Bird Ships of the Empire of Splendour
During the reign of Emperor Bestowing Justice, Imperial explorers came upon the small, uninhabited island of Lamiash (also known as Lamyos). Lamiash sported an unusual specimen of flora - the Drifting Willow, as it came to be termed. Drifting Willow was a rhizomous plant of beige, knobbly appearance like a piece of ginger-root the size of a cow. What was most peculiar, however, was that its natural state was to float shoulder height above the ground, drawing sustenance through dangling root-threads. Wood from the drifting willow was harvested and found to maintain its floating properties.
Soon, Imperial artisans (mostly from Dronistor) had fashioned the first flying vessel, a Bird-Ship. It was an ungainly barge-like vessel designed to carry cargo, but it was limited to the same shoulder-level flight and lacked a form of propulsion. Sails were tried, and a variety of vug-powered airscrews and flapping devices. Refinement to the shaping of drifting willow wood, and Bird-Ship construction allowed greater heights to be reached and a louvre effect was used to control height. Even so, the early Bird Ships could scarcely pass over a low building and were strictly a novelty item. It was the discovery of the properties of Yellow Jade that spurred Bird-Ship production to the next level.
Yellow Jade is an extremely rare magical mineral, often found in strange carved dragon shapes. Scholars so far have been unable to unearth the purpose or abilities of these dragon artifacts, except in some cases to suggest the laughable proposition that they belong to a civilisation preceding the Empire of Splendour. What is known about Yellow Jade, however, is that it has power over movement - it can be used to aid travel, for example. A traveller carrying a Yellow Jade talisman will find a journey goes faster than expected. Some Yellow Jade artifacts have the power of movement over other objects. It was the scholar Blossoming Reason who discovered that the powers of Yellow Jade and Drifting Willow combined to give extraordinary effects. The Bird Ships entered a new era.
With a specially crafted Yellow Jade orb as a controller, Drifting Willow constructs could be made to go anywhere, fly high into the air, move against the wind, stop suddenly and turn on a Yen coin. A fleet of Tribute Ships were built, massive vessels designed to cow and impress the colonies (as well as carry back large quantities of tribute booty). Military troop carriers were also used. There were even the beginnings of a courier "air-mail" system and passenger transport.
Emperor Bestowing Justice was called to the Halls of the Divine Guide of Heaven, and was reincarnated as Emperor Chorus of Splendid Birds. Splendid Birds was a far-sighted emperor, and in his perfect wisdom he foresaw that the stocks of Drifting Willow would soon run out, and this would spell disaster for the Empire. For the Emperor had a dream of three brass turtles in battle with three crystal doves, and if the doves could not fly they would have been utterly destroyed in the battle. No source of Drifting Willow other than Lamiash had been found. Moa-Ruaki wanderers knew the island and considered it taboo. The plant did not cross open sea and no human had been known to transplant it.
Emperor Chorus of Splendid Birds restricted the use and creation of Bird-Ships to the Imperial family, and called in secret to the Imperial Palace the scholar Blossoming Reason, giving her a fortune in yen and the command of the Bird-Ship Sudden Storm, with the promise of more money when needed. Her task was to save the Drifting Willow from extinction. Blossoming Reason was to try to transplant the Drifting Willow to somewhere firmly under Imperial control, either remote parts of the mainland or other islands. She was to learn how to divide and graft the Drifting Willow in order to speed its reproduction and growth, and to establish self-sufficient clans to tend to plant so that the Empire should have more when, in the future, it would be needed. This secret plan would have been sufficient to provide the Imperial air legions all the Drifting Willow wood they needed, but for two tragic occurrences.
First, Emperor Chorus of Splendid Birds died while napping in his garden and the Imperial throne was taken by the usurper Red Wind, who plunged the Empire into the chaos of civil war for the next seven years until he was dragged out to sea by a tidal wave. Second, Blossoming Reason visited Lamiash at least three times in the next year with Sudden Storm, taking Drifting Willow with her each time. But she did not report to anyone other than the emperor, and went missing after that year. The project to re-vitalise the vanishing Drifting Willow stocks failed.
In the course of the civil war, production of bird ships increased until finally the last Drifting Willow was felled and turned to timber. At first the new fighting Bird-Ships were reconnaissance vessels. Later, bombers were developed from the heavy cargo ships. As military losses mounted, civilian craft were stripped and converted to War-Birds. With no new wood, any ships lost were irreplaceable. Slowly the war took its toll. The worst disaster was when Llazan rebels managed to take over several Bird-Ships for their own use, and were able to take the war into the air to meet the Imperials.
When Red Wind died, his legitimate successor, Considered Knowledge, was a more conservative man. As the war ground to an impasse and the Anhuine states slipped away, he ordered the Bird-Ship fleet scrapped, on the grounds that they were impious to the Divine Emperor. The losses and suffering caused by the Bird-Ships were because men were not meant to travel too close to Heaven. Those few ships that had not been destroyed in the civil wars were mothballed and all but forgotten.
Now only a few Bird-Ships remain, that anyone knows about. The Imperial family has one that is sometimes used for state travel. Others may lay ramshackle in storage (Dronistor may well have a cache of them). Most are in a state of disrepair, with an insufficient amount of Drifting Willow content to keep them airborne for long. Finding a workable Yellow Jade control orb is even more rare.
The Treasure of the Durvinshi
The Durvinshi was the largest of all Imperial Tribute Birds, famously lost with all hands somewhere over the Sea of Deep Wisdom. Everyone, of course, has heard the various legends and rumours about her whereabouts, especially those that also mention a great treasure that she was carrying back to Emperor Bestowing Justice.
Someone turns up in Fermi's selling a carved figurine that they purport to be the mascot-spirit of the Durvinshi. Research of records of the Durvinshi shows that they could be correct, unless it is a well researched fake. The seller is reticent as to where he got it from, but resourceful adventurere will be able to back-track along his trail.
They, of course, would not be the only ones. Many faction in Llaza would like to get their hands on the Treasure of the Durvinshi - League families, the Black River Society, Magister Painu, Fermi, and so on. The trail leads to exotic locations and many dangers. Whether the characters find the wreck of the Durvinshi, if the treasure exists or what the outcome is, is for the GM to decide.
Valley of the Drifting Willow
No one thought to inquire into what had happened to Blossoming Reason or her Bird-Ship Sudden Storm in the upheavals that followed the ascension of the usurper Red Wind, and now, many years later, the story is little more than a story.
But who knows? It may hold a kernel of truth. Somewhere on a mountainous island, in a hidden valley, there may be a clan of foresters who have tended the Drifting Willow for centuries. Or there may be an extinct volcano on a plateau in the middle of the desert, with Drifting Willows growing above every horizontal surface. Or, deep in the forest primeval there may be a valley and a lake with Drifting Willows that float through the morning mist while the swans cry out their salutations to the sun. Or, perhaps all of these are true, or none, or even stranger things.
Once again, clues and hints as to the whereabouts of a new colony of Drifting Willow reaches the ears of the player characters, or they may be flat-out hired by someone looking for it. Governments and other powers would go to great lengths to find and secure a new source of Bird-Ships, and others would go to great lengths to make sure nobody finds it.
Come Fly With Me
At the simplest level, Bird-Ships give the GM a great excuse for moving the player character where they want them to go. No-one would be able to resist trying to get a wreck of an old Bird-Ship going again, but of course no-one can guarantee that they don't subsequently crash at the next place the GM has an adventure set up.... Alternatively, a Bird-Ship can be used to aid a far-ranging campaign. The finding and repair of one might be part of a project sponsored by the League to explore new lands like Mopendor, Ssth'gar islands or even the Outer Continent of Fallen Sun. Aqcuisition of a Yellow Jade orb can be part of the campaign too.