The ancestors of the Couatls built their society on the back of their altruism and compassion. But a long time as passed since they first laid down their civilisation, and two very different groups have developed very different approaches to living in a dangerous world.
Couatls are beings about which most races know little. They bear large, rainbow-feathered wings with a wingspan of up to five metres, and their body is long and serpentine, making them very acrobatic fliers. Their scales are iridescent, displaying a wide range of colours as they move, which combines with their twisting bodies to produce a dazzling display. They have only one sex, and any couatl can mate with any other. Most explorers or adventurers who encounter these creatures bring back tales of these psionically gifted beings appearing to those in need, offering vital advice or guidance and then soon taking their leave.
The ancestors of the couatls were natives of thick jungle, using their agile flight and psionic sensitivity to navigate between the trees and locate small mammal or reptile prey, which they would incapacitate with their venom and swallow whole. These jungles were crawling, oozing and writhing with monsters of many kinds, including carnivorous plants, enormous reptilians, and the creatures that would evolve into the modern lizardfolk. While initially their agility and mobility was their only defence, their complex environment and psionic powers provided strong pressures to gain intelligence and sociality. They developed strong altruistic bonds and by working together and organising themselves, they were able to construct a treetop civilisation. Complex language was achieved through telepathy, the direct transmission of emotions, visions and experiences amongst one another. The mixture of their emotional sensitivity and means of communication has resulted in couatl not being able to lie, though anyone who would mistake that for the idea that couatl always tell the truth is mistaken. A couatl could easily say something they are unsure of, or make parts of a message unclear, and their experience communicating with beings as intelligent and perceptive as each other means that other intelligent races are often easily misled.
While many other species demonstrate altruism and non-reciprocal kindness, couatls take it to an extreme. Early couatls shared their emotions openly on their psionic wavelengths, and anguish or pain in one member of the community would rapidly spread like a disease among the group until its cause was resolved. An increase in intelligence brought with it a wider range of feelings and ways to express them, which provided new ways for suffering to emerge. There is a level of variation in resilience to pain and emotional sensitivity among them, like in other intelligent races, and this had an interesting result: the most sensitive individuals in a group would usually be the first trying to address a problem, and quickly react to new issues as they emerged. In their early culture, this resulted in them becoming the leaders of couatl bands or villages. Foreshadowing what was to come, couatl villages were small in size and often split in two when they grew larger, with one group founding a new village elsewhere. When too many couatls were together in one place, the emotional noise and likelihood of suffering spreading was just too much to bear.
It was at this point that the species began to diverge on the trajectories that would lead to the split between the ‘Wandering’ and ‘Imperial’ couatls. Among the former, their emotional sensitivity developed to the extent that they could not stand to be in any group larger than a pair. It also resulted in them becoming incapable of feeding themselves, as the pain and suffering of their prey started to seriously affect them. Fortunately, it was at this time that the humanoid races were establishing their early settlements. Pairs of wandering couatls would attach themselves to a human village, and offer their assistance and guidance. Their acute intelligence, ability to see through lies and pretense, magical skills, and flying abilities made them very useful to their newfound friends, but these interactions were also assisted by the ease with which a couatl could emotionally bond with members of another species, and how they rapidly came to develop a deep affection for other sapients. Couatls would be entirely willing to put themselves at risk to help individuals not even of their own kind. In exchange, people would provide their couatl helpers with gifts of food which provided them the sustenance they needed.
Couatls live long lives, stretching into centuries, and a bonded pair will mate perhaps once a decade. Such an event is rather spectacular, involving a mating dance where their pair wind around each other as well as a magical display that can last for hours. The encounter will result in one member becoming pregnant, though which one can vary from one time to the next. They give birth to jewel-like eggs, which are kept in a secure place usually in a nook high up in a tree or on a cliff face. Even while in the egg the couatl chick is highly sensitive to emotion. In densely populated areas, the psionic noise and negative emotions that spread can often cause too much stress for the chick and cause it to die prematurely. This is one main reason why wandering couatls stay in the hinterlands, deep in impassable terrain; if too many people are around it will seriously jeopardise their ability to reproduce.
The chick will be brought up by the pair for up to twenty years, but as it emotionally matures the time comes for it to leave the group and form a pair of its own. There are certain locations- usually on high mountains or on isolated islands- where the wandering couatls of a region will bring their young when they become adults. These must have a small village, far from any other civilisation, which can provide for the young one until another couatl arrives. The newly formed pair will then look after the humans of the pairing site and any new couatls that arrive until a new pair is formed, at which point they will head off to find a new location to settle. Pairing sites are also the ‘social centre’ of a region, as far as that can be said; once every few years at a scheduled time one member of a pair will fly to the pairing site to tell and hear of new births, deaths or events among the community. But being among other couatls rapidly becomes unbearable, so these meetings do not last long.
If a wandering couatl dies, its partner is often too emotionally stressed to live on. However, in some unique cases mostly among recently paired couatls one member survives and will usually spend some months grieving before heading to the pairing site and finding a new partner.
Imperial couatls have a very different lifestyle. Through a long and ritualised process of training, they are taught how best to suppress their psionic output, to the extent that while other couatls can tell what they are feeling it will not cause distress. Some are also taught how to manipulate the emotions of other races as a form of mind control. Instead of attaching to communities of other intelligent beings, they will emotionally manipulate sapients into voluntarily joining them in their cloudy cities, where they are used to do the tasks a couatl cannot, such as producing food and defending from attackers. The acquisition of servants caused a major change in their culture: the development of a hierarchy. Couatls with more servants could give their servants to others and display their assets conspicuously, forming an elite which patronised and gained the debt of other members of their kind. Having the servants to build large, ornate palaces became the conventional way to show power and wealth. It was also important that all your servants were mentally sound and happy; the disruption and damage to eggs caused by unruly or unhappy ones would result in the community removing the strays from the city and signify a lack of capability on the part of the owner.
But quantity of servants was not the only metric of power. Having magically or physically gifted servants provided other benefits and became just as important a status symbol. The first emperor was able to establish his supremacy over all other couatls by owning a powerful band of abducted adventurers that elevated him to a new level and resulted in the construction of the first Imperial Palace. When their servants died or when another couatl came into possession of a larger and more powerful group and greater estate, a new emperor would be announced. The competition for this status became intense, especially since the access and number of favours that came with the imperial rank allowed a much wider selection of mates. Choosing the right mate that would add their fortune to yours had become very important, and as had producing offspring as good at emotional control as possible. Family dynasties formed that would frequently exchange the title. But eventually, after many generations, the major family blocks of the imperial couatls were united through shrewd marriage and diplomacy and collated their assets to ensure that their emperorship would remain in one lineage, which it has done to this day.
In order to prevent any further pretenders from arising, the imperial dynasty monopolised the taking of servants, such that they would control the acquisition and distribution of wealth entirely. They also prevented emotional control from being taught to every member of the society, instead making it the preserve of the elite. But there remains one major way for an ambitious couatl to rise up the ranks and possibly marry into the elite: conspicuous displays of altruism.
Unfortunately, this has led to a situation where public image and the pursuit of status have become more important than to what degree an action will actually benefit the recipients. While imperial couatls are not actively malicious, they can be thoughtless or provide counsel that is more dramatic, but less optimal than another choice. Most imperial couatls seen by other races are sent on missions by the emperor to provide assistance to his allies or those following goals in line with his own, and are usually sent singly to prevent a group of glory-seeking couatls causing more harm than good. Since doing tasks for the emperor are such a great chance to be seen doing good, there is great competition to be chosen for these activities.
The cities of the imperial couatls are bustling with life, much of which are the servants owned by the emperor or given as gifts to those in the emperor’s favour. These servants need to be fed and supplied, and the materials for public projects must be acquired, so around the cities are expansive lands including farms, mines, and other sites of production. Many important goods are also acquired by trade, so the emperor has to maintain good relations with neighbouring states and towns. In some cases, the emperor may have a noble or local leader covertly put under his emotional control in order to gain an advantage, but since mages and other spellcasters can detect the signs of emotional control and counteract them it is too much of a risk for whole kingdoms to be put under his sway. Even a normal person can often tell the difference: the victim will appear in a constantly cheery mood, which can be quite at odds with their prior personality. Couatls are defensive of their servants, and are likely to transport them away if they believe they are in danger.
While the religions of wandering couatls vary widely from place to place and are often quite animistic, a central faith has developed among the imperials. They worship a single being said to be of infinite kindness and wisdom that is said to exist in another plane and to exert its influence on others, slowly transforming them into utopian places full of life and joy. The imperial couatls see themselves as agents of this being during the early stages of its presence in this world. The emperor often presents himself as the central focus through which the deity makes its will clear in the world, and that this is evidenced by the power which the deity has allowed him to hold.
Since they communicate by telepathy, couatls have no difficulty conversing with other species (at least those with brains). A common task for an imperial coatl on a mission will be to go to a settlement of pioneers or colonists and shape the way their society develops while remaining unseen as much as possible, which is often achieved by making the people think they are a benevolent spirit or god. They will use its telepathic abilities to help instruct the people, and their emotional abilities to repel monsters and dangerous groups from the site. This is the truth behind the common observation by travelling explorers and writers of tribes living in a seemingly idyllic, peaceful manner in a region surrounded by deadly threats, giving offerings to a serpent-like deity that they claim keeps them safe and secure.
While their psychology prevents a couatl from attacking another creature, if attacked they are capable of defending themselves which they will first seek to do by constricting or incapacitating with venom, then using their abilities to remove the desire for aggression from the being’s mind. If faced by a being immune to these attacks a couatl will usually simply flee, but if protecting a person or community they are bonded to they will fight to the death. The ultimate favour a couatl can bestow another being is to grant them a bunch of their feathers. A couatl retains its psionic link to the feathers, and so if the recipient destroys one of these then the couatl will immediately know and come rushing to protect their friend.
This article was written by Holben, an online acquaintance (and I’d like to say friend) of mine.
The large artwork on this post is by Dmitry Prosvirnin (D8P), and I strongly recommend checking out their artwork- it’s stunning!
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