Six score and thirteen years ago, the Founders crash-landed into the valley.
On three great airships they came, over the encircling mountains, after crossing the boiling sea and a salt-crusted shore. The ships were the last survivors of a larger fleet, the final escapees from a continent ravaged by a war, that sacked the earth’s skin of resources, and made life generally intolerable. Many ships left the Old Continent, but the Three Ships— called Diversity, Peace, and Merit— were the only ones to weather the ocean’s stormy perils. They teetered for days on the brink of no fuel, but as if by a miracle, the fuel held until they were over dry land, and the passengers onboard were evacuated before the engines could finally fail. The parachuters made it to the ground, now as refugees on an unfamiliar continent, but alive. They traveled overland, following their ships' trajectory, in hopes of finding the supplies onboard, and because they had nowhere else to go.
These brave foreigners traversed, and did find those still-smoldering fusilages– crashed into an island in a lake, the basin of a mighty river, winding through a seemingly untouched valley, cradled by high cliffs.
On makeshift boats, they made their way to the island, providentially chosen by their crashing ships, and named it Mercadillo. After a year of the roughest journey imaginable, they had found at last a place to rest, and they began to plan the rest of their lives together in this new place.
What grew out of that initial colony, some 200 people strong, was a society as unlike the one they had come from as possible, where the most learned in each generation, those capable of making the best decisions, where leaders were not chosen arbitrarily. They envisioned a merit-based government. It would hold held the preservation of diversity (as an engine against stagnation) and the upholding of peace its main tenets; determined to not repeat the mistakes of their lost mother country.
Their preference for peace and acceptance came in handy quickly as they soon realized they were not the only inhabitants of the valley. Their neighbors made themselves known. Foragers encountered Zuri tribe-scouts in the jungle fairly quickly. Web-toed Ebullio tradesman came around a bend in the river one day, both groups curious more than anything about the people now living on the big rock in the river. Delegates from the Copa and Shrekli came next, soliciting correspondence from the newcomers, and warning them to not even thinking about coming into the mountain range immediately to the north, respectively.
The last group to make contact was the delegation from the Old City of the Blood. Preceded by a choir of five hundred brutes, whose ululating, skin-creeping singing could be heard from a half day away, a ceremonial war-barge slung low in the water with the weight of warriors and blasting drums appeared at the mouth of the lake. It bore a pronouncement, that with much translating, let the Mercadillians know that The Scarlet King considered their settlement an unwanted trespass upon their domain, and demanded they bend to vassalhood and pay tribute or else face immediate annihilation. Unable to resist at that moment, and determined that peace prevail, they conceded in face that day to the ambassador of The Bloody Ones, pledging to be ruled, and making promises to not expand beyond the rocky island on which their strange sky-boats had chosen to deposit themselves.
But as singing faded back up the river with the predator ship’s departure, the Founders agreed that they could not submit to a barbaric king they had never met just as their experiment in freedom was beginning to take hold. A big decision was made. From the wreckage of the ships they had salvaged a tiny reserve of Superfuel, a solid matter packed aboard in hopes that they would be able to use it to lay new infrastructure if they ever found land beyond the uncrossed ocean. In this fuel was the compressed energy of hundreds of years of concentrated thought, the same power that had turned on the war machines that had destroyed their previous continence of residence. The plan had been to use this to grade the island, to provide natural water access to the interior, roads, and other important infrastructure, but the need to have some sort of defense against their new self-assuming overlords was more pressing. And so almost all of the Superfuel was used at once, to construct in a night the wall that ringed the lake, with its dual-walled gates that were stronger than the wall itself. The last bit was used to lay in The Causeways, three long stone bridges running to the north, south, and west shores of the lake, and the first of The Colleges that would house their new government, built straight up atop the high ridge on the island’s east bank, named aspiringly, The Pinnacle. By the time the emissaries from upriver returned, they could not get anywhere near the city, and the Mercadillian message was cast down from the wall-top. They would hold up their end of the bargain and draw their border at the lake’s edge, but they would not be occupied, or ruled by a despot.
The Bloody Ones were furious at the reversal, and to the present day claim their end authority over the city on the lake. But their ambassadors were made to return empty-handed, stymied by the walls, and the now very palpable alliance of Mercadillo with the Zuri tribes that filled the forest and lower riverlands. The two urban powers at either end of the river fell into a suspicious détente, recognizing not the sovereignty of Mercadillo, but only their ability to oppose them.
This was all a plus for the Zuri and Ebullio, who themselves were nominal vassals of the until-now unilaterally powerful Bloody Ones, and cheered to see a new, free power with which to do trade. Mainly for health potions, the staple of Mercadillian medical technology. A liquid that stimulated rapid flesh regeneration, and acted as a mild antibiotic when ingested, health potions were highly effective at saving lives from the kind of mortality the jungle offered, and were highly sought by any indigenous population.
But the Zuri made it clear they weren’t thrilled about the massive wall around the lake, and they too opposed any Mercadillian expansion into their forest. Which wasn’t a point of contention, at that point. The Founders desired to live simple, academic lives within their own means, with no thought given to conquering or taking territory, their ancestors’ primary fixation.
With the question of borders out of the way, neighborly anxieties lessened, and Mercadillo blossomed into a center of trade. In this time of early security, the settlers got to work establishing the system by which the city would be ruled in concordance with their deeply held principles.
They deemed it Academocracy. They had a chance to start at a truly level playing field, on that barren rock in an unknown land, and created a system that would elevate and the brightest minds of each generation to the highest levels of decision-making for the city. The linchpin of the system was a universal education for every child, beginning at the age of four and continuing to sixteen. The educational system beyond that funneled directly into the lower branches of government, with students both continuing their studies and beginning to participate in the administration through civil service.
By doing so, they ensured all of their children an equal chance and abolished the arbitrary castes and classes of the Old Continent System. By raising logic and rationality to the highest marker of truth, they eliminated the senseless religions and sophistry that had imperiled the thinking capacity of their forebears. And they banned the study of Superfuel and the Machines it could power, knowing how easily that power could be exploited and how that knowledge would lead to war.
More importantly, they agreed to take their treatise with The Bloody Ones to heart, and not grow. For in all the time they had to think, as they crossed the ocean, they had concluded the root of all of their old civilization’s problems could be traced back to even older proto-civilizations expanding their population and invading their neighbors’ lands to sustain that growth. This in turn led to a cycle of population increase and war over resources, with the victors assimilating, enslaving, or otherwise imposing their will upon the bested.
To fall in the pattern as the chiefest threat to the longevity of their experiment. By drawing their borders early and allowing no provision for a standing army, they nobly aimed to perish rather than become yet another empire.
Despite being established by pacifistic scholars, Mercadillo was not without power or defenses. They were all delighted to find their Magic worked here, as well as it had in their old home, meaning that through focus they could draw of fire or water from the air or shift the earth itself with enough thought. Their new jungle allies supplied them as well with bows, darts, and spears, as well as the knowledge of how to hunt and forage in their new home.
A division of labor from those tasked with establishing Mercadillo as a government, and those who would feed and build it. Though all intellectual geniuses in their own right, personal predilections separated the first generation into the groups that would become known in hindsight as the Wizards, the Rangers, and the Functionaries. These were not the formal names of these groups, only the Rangers would ever officially name themselves such, and the membership of each bled back and forth; these are names given by history to explain concisely what went wrong.
The division proved productive, for the flourishment of Mercadillo began almost as soon as the city-state’s borders was established. The whole settlement was small enough that each could be both a part of its governance and actively engaged in the daily work of building it. To each, Mercadillo was the final destination at the end of a life of suffering, whispered dreaming, and chance-taking. The Founders had built a vision together on the journey over, and each saw Mercadillo as their great life’s work.
Each genius strove with utopia in their hearts, aiming at the utmost, believing a new paradigm to be at hand. They did more in the first five years than they believed possible, overcoming plagues and valley politics, solidifying their food supply, building a solid base of stability for their economy, and eventually arts and culture, to flourish. This work was the joy of the Founders, many of whom lived long enough to see the fruits of their labors begin to really take off. That first generation, despite their differences in tactics and the role they played in their new society, remained a tightly knit group, their bonds of unity stronger than any argument among them. Their unity and the validation of their life journey became an ideal that was never reached by their immediate descendants or any others. But still they began to grow in different directions even then. The groups that would later set the stage for the uprising were molded in these initial divisions of labor into the thinking, ruling Wizards, the hunting, providing Rangers, and the building, working Functionaries.
Though they were all powerful students of Magic, among the ship’s occupants were several academics and doctors who distinguished themselves before the others as the greatest thinkers, planners, and long-term visionaries. On the long flight over, these were those that managed to turn the blackest moments into camera boxes, filling with a pinhole glimpse of the possible future.
On the island they mettled the chaos into organized chaos, and then formed the administration of what would soon before the academocracy. It was they that proposed to raise the Wall and the Causeways, and kept the settlement from falling part before it began.
Then there were the Rangers. Though smart men and women all, none knew how to survive in this wild place. The progenitors of the modern Rangers were the first to figure it out. Primarily the adolescent sons of the refugees, they sought the food that fed their new settlement, and became the most familiar with their landscape, the local tribes, and in turn, physical violence. They journeyed out and in, and manned the walls. After eventually codifying into the first of the city’s guilds, they maintained the peace in the city as well as the system of trading pelts, meats, live specimens, and anything else with commercial or Magical import from the jungle. Bonds between Rangers became deeper than normal, or even familial ties, sewn to their comrades with mutual trauma. Their day to day lives often took them away from safety for weeks at a time, and often took their lives away. This closeness, forged under the heavy pressure of providing for the city in its infancy, began to set them apart from the rest of the citizenry.
“The Functionaries” describes those great minds among them that drifted toward structural concerns– the roads and aqueducts, housing, farms. They filled in the subclauses of the Articles’ chapters with the important minutiae of city building. Good calculators all, the builders immediately recognized the problems that would come with overpopulation, and planned for high-density and shared resources, using their most conservative estimations for the city’s growth. They designed a grid along the contours of the island, a spiderweb of neighborhoods, to accommodate the expected growth for the next two centuries. That, they believed, would be enough time for a political decision with The Scarlet King to be negotiated that would allow for a little healthy expansion.
They were the first to see what Mercadillo had the potential to become, and mapped out how each mundane life necessity would be provided for their great-grandchildren, and hopefully many more generations to come. They met in session for weeks on end, etching models, making projections, and drawing out what they would finally call The Grand Design. The Grand Design was how their principles would become reality, how they could be more than just a short-lived dream, a fear always present in their mind. It was shaped with the consideration of everyone who chose to participate in the process, it embodied a broad swath of ideas. But the Functionaries were those most deeply interested in the plan for the city, and the Design’s most vocal defenders, as it began to fail.
And so, loosely camped in these three social strata, Mercadillo was founded, and thrived in spite of pestilence aplenty— plus flood, and food shortages, diplomatic close calls with the natives, but through perseverance, the principles of their experiment never departed from the original vision of the Founders. This was partially due to their helplessness— with no mother country to return to, or ask for help, a mistake would cost them everything. There was not enough stability, or resources for their community to survive a schism, and no one was willing to be the ruin of them all.
Which didn’t mean that it got any less ruined. It only meant that there was no clear idea of what went wrong, and who to blame when it did.
Part 2 coming soon.
Don't forget to sign up for our upcoming workshops; and our email list down below for more crazy esotera.