The sky was a promise that night; bruised, red and pocked with diamond shards, portent to a storm bearing proof of a higher intelligence. One with an interest in our own.
No matter the faith or philosophy, there are no shortages of omens, portents and prophecies linked to unusual or extreme climatic or astronomical events. Eclipses, earthquakes, even the appearance of comets feature heavily - particularly where whatever is being presaged has an apocalyptic bent - but any suitably dramatic weather can be pressed into passable service (through the proper poetry) as evidence of a divine plan. Few prophecies come to pass though, and most floods subside with as little spiritual significance as the torrential rains that brought them. Exceptions are few and far between, often ambiguous or retroactively imbued with the weight of greater meaning, but even amongst these we can recognise the occasional examples of something greater - exceptional exceptions, if you will.
The passage of time has an obvious and unavoidable distorting effect on even the most basic of details about historical events but, per the broad consensus of contemporary sources and some primary evidence that survives to this day, the most significant of these exceptions - The Storm of The Promissory - is believed to have raged across China’s Quilian Mountains on the 30th of January in 1368 CE. Falling as the Ming Dynasty rose, the crimson-tinged lightning hit again and again, charring stone and causing the rain-soaked grasses to burst into flames. The strikes grew more frequent and intense as they circled around and closed in on a utilitarian handful of buildings and a stone courtyard; a small, inauspicious monastery tended by around two dozen monks.
The first blow to the monastery itself sparked off the tallest of the buildings, rebounding into the centre of the courtyard. A target marked, locked, a furious flurry of thunderous strikes fell in the same place despite originating from various different points in the sky; the heat of the electricity cracked the ground and boiled the nearest rain into a haze of steam. Dread, fatalistic fascination drew the monks closer, close enough to bear unequivocal witness even as the light burned against their eyes. In the impromptu, almost primordial crucible, a shape became perceptible - either conveyed on or encoded into the lightning and instantly instantiated: A sphere, across the surface of which the full power and force of the storm skittered and crackled in wild, careening arcs.
An almost perfect stillness fell when the clouds parted as quickly as they had drawn together, the storm summarily dismissed, and the sphere sat in the slight depression of stones that had fractured under the stress of its arrival. The monks, conflicted between understandable confusion and undeniable awe, approached it cautiously; tentative steps into a still-scorching courtyard, but a more detailed survey of the sphere only prompted more questions. The fact of its deliberate and unnatural construction was immediate and undeniable: It was a perfect and seamless blend of several different types of materials - crystals, metals and woods all being apparent - each of which represented distinctly precise mechanisms that were seamlessly interlocked and would later prove to interact and affect one another.
One man braved, foolishly, to reach out and touch the sphere’s surface - a tentative tap with the pads of the fore and middle fingers of his left hand - and it activated. Having anticipated or, rather, feared some residual charge or a scalding heat it, must have been as much a relief as a surprise when the markings appeared. Not a language (at least none that had or has been documented as part of the natural development of human communication) the symbols seemed to have been waiting just below the surface of the sphere, appearing in acknowledgement of the fleeting physical contact. Startled, more cautious impulses took over and a blanket was used to cover the sphere in anticipation of a more thorough appraisal by the light of the coming day.
Visibility proved - necessarily - to create more questions than it answered, except with regards to a more precise physical description of the object. Exactly and platonically spherical, it was forty-four centimetres in diameter (as later measurements, reviewed and revised with subsequent advances in technology, would show), and appeared to be made mainly from hematite. This surface was broken up by two thick wooden bands around the sphere’s lower half, themselves braced by thinner silver borders, and a third, much slighter band just above the equatorial line. This upper band was partly obscured by a circle of jet, itself containing three overlapping silver circles, all of which were filled with complex arrangements of the symbols that had made themselves known the night before.
Hopelessly fascinated, and with no frame of reference for what the sphere was (over half a millennium of study and speculation later there is still little certainty around the purpose and provenance of the sphere), the monks moved it into their temple to study it further. Even absent the science to expound upon their instinctual understanding, the monks recognised the tremendous expenditure of power that would be required to convert or convey something through the lightning, and that it pointed to a power and intelligence greater than anything human. Furthermore, with the appearance of the symbols and the way they shifted and flowed according to touch, manipulation of each section affecting at least one other in sometime unpredictable manners, they recognised that the sphere was some sort of puzzle.
It quickly became an all-consuming presence in the monastery, stolen moments in which to study the sphere becoming lost hours, lost days. It went against established practices, against rite and ritual both, but it was proving impossible to ignore. Having no obvious parallel in the established texts of their faith, its very existence raised uncomfortable questions - Was it a test from some higher power? What would happen if the puzzle was solved? - whilst simultaneous offering the potential for previously illusive certainties. The rededication of the faith was gradual, but perhaps inevitable; they would answer the challenge the sphere represented and unlock its mysteries. The monks began to refer to the sphere as Chéngnuò (usually translated into English, with certain liberties taken, as The Promissory), and to document its every detail.
Versions of these records, increasingly diplomatically fraught to access and carefully redacted to disguise any real information on any progress made towards solving The Promissory itself, nonetheless provide an account of everything that happened after the storm. They talk of various internal conflicts and schisms - the question of whether unlocking these mysteries was a holy duty or the most profound and profane blasphemy was the motive for at least one murder - and how the faith, at times, faltered. Worn through by generations upon generations of frustration, belief was sometimes replaced by bureaucracy; a rote commitment rather than acts of zeal and fervour. The monastery was formally dissolved in 1912 (absorbed into the state apparatchik of the fledgling Republic), after which the fate of The Promissory falls to baseless rumour and boundless speculation.