(words of questionable translation or which fill for words with no suitable translation shown in italics)
At the heart of all existence lies the ephemeral force known as "Essence." It runs through all things; its flows in the land form the basis of geomancy, while its flows through the body form the basis of life. Its explicit manipulation is what separates man from beast. Truly the mysteries of Essence are the most fundamental to our existence.
The fundamental nature of Essence remains a topic of great debate. Some, such as my esteemed colleague Rodila, contend that Essence represents the fundamental force of change, opposed by innate stasis. Others, such as myself, prefer to view it as a force embodying the act of creation. Regardless of its deepest nature, however, we understand many of the principles by which Essence functions.
Foremost amongst them is its desire to move. Essence does not remain in a single place; rather, it constantly flows, following the path most conducive to its current state. Essence is typically described in terms of its flows or lines, with the nature of these flows determining the effects which the Essence has on the world surrounding it.
Also vitally important is the aspected nature of Essence. Essence does not exist in a "pure" state -- all Essence is found with a quality called "aspect," that associates it with places, forms of matter, or beings. These aspects tend to be many-layered, with some aspects being heavily obvious while others only subtly alter Essence. (For example: the Essence of any individual person takes on its own unique aspect, although this is minor compared to the aspect of their species.) All the aspects of Essence alter its behavior, however, adjusting which paths it flows most easily down, and thereby affecting what effects it has upon the world around it. (My essay On the Nature of Elements explores the aspecting of Essence further.)
The third, and possibly most important principle, is that Essence brings change. Moving Essence causes nearby matter to move and change; the nature of this change is determined by the pattern of the Essence flows, as well as the aspect of the Essence, while the magnitude of this change is determined by the quantity of Essence moving. With broad, undirected Essence flows, this change is often somewhat meandering and random; with carefully defined Essence flows, the changes are precise and focused. (I explore some of the ramifications of this further in my essay On the Demense and the Harnessing Thereof.)
It is through the combination of these three principles that we come to understand the nature of Essence, and its effects upon the world. And it is through this understanding that we come to understand the nature of existence itself -- though I must explain much before this can be made clear.
So what is the nature of the soul? The answer to this question eluded us for many years. Long ago, we looked to the sky for an answer from our Creators -- but they were silent. With time, a great deal of effort, and judicious use of our unique abilities, however, we came to understand the answer. Through examining various creatures with the use of techniques that permit one to see Essence flows directly, we came to understand the truth. All living creatures share, at their core, a unique, self-maintaining pattern of Essence flows -- the soul.
It is from the agency of the soul, and its shifting Essence flows, that all elements of life spring. A being's body takes shape to match the nature of its Essence, following the three principles laid out above. The motions of the soul's Essence cause the body to move, or the mind to think. For those such as our kind, blessed with the capacity of thought, this Essence can be harnessed through focus and effort, and turned to other, more direct uses -- such as the Tenfold Paths of Essence Mastery. (See below for a further discussion of this topic.)
The nature of these patterns is remarkably similar between various beings. Regardless of the beings to which they belong, all of these patterns share certain core characteristics. All souls are Essence patterns which have grown complicated enough to hold together without any external support. These patterns hold together through the equivalent of mutual tension -- the complex weaves of Essence contain and direct one another, so that the pattern can maintain itself without explicit channels to flow through. These patterns have basically no ability to actively affect Creation without a body -- a quantity of physical host mass -- to seat themselves in, however.
Souls are typically fairly difficult to disrupt. Even the complete destruction of the host of an Esssence pattern will typically have no effect on the pattern itself. However, it is possible to disrupt these patterns. Typically this cannot be done through purely physical means -- soul patterns do not break apart or alter in shape, regardless of their medium. However, certain patterns of Essence can disrupt the delicate structure of a soul, causing its pathways to collapse and allowing it to dissipate.
The specific qualities of a creature's soul reveal its relations to others, just as the aspects of Essence reveal its connection to other Essence. Each individual creature has a unique soul, which renders the being itself similarly unique. However, creatures of a kind to one another share very similar patterns within their souls. Creatures which bear some relation to one another, but are not of a kind, hold less obvious parallels.
Those of us who are born into the world of Creation suffer an inevitable affliction: we die. All species do so, through one fashion or another; it is the way of life. The difficulty this produces is obvious: the souls of those who are living are left without a body to hold them. The opposite problem is created when a new creature is born: from whence shall the soul originate? It seems that for each creature, the answer is different, though all bear a core similarity in having a cyclical nature.
For any creature whose kind is capable of replicating itself, some mechanism must exist with which to recycle the souls of the dead into the newly created shells of the living. Most typically, this takes takes one of two forms: either the souls translocate from the location of the creature's death into a container of some sort for eventual development or release (as with the aalorai or the jadeborn), or the souls pass beyond the boundaries of Creation for storage before being reborn. Certain other, more elaborate systems exist as well.
The souls of our kind are no exception. When a Dragon King dies, its soul passes beyond the walls of Creation and into the realm of Letheon, where it is enfolded within the bonds of life. When a young Dragon King is born, such a soul is reborn into this new body.
There are, of course, a finite number of these souls, the same as when we were created. Each newborn Dragon King retains the memories of his previous incarnations deep within himself, though they are buried in the undeveloped mind of a young whelp. From this, we have determined that no new souls are created, for every new Dragon King remembers their previous lives, even as our population has increased. I, along with my fellow scholars, have been working studiously to discover just where this limit to our population stands -- but as of yet, our investigations have borne little fruit. There is still much we do not know about the process -- which souls are chosen to take root in newborns? Can we use the length of time between the death of a soul's previous body and its rebirth to gauge how many souls exist? The mystery remains.
What we do know is that it is our souls which truly make us Dragon Kings. Though we are of four distinct kinds, residing in each of the four directions, we all draw upon the same pool of souls -- a radiant Raptok one life may be born an Anklok in the depths of the South the next. In this, we are like others of the Hundredfold -- the Xi-Mi-Taxi and the Ghisa'a, for example, who also share like souls across distinct bodily forms.
Our distant cousins the jadeborn have a different mechanism. When one of their kind perishes, the soul does not flee the world, but rather, returns to the spawning point of their race: the Bottomless Mine of Anr, deep below the Mountain. There, the soul finds one of the great deposits of jade, pushed forever upwards towards the surface by some unknown force. Embedding itself within that deposit, the soul waits for one of the others to come and free it -- quarrying the stone and building from it a new body for the soul to occupy.
Though both of our kinds share some similarities, our differing Creators have each left their distinct mark upon our souls. These differences can be seen in every element of our beings -- our beautifully savage forms compared to their chiseled elegance, our our Paths of Mastery contrasted with their Resplendent Pattern Wheels, and so on.
Those similarities we do share are enlightening, however. The process of losing its connection to the physical body shakes the soul -- it is, understandably, a traumatic experience. As a result, neither of our kinds remembers their previous existences upon birth -- instead, we exist in a state almost akin to an animal, unthinking and without any significant capacity to manipulate Essence. It is only through active intervention by elders with the knowledge of how to ease this trauma that the soul can fully connect to its new form and mature into adulthood. It is still a mystery to our kind why this should be so, but it seems to be a near universal limitation; most of our cousins seem to share it to one degree or another.
Beyond our cousins amongst the Hundredfold, of course, there are other beings which live within our world. The souls animating the beasts of the field, sea and sky are simple things (though certainly more complex than you or I could create ourselves.) There are an uncountably many kinds of such beasts -- it is believed that crafting such simple, unthinking creatures took far less effort on the part of our Creators; thus, there is no Hundredscore Fellowship or anything akin to it amongst their numbers.
It seems that all such beasts follow an intriguing pattern in rebirth: their souls are gathered to Letheon and absorbed into the elaborate fountains of life essence. When a new creature is born, a new soul is formed from these raw materials. This conclusion is not certain, of course; it is the best guess of our savants, following a 10-year study performed on the entire living population of a rare variety of scarab beetle, during which no individual souls could be proven to have cycled into a new body. The implications of this are intriguing -- does this mean the numbers of the beasts are unbound, while our own kind labors under a permanent ceiling on our population?
The situation with the servitors is even more unusual. The implications of their qualities could fill a book in itself. (Handwritten note in margin: "Eritrus later wrote On the Unique Qualities of the Servitor Race and their Cosmological Implications, excellent but underappreciated work.) Most unique of their qualities, however, is a truly astonishing one -- they possess two souls! Unlike other beings, each servitor possesses two entirely distinct animating fields of Essence. Even odder, each seems to hold a separate purpose -- one drives the motion of the body and the lower, animal impulses; the other the intellect and higher impulses. The design almost resembles the soul of one of our kind, split violently in half, each part connected to the body but not the other. The implications of this are obvious, I hope; it leads me to suspect that there is more to the creation of the servitors than immediately meets the eye.
"Ah," you say, "but what of the spirits? They possess no true body! What allows their Essence pattern -- their soul -- to affect Creation?" This is a fascinating question, and one that took our scholars many years to solve. It was through very careful studies of the olchilikami that we finally grasped the answer. Spiritual entities (such as Gods) do, in fact, have forms which contain their souls. What gives the Gods their strange qualities is that these forms, rather than being built from traditional terrestrial matter, are built from a substance we have dubbed "akasha". This substance is normally intangible within Creation, but can be rearranged to become as solid as normal matter. It is also surprisingly malleable, able to take a wide variety of shapes and other qualities given only a tiny quantity of Essence. It is from a suffusion of this akasha that spiritual bodies are built. The substance does not exist naturally within Creation -- rather, it exists, in different flavors, within the spiritual realms. These flavors are similar to the aspects of Essence, or the elements of matter, coloring its specific manifestation within the physical reality of Creation.
The souls of the Gods are unusual as well. To maintain a body of akasha, a God requires a much more energetic soul than a being which is embodied in flesh -- a typical spirit's soul is significantly more active and elaborate than that of a living being. The souls also bear much more rigid patterns -- while the soul of a living being has been shaped through many lives into a unique creation, with many of the dents and bruises that might suggest, spiritual souls hew closely to their original created form. They also tend to be more focused in design than those of living beings -- while one of the Hundredfold might live one of a thousand different lives, striving to accomplish numerous different goals and experience numerous different experiences, each God is built for a purpose, and their souls reflect this.
Perhaps the most interesting souls are those of our glorious Creators. Beings too vast in nature to contain their own souls, while powerful enough to manifest themselves in multiple locations, the Creators embody individual aspects of their own souls -- we call them the Malakim. In fact, so great are these beings that even the Creators' souls divide themselves again, and again once more, to form lesser Malakim. Much like spirits, these beings are souls infused with bodies of akasha -- though their source differs from that of the Gods. The Malakim, being as they are mere portions of a greater being, are tied together somehow -- their souls seem capable of exchanging Essence with other Malakim originating from the same Creator, or even the Creator itself. It is believed that the Gods are actually freestanding beings somehow patterned on the existence of the Malakim -- an interesting concept, to be sure.