hoc chain of command based on skill, experience, and age. However, the high level of magic combined with large numbers of kweitai and mundane martial artists means that Taopai has rarely been successfully invaded. On the few occasions that it has, the conquerers have been integrated with the population in only a few generations.

Geographical Features

Taopai is a large island in the ocean about several days southeast of the Panguro continental shelf, with an area of approximately 75,000 square kilometers. It has a corrugated, hospitable coastline with hundreds of harbors, coves, and navigable inlets. The land near the coast is very low, resulting in broad marshes and wetlands. Cities form in dryer regions, while small towns usually perch on stilts over the marshes where rice and other crops are grown.

Further inland, the land rises to form forested mountains. These mountains are home to dramatic and violent magical storms and strange distortions of reality. See the MAGIC AND THE SUPERNATURAL section for more details. The foothills of the mountains are home to very productive silver mines, although the magical oddities tend to make miners' lives interesting.

Geologically speaking, Taopai has much in common with a volcanic island. However, the land formations are not caused by a hot spot in the crust below, but rather by the intense magical forces present in the heart of the mountains.

The Taopei do not have horses except as foreign curiosities. For travel through the marshy regions, the natives use broad, bowl-shaped boats and domesticated giant sea turtles that are big enough to carry two people. For sea travel, the Taopei use large, broad, flat-bottomed ships with junk sails.

Flora and Fauna

The waters around Taopai are teeming with marine life: large crabs several feet in diameter, glistening schools of fish, friendly dolphins, and giant sea turtles. According to the Taopei people, the dolphins in their waters are as intelligent as humanoids, although their minds are so foreign that communication is impossible. The giant sea turtles have long been domesticated, and serve as riding animals, beasts of burden, and food. In the cold-water kelp forests in the sea away from the island there are schools of Hóuzi yú:unintelligent, scaly fish-creatures shaped vaguely like monkeys, who feed on clams and small fish. Legend has it that these were once people who attempted to conquer Taopai. When their ships were sunk, they changed so that they could breathe water and survive.

The marshy lowlands of Taopai are full of tall grasses, bamboo, and gnarled trees with loose bark that is used to make paper. Rice, the staple of the Taopei diet, grows wild here, as well as plum and other fruit trees. The vital spice schaifei is made from the oversized stamen of a climbing vine with brilliant purple flowers. Wetter bogs are often full of a berry very similar to the cranberry found in colder climates.

The wetlands are occupied year-round by flocks of dumb waterfowl called schikukao, which are similar in size to the duck but have a pointed beak. They are popular for food. The giant sea turtles often come inland, and there are also many kinds of native frogs and insects. There are no native large mammals; the largest is an aquatic woodchuck-like rodent the size of a large dog. The depths of the bamboo forests tend to be home to a dumb, vicious, humanoid amphibian that lurks beneath the water to leap out at unsuspecting passersby.

The mountains are covered in dense forests of black-barked trees. A dramatic variety of mushrooms and other edible fungi is scattered over the forest floor. The higher one gets into the mountains, the stranger the plants become: floating trees, vines made of gold, and mushrooms that will turn you invisible. It's said among those who have explored the more unhinged depths of the forest that the plants are often more dangerous than the animals.

The mountains are home to a variety of birds and insects. The most dramatic creature is the hu schiwei,an enormous flightless insect which strides taller than the trees, with massive legs and a tiny body. It feeds on the uppermost flowers of certain large-blossomed trees. These forests are also home to the Yukao, the mysterious and strange magical race that seems to be able to withstand the reality-bending magic of the mountain heights better than humanoids can.

The magical stresses of the Taopai environment tend to occasionally enlarge creatures to titanic size. It's not unheard of for an enormous sea turtle, several stories tall, to emerge from the depths and approach a city, at which point the city's kweitai warriors (and a few kweitai fishermen and turtle-herders) will band together to defeat the menace.

Government and Politics

Taopai has no centralized government, and no commerce in the capitalistic sense. Age and experience are valued highly, and elders are often consulted when guidance is needed, but they have no true authority. The Taopei consider each family, each group of friends, and each neighborhood to be its own entity, and any member of a group can speak for the whole with the understanding that other members of the group may disagree.

Crime is relatively rare in Taopai for several reasons. First, the Taopei generally do not see ownership as something set in stone. As long as something is not used often or required for health, it is seen as something temporary. Someone who "steals" money or food from a well-off person is likely to get away with it simply because the "victim" won't particularly mind. Additionally, the Taopai have a very strong sense of community. To be hurtful or rude is regarded as intensely shameful, and to do so in public would be akin to walking around naked in other cultures.

Crime does sometimes happen, though. Murders and major thefts occur. When this happens, local dojos typically work together to identify and apprehend the culprit, and the criminal's fate is decided by an impromptu court of whoever happens to be nearby at the time. Punishments usually involve public humiliation and/or intense physical discomfort, but criminals are rarely killed or maimed unless they are unrepentant repeat-offenders.

The Taopei do not buy and sell goods as such. An outsider observing Taopei commerce might label it "bartering," as natives typically exchange goods. However, a Taopei craftsman would be likely to give a visitor his goods for free, if he can spare them. The exchange is only out of a sense of social obligation, so that one is not being a burden on one's neighbors.

Foreign trade is more traditionally capitalistic, as the Taopei recognize both the benefits that this sort of trade brings to them and the lack of understanding of other cultures of the Taopei economy. Trading "companies" form among the Taopei to share resources for foreign trade, but these are typically loose associations of friends, family, and colleagues and are not bound internally by contract.

Each Taopei considers herself a representative of the nation, able to make treaties and negotiate on its behalf. These agreements are usually honored unless doing so is considered an undue burden by an individual affected by the pact, in which case the individual will respectfully decline and think nothing of doing so.

The Taopei do have a great fascination with the idea of government, however, and will freely assign honorary titles and positions. These titles are usually honored as if in a game of playacting, to the extent that a person declared Daimyo of Suei might issue light-hearted commands to the residents of Suei, which would be obeyed as if they were orders in a game of Simon Says.

The Taopei believe foreign governments to be the formalized and distorted remnants of the familial structures of the groups that originally settled the nations. In the Taopei language, the word for "monarch" is nearly identical to the word for "parent," and a Taopei native would speak of an Arangothian as being "a child of Arangoth."

Military

Taopai is a very peaceful country, but at times outsiders have tried to take advantage of the island's abundant resources. The Taopei people welcome outsiders who come in peace, but when people come aggressively, many natives will band together to fight them. Taipei armies are rather disorganized, with an ad-hoc chain of command based on skill, experience, and age. However, the high level of magic combined with large numbers of kweitai and mundane martial artists means that Taopai has rarely been successfully invaded. On the few occasions that it has, the conquerors have been integrated with the population in only a few generations.

Taopei combat favors weapons that can be used as extensions of traditional unarmed martial arts. The budi is a bladed tonfa-like weapon, where the blade can lie against the arm or be turned and used as a sort of sword. There is also a native version of the katar, in both typical short-bladed and more unique long-bladed models. Many dancing implements, such as the yi and the hoops, have weaponized versions. Long spears are also used heavily, especially by fishermen who are already skilled at the use of fishing spears.

Taopei naval combat focuses primarily on boarding techniques. Taopei ships are swift, and will typically rush their enemies and board them before the enemies have a chance to defend.

Religion

Taopai has no native religion, as such. Many Taopei worship the Celestial Dragons popular in Panguro. A sort of lazy polytheism is also popular, where people worship twenty or a hundred different gods, some of them borrowed from other cultures. A visiting Arangothian would be surprised to find a distorted version of Menxvan worshiped as a snake god in one household and a sun god in the next.

Most native Taopei do subscribe to a unique spiritual belief system, however. According to Taopei legend, Taopai was the birthplace of all humanoid races. The destiny of these races was to set out from Taopai to the five corners of the earth. Most did so, setting off as families. Where they landed, the patriarchs and matriarchs of the families became kings and queens, and nations formed. Those left behind in Taopai were the people too lazy or easygoing to find their own place, so they chose to remain in paradise. The Taopei are not generally proud of living in paradise; instead, they have a rather sheepish and apologetic air toward foreigners, and regard people in other lands as impressive and brave (if a bit foolhardy) for daring to live elsewhere.

The number five and the fifth letter of the Taopei alphabet, "Tao," are considered mystically significant by many in Taopai. A sort of loose animism is a common belief, where elemental spirits inhabit the most mundane objects. The store of a particularly skilled cobbler, for example, may become a shrine to shoe spirits. Any natural spring is likely to have small offerings lying in it to the water spirits within.

According to Taopei animism, all people are connected with a force called kwei (lit. "the sea"). This is an energy that is shared between all sentient beings (and under Taopei animism, even rocks have sentient spirits associated with them). If everyone is happy and healthy, the kwei is strong, and the individual is more likely to do well. Likewise, if one person is at a disadvantage, others are likely to feel the weakening effect this has on the kwei. Some foreigners have mistranslated this concept as "ki" and called it the individual's "breath of life," but kwei is a collective spiritual property, not an individual source of power.

Society and Peoples

The Taopei do not see the humanoid races as distinct categories. Being a dwarf or an elf is just like having light or dark hair. Additionally, the local spice schaifei has mild effects on fertility, making interracial couples more likely to bear fertile offspring. The average Taopei native is shorter than an average human; has dusky-yellow skin; has black, red, or purple hair; and has slightly pointed ears. The range of features is wide, and no Taopei would consider a baby born with tusks or an adult under four feet tall to be remarkable. The Taopei tend to be vaguely aware that foreigners make racial distinctions, but tend to confuse which race is which.

Likewise, the Taopei see gender distinctions as unimportant. There is no distinctive clothing style for men or women, and most Taopei would identify as bisexual. While the Taopei recognize the existence of gender, and that only women can naturally bear a child, it is considered unimportant. There is no gender by default in the Taopei language, and to refer to a person as a man or a woman specifically would be regarded as oddly clinical, like someone being called "a male" or "a female." Like Arangoth, Taopai has a widely-known ritual that allows same-sex couples to create biological children. In the case of two men, the child requires a host mother, which is usually either a close friend of one of the men or one of the men's mother or sister.

Age plays an important role in Taopei society. Older people are automatically assumed to be more experienced and smarter. It is very difficult for a person not in middle age to be regarded as fully skilled in her field. As a result, many talented young people try desperately to be recognized for their abilities. This enthusiasm is often regarded with patronizing humor by older people.

Cultural and Fine Arts

The Taopei love bright colors, strong flavors, and loud music. They tend to freely mix these things in ways that would baffle western sensibilities; there is no concept in Taopai of colors "clashing." A Taopei saying states that "no pot is ever fully seasoned."

The Taopei have an intense love of all things foreign, due in part to their belief that all foreign people once came from Taopai.

Domestic and Visual Arts

Taopei fashion tends toward loose-fitting robes of multiple bright colors, especially reds, oranges, and purples. When it is convenient to do so, Taopei will wear elaborate hats or headdresses with creative and dramatic shapes. On warm days, it is common to strip robes down to topless sarongs or even nothing at all. The Taopei have no nudity taboo, and there is no gender distinction when it comes to fashion.

Taopei visual artwork is a combination of painting and embroidery. Carefully sewn quilts, pillows, and canvases are dyed and painted. Often, beads, sequins, and metal charms will be added once the paint has been applied. Mixed-media sculpture is the most common form of three-dimensional art.

Architecture

Taopei architecture tends toward the economical, with the most popular construction materials being bamboo, woven reeds, thick waterproofed paper, and clay tiles. Because most of the cities and towns are close to sea level -- indeed, many villages are in the middle of marshes -- most houses and other buildings are built on stilts for protection against floods. There are few large buildings except for tournament arenas and temples. These public buildings are often decorated incredibly ostentatiously, dripping with silver, mother-of-pearl, shells, and living flowers. The decoration of living flowers extends to many buildings; it is common for a house to have plants on the roof, with vines and flowers dangling over the edge for decoration. Small buildings tend to be square, with all sides the same length and one wall oriented parallel to the sea. Larger buildings tend to be a hollow square of structure surrounding an open central courtyard.

Food and Drink

Taopei food generally consists of strongly-spiced stews and salads paired with steamed rice or rice noodles. Most dishes will be simultaneously sweet, sour, savory, spicy, and aromatic, these being the "five elements" of Taopei cuisine. Common vegetables include seaweed, bamboo, green onions, and a variety of mild basil treated as a leaf vegetable. Common fruits include a sort of warm-climate cranberry, limes, and plums. Floral fragrances are often essential parts of Taopei dishes.

Common meats include fish, chicken, and wild game. The Taopei do not traditionally raise cattle or pigs, but as with everything else, there is a desire to try out foreign tastes, so these meats are available in limited quantities. Hu schiwei is a "twice-in-a-lifetime" traditional delicacy.

The national alcoholic drink is probably plum wine, of which there are a dizzying number of varieties. There are also rice beers. Alcohol is traditionally served in a stemless, nearly-spherical cup with a narrow opening. Imported drinks are wildly popular.

Performance Arts and Sports

Taopei music is very rhythmic, incorporating percussion sections that are often larger than the rest of the band. A traditional Taopei band would have two large differently-pitched drums called suschu, a set of five small bongo-like naopei, a small glockenspiel-shaped set of pitched cymbals called yuyei, a pair of crash cymbals (thuwao), a high-pitched flute (ki), a droning pipe called the nunao, and a single-stringed guitar called the fupei. For a piece of music to appeal to traditional Taopei sensibilities, it must first have a strong rhythm and be easy to dance to. Melody is almost an afterthought. Foreign instruments are often incorporated into traditional music.

Traditional Taopei minstrels, or pei, carry a kazoo (bi) which they hold in their mouths as they use a complex aggregate rhythm instrument called a taisuthai. Taisuthai are made by the individual pei, and are all different. They incorporate a number of rhythm instruments all connected together into a complex mass arranged and rearranged according to the pei's needs. A pei's routine will usually include interludes of pun-heavy standup comedy in addition to music. See the LANGUAGE section for more on Taopei puns.

Taopei dance is vigorous and a bit frenetic. Dancers will typically wear long, brightly-colored, flowing robes, and spinning moves are common. Dancers often incorporate canes, batons, hoops, and weights on the end of strings called yi. Yi are often doused in fuel and set alight. Sorcery and sleight of hand is commonly incorporated into dance routines. As a result of all this, Taopei dance performances are often dizzying walls of swirling lights and color.

Martial arts are a popular sport in Taopai, and there are many competing dojos that engage in popular tournaments. These tournaments have different divisions for kweitai and mundane fighters. The premiere martial event of the year is the Taopai Kweitai Championship, where top kweitai masters from across the island gather in the foothills to battle in a high-magic environment. The winner enjoys admiration and respect for the next year, and is showered with gifts and praise. The final matches of the championship are known to last for days, with combatants performing incredible feats.

Magic and the Supernatural

Taopai is a very magically strong land, like Panguro. Close to the coast, the environment is what scholars would call "high magic," where normal spells are enhanced and even untrained people can create magical effects by doing simple rituals. The further one goes up into the mountains, the more wild and unreliable the magic becomes. Near the peaks of the mountains, reality itself tends to break down, resulting in vivid illusions, magical storms, and the bending of space and time. The very peaks of the Taopei mountains are perpetually shrouded in magical fog, and the natives insist that the mountains have no peaks; they are outside of existence, and thus Taopai is the "edge of the world," the border between what is real and what is not. The mountains are seen as the primordial mists from which all humanoids emerged.

The wild magic is strictly limited to the mountains, while the "high magic" region extends less than a day by ship from the coast.

There are no records of anyone scaling the highest peaks of the Taopei mountains and returning to tell of it. However, there is a long tradition of Taopei mystics and explorers who go into the mountains and return with strange insights, often physically changed by the magics they encounter. The most popular folk story about the mountains tells of a castle deep inland where a hundred youths sleep with a 125 magical swords, each incapable of killing but infinitely sharp. If a quester enters the castle, takes a sword, and defeats 125 opponents in duels, that sword's youth will awake and marry the quester. There are documented accounts of people returning from the mountains with these swords, but none have survived long enough to defeat 125 opponents. The questing swords cannot kill, but the opponents' swords certainly can.

The mountains are home to magical creatures called Yukao that bear strong resemblance to the fairies and the fae of western lands. They are mischevious, powerful, and proud creatures who seem to be able to navigate the mountains much more easily than nonmagical humanoids. They have natural abilities of shapeshifting and illusion, and great wisdom.

Native Taopei spellcasters are mostly innate arcane casters called "lao" and are similar to what are often called "sorcerers" in western lands. They are born with magical abilities, and they tend to focus on elemental magic, manipulating fire, water, earth, and pure energies. In the high-magic environment of Taopai, lao are capable of great magical feats, but away from their homeland, they tend to less powerful than foreign casters.

There are also practitioners called "kweitai" who manupulate the kwei life force to achieve feats of great skill. The most dramatic of these are kweitai warriors, who are said to be able to crush boulders with a punch, fire beams of pure kwei energy from their hands, and in the high-magic environment of the mountains, even fly. However, the kweitai techniques can be applied to any trade, and it is not unusual to see exhibitions of supernatural cooking ability or dance. Like the lao abilities, kweitai abilities are weaker away from Taopai, but foreigners would still find the strength and skill of kweitai to be impressive and beyond the limits of natural talent.

Because magic is so strong in Taopai, everyday people can cast simple spells. Bookstores typically have a small section of spellbooks, and anyone can buy one, speak the words within, and perform simple tasks like cleaning their house or speaking with weak spirits. These spells do not work outside if Taopai.

As with many things, the Taopei people's love of foreign practices causes there to be many native practitioners of foreign arts.

Language

The Taopei language is constructed from an abugida, or alphasyllabary, where each character consists of a consonant with a vowel attached. There are five vowels and fifteen consonants. The consonants are divided into five groups of three, and meanings are assigned to each consonant and vowel. The meaning of a word's syllables does not always correspond to the meaning of the word as a whole, but it often is related. This is a similar concept to western numerology.

The Taopei take great delight in a sort of punning based on the relationship between a word's meaning and its syllables' meanings. For instance, the term "daimyo" is a source of great amusement. It is borrowed from Nipangui, and is used to refer to people holding honorary positions of power. It is rendered in the Taopei tongue as "DAI-MYAO," which can be interpreted as "becoming white (clean) forever." This appeals to the anarchist Taopei's befuddlement at the idea that a person can be deserving of respect in all situations.

Vowels, Their Pronunciations, and Their Meanings

U "oo" Quality. For example, "du" is the adjective "white."
I "ee" Direction. For example, "hi" is roughly southwest.
AI "ah-ee" Process. For example, "wai" is sickness, the process of dying.
EI "ay" Source. For example, "kwei" is the sea, the source of water.
AO "ah-oh" Result or Pure Form. For example, "pao" is fire.

Consonants

There are five categories of consonants, each corresponding to an element. The first consonant in the group corresponds to the element's primary form. The second corresponds to its diluted, worldly form and its associated color. The third refers to the element's negative form or opposite.

The following are the consonants, organized into groups and with their respective meanings.

T D TH Being, White, Never-been
P B F Fire, Red, Cold
S SH SCH* Earth, Green, Air
K H** W Water, Blue, Death
Y L N/M Magic, Yellow, Permanence

  • The Taopei "SCH" sound is like a combination between the English "sh" and "ch," as if saying freSH CHeese.
    • The Taopei "H" is the IPA sound X, like the Spanish H or Scottish CH.

Combinations

Generally, the combination of a consonant and a vowel is straightforward. T + AO = TAO. However, there are occasional exceptions. For example, K + EI is pronounced "kwei," and M + AO is pronounced "myo." All native Taopei words are made up of full syllables, but many foreign words require independent vowels. This can be indicated by writing the vowel symbol unconnected to a consonant.

For instance, Arangoth is rendered in the Taopei abugida as "AoleiHaothai:" AO L+EI H+AO TH+AI

Vocabulary

  • bi - a kazoo-like instrument
  • budi - a bladed tonfa-like weapon
  • fupei - a single-stringed, fretless guitar
  • ki - a high-pitched flute
  • kwei - sea; also the sentient life force
  • kweitai - a supernatural master of a trade
  • lao - a sort of elemental sorcerer
  • lwei - harbor
  • naopei - small, pitched drums like bongos that come in a connected ring of five
  • nunao - a droning pipe, similar to a digeridoo
  • pei - traveling minstrel
  • schaifei - a native aromatic spice, used in the steaming of almost all rice. Has a side effect of enhancing fertility between dissimilar humanoid races.
  • scheikao - domesticated sea turtle
  • schikukao - a waterfowl like a duck without the flat bill, popular for food.
  • suschu - large, pitched drums like tympanis
  • taisuthai - a personal aggregate rhythm instrument of a pei
  • thuwao - crash cymbals
  • weisikao - spider
  • yi - weights on strings used during dancing
  • Yukao - fae-like magical beings
  • yuyei - a set of small, pitched cymbals arranged like a glockenspiel

A Taopai Folk Tale

FAO HEI'S LOVE

Before you were born, a person named Fao Hei lived in the city of Thao. He would go out on the boats in the morning, and return with baskets full of fish in the evening. His spear struck like lightning, and the fish came to him like children to a pastry shop. But Fao Hei was sad.

Fao Hei was sad because he was in love, but he did not know who he was in love with. Every morning he set out with longing in his heart, and every evening he returned to an empty house. He laid with many people, but he recognized none of them as his love. Finally, he decided his love did not exist.

This lifted his spirits, for he knew where to find things that did not exist. He took up his fishing spear and began walking into the mountains, where non-existence was.

As he entered the trees, Fao Hei heard a small voice. He looked down, and there was a tiny worm crawling beside him, keeping pace with his long strides. The worm said, "Fao Hei, why are you going into the mountains? Your people stay by the coast."

Fao Hei knew that this creature must be a Yukao, one of the creatures that live in the forest and are both real and not. He respectfully nodded to it as he walked, and replied, "I am looking for my love. I think he does not exist, so I am going to find him."

The Yukao nodded, and it was now a tall person with 125 eyes and five mouths. It said, "I will help you find your love, then, for you will not survive the edge of the world without a guide."

Fao Hei and the Yukao walked through the forest, following a trail of glowing mushrooms that led deep into the mountains. Soon, they came across a pool full of golden fish, their scales metal. The Yukao pointed with a claw at the pool. "Get me a fish to eat," it said, "or I will feed on your heart instead."

Fao Hei aimed his spear and thrust forward. The Yukao laughed when it saw that Fao Hei's point had missed every one of the golden fish, although they swam as thick as rice in a bowl. But every one of its 125 eyes widened when Fao Hei retrieved the spear with a single tiny brown fish wriggling on its tip. The Yukao took the fish and ate it in one tiny bite, and asked, "Why did you catch me that fish, instead of one of those many pretty fish?"

Fao Hei set his spear on his shoulder. "Those fish are pretty," he said, "but gold is not a good thing to eat. It is better to eat a fish that is healthy for you than one that is pretty." And the two of them kept walking.

Soon, they came across a spider's web strung across the path. Its strands were as thick as the vines of schaifei, and it was surely made by an enormous creature. The Yukao laughed, and looked at Fao with mockery. "You will never get past this web without being caught," it said, "and to leave the path is to be lost forever!"

Fao Hei shrugged. "Enough fish have escaped my nets," he said, "that I know all of their tricks. If you try so hard to hold on to a catch, it will slip through your fingers." He looked at the web carefully and then, like an eel, he slipped through a narrow opening in the web and stood on the other side. The Yukao laughed in delight, and tore open the web with long claws so that it could step through.

Fao Hei and the Yukao walked further, up the narrow path. As they travelled higher, the world around them blurred, and soon they were walking on a thin strip of dirt in the middle of leafy mist. Above his head, Fao Hei could see forest, the trees hanging down like vines from the land above. The Yukao giggled, and its skin leaked gnats. "Up and down have no meaning this far inland," it said. "How will you keep your balance from now on?"

Fao Hei calmly continued walking. "Beneath the sea, there is no balance. There is no up and down. One must simply travel with the currents, and not fight against them." The Yukao oozed, but said nothing.

As Fao Hei and the Yukao walked, noises came out of the mist around them. Stone towers loomed in the distance, at angles that could not be. The sky flashed with color, and the ground seethed with fire and ice. Even the Yukao was buffeted by the mountain storms, and its body twisted and flickered like a candle's flame.

"Fao Hei, your body is not made for this world," the Yukao said. "If you go any further, you will be changed forever."

Fao Hei continued to walk, even as his flesh bloomed and his clothing whimpered. "One must never be afraid of change," he replied. "Sometimes one must change to capture the most valuable catch." The Yukao's five mouths smiled at these words, and blood oozed from the air around it.

After some time -- it may have been seconds, and it may have been centuries -- Fao Hei and the Yukao came to a place that was not a place. Even the chaos behind them was simple compared to the gray everything before them. Fao Hei could not look at it, so he closed his eyes and began to step forward.

The Yukao blocked his way with an arm like a stormcloud. "Wait, Fao Hei," it said, and its voice was diamond. "Not even the Yukao know what lies beyond the edge of the world. You may never return."

Fao Hei smiled. "Every voyage is a step into the unknown," he said. "I do not fear the open sea." And he stepped through and was gone.

The Yukao sat there for five forevers, watching the edge of everything. Fao Hei did not return, so the Yukao turned and began drifting back down the mountain. "You are a wise fisherman," it said to the person who no longer existed. "If your love truly does not exist, I know that you have found him."

Before you were born, a Yukao crawled out of the forest in the shape of a tiny worm and whispered this story into the ear of a sleeping child. That child told another, and that one another, and now I am telling you.