"And the weary went with Her by the thousands, and where their feet struck earth, so great was their number that a road was left in their wake, that their children and their children's children would have a path to Her. She led them to the root of the Tree of Life, and there at its roots did She offer them succor and respite, nurturing them until the last days of the Dying Light."
- Attributed to Prophet-King Haszat-Xemosz in "the Gospel of Xemosz," in the tradition of The Pale Book
The StruggleThe life of an Arrasoomian is hard. The central social tenet of Arrasoomian culture is the Struggle (or, to some, the Jihad), a holy endeavor to first ensure one's own survival. Personal assured survival, according to the holy texts of the God Kings (most notably Prophet-King Haszat-Xemosz), extends beyond the immediate sphere and includes one's future assured survival, making the accumulation of wealth, status and personal power part of the Struggle. Though each of the God Kings might have his own interpretation of what constitutes valid pursuit of the Struggle, all mark the Struggle as a holy endeavor, a divine task that purifies and tempers the soul in its pursuit. Sectarian disputes between different interpretations of the Struggle are common, and theological purification often forms the backbone of the wars between the various City States.
The AncestressThe Struggle is not kind to the people below the Dying Light. To those who grow weary of the constant scrabbling for what few scraps that fall from the God Kings' tables, there is promise of release, however. Religious tradition states that the Ancestress will take in all pilgrims who come to live with her at the root of the World Tree. These weary few, however, are considered to have given up on the Struggle and while their choice is honored and respected, they are treated forever more as dead. It is an honorable death, this pilgrimage without return, but death nonetheless. The path that pilgrims take to the Tree of Life is a series of roads (really, the beds of extinct rivers), all of which flow south out of the lands of the City States. What is known of the Tree of Life comes from accounts of the God Kings themselves, for it was from the Tree that the Ancestress sent them forth, to bring Her children (the shalhalas) to the people of Arrasoom and, in doing so, to conquer death with life. Over the millennia, none have returned from the Tree (at least, none to speak of), and so the official assumption is that these pilgrims live out the eons, wreathed in Her grace, until the Dying Light fades at last.
As to what happens after the Dying Light fades, the God Kings are strangely silent.
The ShalhalasThe literal offspring of the Ancestress (at least initially; they reproduce amongst themselves now), the shalhalas worms are grub-like creatures that burrow as easily through sand as fish swim in water. The shalhalas range widely in size, from barely a foot for a full-grown adult to hundreds and hundreds of feet for venerable ancients. The chief determinants in this variation seem to be age and consumption of water: the more water consumed, the larger a shalhalas will grow. Oddly, it does not seem as if the largest shalhalas need to maintain a high rate of water consumption, but may survive on a minimal water supply that it may scrounge (such as the moisture found in living things). A shalhalas, given the opportunity, will gorge itself on every drop of water it can find, a fact which has led to the arid conditions on Arrasoom today.
The tissues of the shalhalas secrete a mucus-like substance called soma, which has the property of retarding the aging process and, in some cases (though the circumstances are uncertain) even reverse the ravages of time. This soma inundates the meat of the worm, and so any who eat of it gain the same effect, however, time has proven that the wisest way to harvest soma from the shalhalas is to cultivate small worms which may be "bled" of the stuff, if only because this process requires less water and produces far less waste (having the further benefit to the powers-that-be of keeping the required number of shalhalas worms minimal, ensuring their control of the beasts). A debased version of the anagathic soma may be produced by blending the stuff with certain animal fats and seed-powders then drying the mixture in the sun. The resultant raszk is a weakened form of the drug that produces poor effects but may be stored for a long time and is the only form of soma that most Arrasoomians can afford on a regular basis. It is certainly the most common form of the drug that makes its way off the planet.
Soma does not merely have anagathic properties, however. Some users report that it awakens within them powers of perception, intuition and thought beyond normal mortal ken. While the grade of soma consumed does seem to have some effect on the likelihood of such psionic enhancements, even the lowliest raszk users have been known to develop such abilities. In addition, all soma or raszk use produces some degree of euphoria, again proportional to its purity; some raszk users, however, have taken to blending the drug with other intoxicants to increase its potency in this one regard.
It is vital to the social order of Arrasoom that the shalhalas supply remain consistent and without challenge. Transport of the worms off-world is not merely illegal, but blasphemous and culturally abhorrent. The Shalhalas are a gift from the Ancestress, who gave of her womb that Arrasoom might live. To the common people, they mean life. To the aristocracy they mean wealth. And to the God Kings, they mean control.