Friday, February 21, 2020

Crypt-Cities: The Greenherders.

Islands of Green in a Sea of Death

You wouldn't expect there to be much of a rapport between Nomads and Holt-Dwellers. Their borders were fluid yet haphazard and cause for tensions for centuries, and that was before the curse of the Awakened gripped the land, before your kind started shambling about and the soil started to die beneath their feet.

And for the most-part, no, they are not on very friendly terms.

But that didn't stop a handful of them from working together when the world began to die.

At first, it was just a couple of the Dwellers who were desperate to move to a healthier tract of forest. The old growth had been dying away, allowing the Nomads to expand their grazing territory. The green-wardens bought their way into a traveling band, who brought with them dozens of wagons laden with plant life. Pots, sacks, and entire troughs of rich, black earth housed hundreds of shoots, sprouts, saplings, and other young green lives desperately trying to grow. When the waste-wanderers dropped them off at their destination, they were given a few choice specimens in payment.

Over time, more nomads gave more holt-dwellers transportation and protection, particularly when an entire community was suddenly cut off from the rest of a forest by sudden natural or unnatural disaster. Some were small affairs, while others saw entire trees uprooted and safely replanted. Something of an understanding formed between the two peoples, and cultural exchange grew deeper.

It isn't entirely clear when the plants started walking themselves.

Maybe some of the old wood-shapers started to meddle in few fields of esoteric knowledge, or maybe they'd always had access to it.

What is known is that a few hundred years ago, the transitional grass belt became populated by mixed bands who herded both animal and plant. Simple words, lassos, and crooks were enough for the beasts, but it took a special kind of magic to coax a shrub into uprooting itself and squirming forward under direction on roots like so many clumsy, twisting legs.

Over time their art was honed and perfected. Soon, trees could drag themselves along by their roots. Before long, entire groves would walk or stumble at the lead of these Greenherders. They were far slower than draft animals, but comparatively implacable so long as they had water to store and good soil to root in at the end of a journey.

It was a natural conclusion of the process to weave them together. Roots not needed for movement were made to knit themselves together into vast meshes which could hold and bear the weight of good soil. Specialized roots bored deep into the earth to tap increasingly hard-to-find groundwater reservoirs. Over time this practice was strengthened until earth, stone, other plants, and even pools of water could be carried by these increasingly large agglomerations of flora.

They could even be inhabited.

Rather than subjecting them to the harsh wastes, the herders loaded their animals up onto a bed of animated earth before every major migration. The dead, human or beast, began to be buried amid those groves so that their every element could benefit their nascent ecosystems. Villages were built on the backs of those groaning forests, entire generations living and dying within view of a wasteland which they were almost able to separate themselves from entirely.

But as the earth continued to wither and resources stretched thin, the greenherders split up. Their bands ranged far and wide, each adapting to the strange and unique hardships of the region which they ultimately found themselves in, following the old paths known only to the Nomads. Roots dug deeper to pursue the fleeing water reserves. Vines as fine as hairs with fingers like cilia cling fiercely to soil for fear of losing a grain. People once at the forefront of a sociable, trans-cultural exchange have become reclusive and wary.

Now, it is vanishingly rare to see more than one or two of these walking green islands in a lifetime.

But when you do, it can be such a sight.

walking island by CoconutMilkyWay


Rot Blossoms

In their quest to become as resource-efficient as possible, a few more unorthodox innovations were made by the greenherders. Simply feeding the dead to the land is rather tame, after all- even if the idea is horrifying to the Awakened.

Their botanists hazarded to guess that a whole body could be made to benefit nature just as much as all its parts. So, they cautiously adapted plant life which could root itself directly in dead flesh without waiting for fungi and other decomposers to break it down first. A few relatively minor mishaps occurred in which calipers and pruning sheers became surgery implements and personal grooming tools, but before long the greenherders enjoyed hauntingly beautiful success.

Cropped from an image by Lora Zombie

A myriad of different plants were raised to grow from decaying flesh, but over time the umbrella term of "Rot Blossom" caught on and stuck. Normally innocuous elements of greenherder islands, Rot Blossoms have taken on quite a different character among the pained, raspy whispers of the Awakened worldwide.

You know them well, don't you? Bet you hate to hear someone confirm that all of the rumors are true, huh? Quit your knee-knocking and pay attention before you break a joint.

Yes, Rot Blossoms can infest the Awakened.

Your flesh may be animated, but it is most certainly decayed. And the slower rate at which you decay actually makes your kind an ideal bed for some of them. They can take root and lazily drain the nutrients from you until there is nothing left of a husk, unable to move as it overtakes your entire body in its sweetly sick tendrils, left to wait for some unlucky scavengers to happen upon you and start the whole cycle over.

Of course these aren't the ones to be feared. You can simply avoid their little boring seeds, or rip a sprout out long before it could suck you dry, resulting in minimal damage to your carcass.

No, you need to fear the ones with minds of their own. The ones released into the wastes by accident, never intended to be used on the Awakened- and therefore the ones without any well-known guards against them. The ones with the same walking-roots as the titanic green islands, but on a minute scale. The ones whose seeds can fly in on the wind, land on your shoulder, and then worm their way into your ear canal. It's just a few finger-widths of wriggling from there before they hit your rotten brain.

That's when the fun starts.

It can take over what little is left of your motor functions from there- subtly at first, of course. You'll think it's you deciding to go this way instead of that, or to lie down in the sun with your head tilted just so, despite never having done so before. But over time its control will grow more overt and difficult to resist without inflicting massive, potentially debilitating trauma upon your own skull.

By the time the first buds erupt from behind your death mask to bloom in the parched air, you'll be powerless to do anything about it.

If you're lucky, you'll have fallen for its intoxicating presence by then, and won't really mind.

What's that? 

Of course you will still be conscious.

Not even burning to ashes can fully kill you, so why would a little decomposer-turned-parasite?

With no heed given to the ever more agonizing pangs of the Need to find a crypt-city, it will lead you far astray. But it won't force you to do it alone, oh no. It knows an ambulatory host is better than a still one, and it has no use or interest in healthy, living bodies. So it will make you bring it to other Awakened, in order to grant its seeds to them. And other Awakened will come in search of you in turn, either to destroy you if they have the sense to, or to join you, damn that alluring reek.

There are tales of truly pungent flower beds tucked away in the ruins of the world; rumors of fallen crypt-cities overgrown with this aberration of nature.

Rot Farm Skeleton by Maciej Kuciara

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Records from the Court of the Smoldering King: Inis Fjall, a Camfeyn Setting.

The contents of these tablets were set in stone in the 1st year of the reign of Nöldra Iron-Ashed, the Smoldering King. Brightly may he reign.

The one who here puts runes to face and feda to corner is the púca named Gulba.

Let it be known that she serves loyally, and willingly.

Long were the King's travels above ground- far longer than for most fey-kind, and in particular for troll-folk. In this time, he learned much which he now desires to share with his formerly recalcitrant kin. For he is wise and compassionate despite the hardship his people have inflicted upon him, and he knows well how we languished under the rule of the capricious princeling.

The King, in his humility, wills it also that the full story of his ascension be made known- for too long have the nobles of the Unseelie Court of the Scintillating Gyre schemed, conspired, and blamed the deaths of their predecessors on unrelated forces.

The veracity of these facts is sworn to by Gulba the scribe, may her luck be taken from her elsewise.

Now begins a chronicle of the events leading up to and following the ascension of the Smoldering King.

Let it be known that the skógtroll named Nöldra was exiled from the Court of the Gyre 187 autumns ago this day as punishment for the deaths of 11 other fey, for which he was found responsible.

Let it be known that before his removal from the princedom, Nöldra was made to wear a shirt of mail forged from cold iron rings.

Let it be known that Nöldra was expected to die in exile, the cold iron shirt forever searing his flesh and denying him rest and regeneration.

Let it be known that the skógtroll now known as Nöldra Iron-Ashed did not die, and instead slew and deposed on this day Prince Dímaín the duine sídhe, last of his house.

Let it be known that this was done by way of a crown of cold iron, which burned the prince to ashes after he was deceived into donning it by the exile, who feigned supplication.

Let it be known that no soul in the court of Prince Dímaín lent aid to the dying prince as he ran screaming.

Let it be known that some among the late prince's courtiers laughed as he died.

Let it be known that Nöldra Iron-Ashed declared himself king, took up this crown once he had wrenched it from the princeling's scoured husk, and now wears it smoldering upon an unflinching brow.

Let it be known that King Nöldra Iron-Ashed now calls to his side Hallvardur the Many-Faced as his chief adviser and jester, as Prince Dímaín had done before.

Let it be known that Prince Dímaín's death mask has been cast and added to the collection of Hallvardur the Many-Faced.

Let it be known that King Nöldra Iron-Ashed now bestows upon the late Prince Dímaín the posthumous title of "Silver-Gilt", and that laughter returns to the courtiers of the Gyre, now louder.

Now ends the chronicle of the ascension of the Smoldering King.

Now begins his address to the fey of the Court of the Scintillating Gyre.


Troll King by Eoghan Kerrigan

"Know, O Beloved Ones, that I am not king by divine right. I am not king by rule of law. I am not king by vote or consent. I am king by seizure and bloodshed, as every ruler of this court has been since the mists first receded from the land. I have done nothing to earn your trust, or your obedience. I do not expect either. I do not expect to rule long, regardless.

So I will welcome your knives, if and when you brandish them against me.

I will welcome them, and then I will put you to a burning death.

For I am king, by strength of will and grim vision. And I will drag us all kicking and screaming into the light, lest what I have foreseen come to pass.

The world above these roots and burrows is changing. No doubt you have heard the rumors.

The selkies of the southern coast have made war upon the interloping jötnar of the broken tors, who have been pushed from their land by several flocks of sluagh from the west. The Seelie Court of the Pierced Hart has ceased all trooping, and has shut its silver gates after a recent hunting procession disturbed the cairns of several draugar.

Indeed, these events may sound like small news by themselves. But taken together, they reveal the imbalance we have been thrown into. These events and others have been plaguing our kind more and more regularly, and the need has come again to take stock of the world, and reckon the passage of time as mortals do.

For the manlings of Inis Fjall are also in a great hurry these seasons. I have heard the whispers in their homes, and seen the turmoil in their cities. I have watched them rip open the breast of the island with their tools, and I have watched them seize from it so many lumps of the killing-ore.

The humans are mining iron at an ever-greater pace.

Calm yourselves, Beloved Ones. This is not cause for fear, but cause for action.

We know not if this iron will remain cold, or if it may yet be worked to turn against their fellows. There is anger and resentment between the ones who are named Jarl. The lowland sowers of the earth look with a hungry gaze toward the hills of the red hideaways. The whale-roads bear strange ships to shore.

Our home is fast-approaching a turning point, and we will not survive if we choose to remain hidden. Look into my brow-stones and know the truth that I speak when I say that we may need to stand beside the mortals before the end.

Calm yourself, court of the Smoldering King! I command you to quiet! You forget yourselves.

...

I have ascended into the trackless wilds of my kin's genesis. The dwellers under root and rune have been casting their bones for seasons, yet only recently have they begun to portend doom. The arms of the Drummer are growing tired, His mallets heavy in his white-knuckled grip. Soon He Shall Rest, and with the end of his playing will come the Hunting Time.

You all know what will happen in the event that this comes to pass.

Emptiness and Silence will awaken.

I do not wish to break the pact that my people made at the Bleak Dawn. But I am king now, and a lord must also protect his subjects. I will do all that is in my power to avert this mighty doom before it reaches our people, and you will serve me in doing so. There is much to do, and Soon Skårl Shall Rest.

I summon now the heads of your clans and families, great and small, so that they may muster together here, and in sight of the throne which anchors us, talk of what is to come."



Now ends the address of Nöldra Iron-Ashed, the Smoldering King.

Now begins the First Mustering of the reign of Nöldra Iron-Ashed, the Smoldering King.

Copies of this and other pertinent chronicles shall be cast out to every distant hollow of the court of the Gyre, so that all may know the gravity and veracity of our lord's words.

It is the will of the Smoldering King to enumerate these and other events for the benefit of all fey-kind. The world of mortals is fast-changing, and we must be prepared lest the tide sweep us away.

For Soon Skårl Shall Rest.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Furt Digs Into Incursion: Halls of the Goblin King

Despite my anxiety toward OSR RPGs and my recent tendency to wilt in the face of choices with meaningful consequences in video games, I am no stranger to the genre which is about as close as you can get to a midpoint between those two: roguelikes.

Sparse in visuals, slow in pace, and startlingly sudden in killing your characters, these semi-randomized permadeath dungeon crawlers have been around for over forty years now. There are plenty of variations on the formula by now, but they generally share a few things in common: you wander through procedurally-generated dungeons in search of an important something on the bottom floor, and when you die you lose nearly everything.

I'd become at least dimly aware of their existence in the early 2000s thanks to video game pop-cultural osmosis, but I stayed far away from them because it all felt too obtuse and cumbersome for me. Also, I might have been turned off by my completely mistaken impression that the original Rogue was a semi-hard science fiction game.

It wasn't until I was beginning high school that I became interested in giving one a shot. Somehow, I completely stumbled past Rogue, Angband, Nethack, ADOM, and pretty much every other big-name roguelike on the internet with little more than a glance, and wound up picking a fairly obscure title as my first foray into the genre.

The bane of my mid teen years. And my eyeballs.

Incursion: Halls of the Goblin King, released in 2007, is unique among roguelikes for how heavily it is inspired by Dungeons & Dragons. Of course most roguelikes ever since the first have been inspired by D&D and other high fantasy sources to some degree, but (to my knowledge) only Incursion rips mechanics right out of the d20 3rd Edition ruleset.

You pick a species and class combination, choose feats, distribute skill points, and rely upon a whole bunch of simulated die rolls which use the six classic ability scores, plus the addition of a seventh Luck stat. This makes the game a bit more complex than the average roguelike, and even gives you an illusion of control- if you can survive the early levels long enough, you can start to get your own personal character build online.

Since 90% of my experience with D&D has been through building characters to fit concepts, I find that last part very enticing.

The importance of building one's character can lead to the same wonky imbalance as in D&D 3E, of course. Mundane and half-casting classes begin with survivability or some neat tricks, but quickly fall behind with the exception of rogues, who can get by on magic items and backstabs alone. While the game does a surprising job of mitigating the power of wizards, druids are mighty on such a terrifying scale that some guy even wrote a guide on doing literally anything with them and soloing the game handily.

Once inside of the miniature megadungeon, you're faced with many of the classic challenges: monsters, traps, hunger, and your fellow sapient adventurers, who may be friendly, hostile, or completely indifferent to your presence. An unseen town above the dungeon offers you a bit of respite, including an inn to rest at and a store to buy equipment from. You can even choose to retire a character to it permanently, in case you ever decide "screw it" and quit while you're ahead.

The caves are pitch black, and characters without dark or infravision will need a whole lot of torches or other light sources to see what they're doing. Health doesn't regenerate naturally, and sleeping in the dungeon eats through your food while leaving you open to ambush. Stealthy or invisible enemies are common, and it isn't unusual for something out-of-depth to get the jump on you very early in a run. Other than a scattering of eight potions in the first room of the first floor--five healing and three short-range teleports--nothing is guaranteed for you, and anything can be taken away by a successful disarm or sunder check.

Combining these aspects together gives Incursion a surprisingly foreboding, oppressive atmosphere for a game made entirely out of ASCII visuals. When you enter that first room, a text box describes to you the bloody remains of your fellow adventurers strewn about the floor, and you can rest assured that you will join them before long.

But until that time comes, you have the damp, cold solitude of the dungeon halls in which to contemplate how you'll handle your next messy, hectic clash with the dungeon's denizens. Detailed descriptions pop up with each new chamber you discover, giving glimpses into what this ancient mega-structure was once used for.

As with a lot of roguelikes, the plot is pretty bare-bones: you are one of many adventurers who has come to an out-of-the-way cave complex after hearing about an army amassing deep below ground. Your job is to descend to the lowest level of the dungeon and kill the eponymous Goblin King.

No, not that one.

Incursion makes up for this by having the beginnings of rich setting lore. Most of it is front-loaded in the descriptions of races and deities during character creation. The entries can be pieced together to illustrate the fantasy world of Theyra, which has already seen a lot of trouble, but is on the cusp of yet another nasty prophesy coming true. I really like a couple of the snippets of lore provided this way.

One of the gods of Theyra is a being known as Kysul, the Watcher Beneath the Waves. It is an unfathomably vast, tentacled consciousness from a doomed world, capable of shattering sanity with a glimpse of its true form and spawning countless aberrations upon the material plane by mere incident of its existence.

It is unknowable. It is terrifying. It is Lawful Good.

Kysul is a being of limitless, if alien, compassion, and it wants to protect the world which it has adopted as its own. It knows that its appearance is dreadful, and so it conceals itself to mortals, even its own clandestine clergy, which operates with all the trappings of a stereotypical cult but puts the utmost emphasis on ethical conduct, both with regards to doing its work, and with initiating its new members into Kysul's mysteries.

All of the tropes of cosmic, eldritch horror are neatly subverted in this big, slimy teddy bear of a god that just wants to make sure its home world's fate isn't shared by others. Theyra's backstory references some mages starting a war when they made pacts with horrors from beyond the pale. Perhaps Kysul has known their ilk before.

It's still thoroughly alien to the natural order of the game world, however, and both angels and demons count Kysul among their enemies. Lizardfolk, who have their own alien mindset in this world, regard it with some measure of respect and have been known to work alongside Kysul. It also appears to be fond of speaking in antiquated, flowery language, if its cleric intro is anything to go by.

"Seek now thine antediluvian progenitors that in sunken cities for eons have lain."

Another neat couple of details are about the playable orcs, because of course I had to insert my agenda into this article somehow.

The orcs of Theyra are peoples who are just throwing off the yoke of generic, villainous minionhood. They've been bred as stupid, burly slaves for centuries by demons and unscrupulous humans. But they recently initiated a slave revolt in Mohandi, an empire whose lands included the entrance to the goblin caves. The orc rebels freed all of the slaves in Mohandi, "good" races included, and now play a large role in the economy and politics of the formerly expansionist empire from within a number of anarchist communes. They've also developed their own gunpowder weapons, which is an accomplishment not even the technologically advanced but extremely hidebound dwarves of the setting can boast of.

The patron goddess of the orcs is Khasrach, who is also venerated by goblinoids goblin-speaking peoples. She is the Goddess of the Blood, and for good reason. She is fiercely protective of her children, as well as violent and demanding of blood sacrifice. Centuries of her peoples' debasement has twisted her into a vengeful and sometimes savage goddess. The bark she gives at the beginning of the game when you choose to play as one of her faithful pretty well illustrates her general mood:

"Smite now your slave-chains with the primal fire of my wrath!"

Khasrach is basically what you'd get if every orcish mother goddess dumped their chauvinist husband and then decided to help her people seize the means of production.

Presumably after hiring a couple of babysitters.

She isn't locked into this savagery, however. Her profile leaves open the question of whether or not enough change in the outlook of her people could transform her and bring her back to the more levelheaded, spiritual state of being she enjoyed in ancient times.

Recreation of the goddess is one aspect of an orcish cultural movement which seeks to rediscover the primeval society and values of their people, pure and free of influence from fiends or other species. This neo-tribal movement is currently vying for political dominance with the more cosmopolitan city orcs and stereotypical/traditionalist marauding orc hordes, and only time will tell who winds up on top and what that means for their people.

Or, actually, time won't tell. The game is actually sort of dead.

Surprise! This was actually a Things I Wish They Did More With post this whole time!

Development of Incursion slowed to a halt a few years after its first unfinished release, and it languished for a while until the creator finally admitted that they were doing other stuff and wouldn't be continuing the project. Fortunately they released the source code for the game, and someone else picked it up long enough in 2014 to patch some bugs up and convert the game to use libtcod instead of an outdated version of Allegro.

I have no idea what those last few words mean, but they feel important.

No one has stepped up to continue proper development of Incursion, though. The game's site has gone down and requires use of the Wayback Machine to access, the wiki is only partly filled out, and the Google Group used by its community hasn't seen any significant activity in the past two years as of this writing. The TVTropes page on the game, of all places, is the best source for information and download links today.

Incursion is effectively dead, and its envisioned full version, Return of the Forsaken, will likely never see realization.

Even so, I reinstalled the game a few days ago to take a couple of unsuccessful stabs at it. Being frozen in time with no end doesn't discourage me from playing as much as it would another game. It was a neat, odd idea that was executed with a lot of hiccups, and that's enough for me to appreciate. I can romp through and die every once in a while without too much worry.

I do wish the game could get a graphical tileset, though.

That little chump wrecked me, by the way.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Graft-Elves.

Elves are just a fairy tale. Everyone knows that.

There are no little people living in holes in rocks, or beautiful flaxen people living in trees, or beautiful little flaxen people living in rocks in trees for that matter.

There are no elves.

Or at least, there weren't any. Not before they tried creating themselves.

No one knows who the original tribe of scavengers was, what they looked like, or what they called themselves. All that is known is that they were sick.

Sick of body, that is. They were diseased, wracked by horrible afflictions and conditions which ensured that they each died a painful, early death. Gelid bones snapped like twigs and pallid skin ripped like paper. Buboes wept across each frail, emaciated form. Every child born was mourned as if it was their funeral- and after a fashion, it was. Life was painful death.

Perhaps their homeland was contaminated. Perhaps a god was angry with them.

If any of them even remember, they aren't telling. It doesn't matter anymore.

What matters is that one day, they found a way to beat the hellish lot they'd been given.

Consummate surgeons as a matter of course, the wretched kin were no strangers to excision and amputation. But as these short-lived creatures honed their skills over the desperately scrambling generations, a strong undercurrent of grotesque and creative experimentation developed.

If there were only some way to unlock the true potential of their flesh, they could save their people.

Eventually, they discovered the truth. That their own flesh was irredeemable.

But the flesh of others, meanwhile...

The first grafting was done using spare parts from carcasses found in the wild. They were messy, unsuccessful affairs that ended in rejection and infection. But they sparked a desperate hope in their palpitating hearts and gave an extra glint to their knives. They honed their craft, catching live specimens for extensive study until they could determine ideal "donor" conditions.

At last, there was success. A mismatched paw grafted onto an arm's stump. It succumbed to the same diseases as the rest of its body in the end, but it deteriorated just slowly enough to give the cutters and slicers the last terrible inspiration they needed:

If enough fresh, spare parts could be kept on hand, they could be swapped out faster than they decayed. Skin, limbs, tissues, vital organs, all could be replaced. Longevity could be achieved.

The first of the truly grafted were frightening amalgamations of parts taken from whatever animals they could hunt. But they were looked upon with such hope and adoration. The plague burned slowly within them still, but it could be fought.

Life expectancy began to rise. It was a mere few weeks here and there, but that was enough to feel like a lifetime to the wretched kin. Many more of them flocked to be augmented, and the demand for spare parts steadily rose.

It wasn't long before they looked to other people as a source of parts. Those who had shunned and shunted out those anemic little creatures were now looked upon with a fascination bordering on hunger. They were a better fit, being humanoid. And while abnormality and asymmetry had been the norm for generations by that point, there was a certain aesthetic tickle to having healthier arms and legs than any of them had ever been born with.

The grafted ones stalked the wilds, hunting only the strongest and healthiest humanoids they could find at first, and harvesting them on the spot.

It wasn't long before their actions became known to the wider world, their vile handiwork chalked up to fey and capricious mythical creatures.

At first they were indifferent to their operations being attributed to cryptids. It made their jobs easier, if nothing else. But over time they grew coolly curious about these "Fair Folk" the donors kept screaming about. Curiosity turned to fascination as they pried more and more elaborate stories out alongside tissues.

These Fair Folk, these "Elves" as they called them, were as beautiful as they were frightening. They commanded the respect of the donors, and from the sound of it they lived to be centuries old, if indeed they ever died at all.

Such wonders were unimaginable to the wretched kin. They imagined what could be gained from finding these people and studying them. There were no secrets in their own flesh, but surely the tissues of the elves held the key to their future!

Unfortunately, try as they might they could not find any of these elves, let alone harvest them. No matter how deep into the uncharted and ancient wilds they crept, they could not be found.

Eventually it occurred to them that they truly did not exist.

But they did not let despair grip their freshly transplanted hearts. Doing the best they could with the dead meat of any given situation was in their nature. And so they turned the elf from an object of admiration, to an object of aspiration.

The grafted ones endeavored to become elves made flesh.

Of course, no two of these new "elves" completely agreed on what an elf should look like. Differing aesthetics resulted in highly individuated forms, each elf a patchwork of different parts fitted together into an uncanny whole.

Life expectancy surpassed their formerly wildest hopes and dreams, but that was no longer enough. Now, the long centuries were spent honing and fine-tuning. No longer was there a demand for mere healthy parts. Now they had to look and feel a certain way. They needed to be custom-fitted for any purpose.

In fairy tales, children are kidnapped from their cradles at night to live with the elves forever.

Now, in reality, this is technically true, depending on one's definition of "live" and "forever".

When a child is whisked away, they and any descendants they are made to have effectively become humanoid cattle, raised for the explicit purpose of being harvested for as many parts as possible.

How and when this happens depends on the purpose each donor is given. Some are given gilded cages and treated like pampered veal to keep their parts delicate and unblemished. Others are put through rigorous training regimens until they have reached their prime. Others still are given all manner of apparatuses and surgical "adjustments" to ensure that they grow into the desired shape and form, sometimes quite unnatural.

All are treated with the same care and borderline sacrosanct adoration, however. Not for the sum which they are, but for the parts of the whole and the potential lying in wait therein.

Perhaps it is best that most donors do not realize this, even as the knife is coming down.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Tulpa.

Once, there was a person.

Little more about their identity is known than that.

They were a person, overcome by grief at the cruel nature of the world. So overcome that in their wandering, they collapsed at the foot of a gnarled old buckthorn tree. There, they vowed to lie in misery until they were released from their mortal coil.

And there they laid, slowly withering away- but they did not die. Days passed, but thirst did not kill them. Weeks went by, but their cavernous stomach brought no premature end.

At first, they raged against this too. How could life, so wretched, have sunken its claws so deep into them?

But over time, grief turned to contemplation, and then to meditation. They propped themselves up against the trunk of that old buckthorn and laid amid its itching, stinging barbs, but felt no more discomfort. Bugs and insects bit at their skin, and the elements whipped at them, but there was no more pain. Their thoughts traveled far and probed deep, fueled by their negative energy until it was burned up in full.

It was then that clarity took hold.

They were far from the first or most auspicious of the enlightened, but they too crossed that threshold nonetheless. The ultimate reality of the universe began to take shape within their mind, hardening and coming into focus until it glimmered like a brilliant, cerulean jewel within their mind's eye. And then that jewel took shape, and expanded across their entire being, encasing them in adamant as firm as steel. Enclosed within, the accidental ascetic entered a deep and profound dream-state.

The buckthorn tree overhead died, and the land all around them withered away into a desert, yet that jewel remained, fast-growing and unblemished.

Until it was not.

As the crystal expanded alongside the expansion of the dreamer's consciousness, fractures began to appear across its vertices. These cracks deepened and spiderwebbed across the jewel's surface, until at last the first shards fell from that sky-blue expanse.

When the shards landed, they took shape. Long slivers became limbs. Chunks became torsos and a surmounting head. Fragments clung together as digits and joints. Thinking, comprehending minds born of the dreamer's power of thought filled their bodies. When the shards landed, they landed on their own two feet.

They stood up then, and became the first to behold that self-same jewel. Dimly could they see within its depths, and at once did they recognize the dreamer within to be the creator of this thought-form and all of their kind. They looked upon their parent with wonder, and soon began to meditate upon its nature, as well as their own.

In short order it was found that they too possessed a creative power of their own. Things of wonder and beauty translated themselves from their crystalline minds to the physical world through their jagged fingertips. Spires like petrified forests did grow, and thrones like lotus blossoms did bloom. They spoke to one and all at once, no secrets kept hidden, everything laid bare, and from that reflecting pool rose ever-greater achievements.

They taught their meditative techniques to each generation as they cleaved off of the brilliant mother lode. Contemplation turned to gratitude, to veneration, and to reinforcement of those ideas among their peers. This was not their god--no, gods are not so different from living, dying things--but this was someone worthy of their devotion and protection.

So when the first deeper cracks began to form in the mother jewel, the angular thought-forms grew concerned. When the shards which fell from those gaping wounds laid lifeless and without animating minds, they grew alarmed. And when those among them with foresight saw the cracks reaching so deep that the dreamer itself would be threatened, they grew to fear death for the first, awful time.

They knew that they were products of that unconscious mind. If the dreamer woke, or if the dreamer died, then what hope would there be for them? They would be blown away like leaves on the wind, snuffed out like the flame of a candle. Their nascent world would come to an end, and they did not want that. So they turned their minds toward the crystal, rather than the dreamer within. They focused their every thought and effort toward its preservation, and slowly but surely, the cracks began to narrow and vanish. When shards did fall away, they rose up once more- and were promptly put to work preserving the dreamer.

A society once so wide in scope of thought and imagination now turned inward, and all else began to fall by the wayside.

It wasn't long before doubt first appeared.

Is this the true path? Do all things around us not die? Why then do we persist? Was the dreamer not born of the living and dying world? Does the dreamer, in its wisdom, not foresee the inevitable? Why should it be exempt? Why should we be exempt? What is to be feared in death? What is death to the dead? Does moksha come?

Like a nail scraping against a mirror-polished surface, these questions cut through once-uniform thought and feeling. Fear not felt since the first cracks appeared returned anew, but its edge was sharpened and honed by the knowledge that those among their number harbored its cause. At first they were ignored and marginalized as best they could be. But when those doubts grew louder, the doubters were lashed out at, beaten and driven away to the edges of that stagnating domain. When still they would not quiet, a word was given that cut across all din and dispute: begone.

Chipped and illused, these sowers of disquiet left the land of unending firmity against unstoppable erosion, and began to walk the world at large. Now, strange things in a stranger land, they seek deeper truths and insights into the ultimate meaning and meaninglessness of reality. But they have not forgotten or forsaken the home they left behind. They will return one day when their doubts have borne fruits of knowledge. They will bring them back in order to nourish the enlightenment of those whose fear drives them to cling to the static and unchanging. They will bring comfort and compassion to the woeful many, and see the artificial growth of the crystal halted.

They will greet the dreamer beneath buckthorn tree, and they will know only peace and acceptance.

For Moksha Comes.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Goblin Brain: Veterinarians Can Send Your Pets to Valhalla


I... don't know why I insist on starting every one of these audio posts with such a pained, drawn-out "I".

Hello, dear Burrowers, if there are any of you out there still. My apologies for vanishing again.

I'm still alive! Fortunately my Narblesnard went as well as can be hoped, and my acorns were enough to sate the squirrels this year.

I had myself another bit of a spiral over here, which coupled with the cold weather to ensure that I wrote nothing and wanted to write even less than that. But I'm still breathing, and doing things like making phone calls and reorganizing my bedroom to maintain the illusion of having meaningful control.

You can rest easy, or alternatively become annoyed to know, that I will be returning to periodic posting again soon, and that they will be far more relevant to my blog than these Goblin Brain episodes. I'm just tacking this onto one because it is a very overdue draft that was sitting on my dashboard... among thirty or forty others.

So, stay warm out there, depending on your hemisphere and particular climate, and thank you for listening.





I've never technically owned a pet.

Of course I've lived in a house with pets whom I interacted with, past and present.

And on at least a few occasions I've been mistaken for a pet, though that's a story for another time.

Or, probably not, actually...

Anyway!

I've never technically owned a pet. They've always belonged to my parents, and they've always been the ones chiefly responsible for all of the duties that pet-having entails. Not from a lack of willingness to participate on my part, but because my parents always found it easier or at least simpler to just do the things by themselves rather than teach me and set me up to do them properly after that period. Like they had a unique, noncommunicable technique for cleaning out the litter boxes, or for changing the water in the fishbowl, or what have you.

I think they did a lot of similar sunk-cost calculations with regards to my upbringing, come to think of it...

Lacking any real responsibility for the pets we've shared our home with over the years, I probably had a markedly different relationship with them than normal, er... goblin children do. Coupled with the fact that all of our cats, or a full two-thirds of the pets we've owned, were strays we took in and fixed up, it's always been the norm for me to have an awkward, distant coexistence with pets.

Like having a roommate who's always twitchy and nervous and might scratch you, and vomits a little too frequently on the carpet.

Even so, I came to befriend our last batch of cats a good deal.

We currently have a psychotic female tuxedo cat, but a year-and-a-half ago we also had an overweight female longhair, and a gingery, neurotic male tabby. They came to us at different times and ages and had vastly different personalities that lent themselves well to inventing bizarre voices for, as pet people are wont to do. Some of the most amusing conversations to ever go on in our house were done through the cats.

(People do that, right?)

I had an affinity for the tabby in particular. He would claw his way into my bedroom to demand obnoxious amounts of pets from me. We would bunt by headbutting at the dinner table often. I was usually the one to voice his persona. For the record, he was a clueless, blustering, but well-meaning old man from NYC's Lower-East Side who had a tendency to barge into the room to incorrectly correct someone's pronunciation of a word, make a lousy pun, or beg for ham.

My mother jokingly said he was my little brother.

He was the first one to be euthanized, in autumn of the year before last, if my memory still serves me. Conjunctivitis from scratching himself in the eye, and necrosis of the jaw tissue from us being poverty-stricken fools who didn't know enough about cat dental health to take him to the vet we couldn't afford often enough.

I wept like a family member had died. I suppose one did.

Our big, tubby, stupid sweetheart of a longhair went a few months later in the winter, due to a combination of the condition apparently known as megacolon, and--you guessed it--poor dental care.

It hurt just as much, but my eyes were drier that time. It felt like I didn't have the right to mourn, not while my mother and father were despondent and angry with guilt.

We'd made a friend in the vet who looked at both of them, though. A young, tall man, fabulously flamboyant man, who'd done everything in his impressive ability to fix our mistakes for both cats. He was saddened, but also consoled my parents for making the right choice in putting each of them down when those days came.

It was likely at his urging that the vet staff all got together to sign a card specifically designed for the occasion of dead pets. I didn't know those were a thing.

I also didn't know anything about those apparently well-known poems from the '80s and '90s about pets entering into heaven by crossing a rainbow.

The poem we got for our tabby was like any of the others, well-meaning and stomach-achingly saccharine. Our cat had apparently entered an idyllic meadow fully restored to health and happiness, among many other former pets, all waiting at the foot of the rainbow that bridges the gap between earth and the afterlife. When the owner finally dies, they're reunited for good, and make the crossing together.

Of course, being the mythology nerd that I am, I had a very different context for a poem involving a "rainbow bridge".

I immediately pictured him stepping onto the Bifröst, schmoozing his way past a bemused Heimdallr, getting lost in his wanderings through Asgard, and eventually winding up at the feet of Freyja in Fólkvangr. Sure he'd be too small to help pull her chariot, but he could tag along anyway, and the skogkatts could show him the ropes before long.

It was a comforting thing to pretend, even if it was only that.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Lamplighters: Pallite

"Finish whatever thought you are writing and then proceed this way, class.

This area is the morgue, which the administrators of the mine have been kind enough to allow us access to for this trip. Be grateful, pay close attention, and do not touch anything.

As I am sure you all know, the extraction of pallite is not without its dangers to the human body. What you are about to witness are the remains of a miner who has regrettably died from pallite poisoning in the past week. I am told that his name was Navin. While this is unfortunate for him, his family was selfless and considerate enough to donate his body to science. Take that to heart and show your respect, please- these are the men and women who keep your homes illuminated.

... Now, now. Keep it together, everyone. I warned you about eating lunch before coming here.

I am sure that some of you noticed the smell as soon as you entered. You've been looking particularly green around the gills since you walked in, Alisher. These body bags are made of very heavy-duty material, but even they have trouble suppressing an advanced case like this. Mind you, class, that this is not the scent of decay that you are smelling. This is the smell of raw, unrefined pallite. The smell clings to you long after everything has been scrubbed down with chemical wipes.

If you will step in closer--I said, if you will step in closer, thank you very much--you will see how advanced the tumors grew before Mr. Navin expired. Four of them metastasized, and the fifth here on his abdomen was well on its way.

See also how early signs of squamous-cell skin cancer began to appear on his face, as well as around his hands and lower legs- all of which are normally completely covered in protective clothing.

Yes, Rani, question?

I'm sorry?

Rani, Mr. Navin was not the victim of any "containment breach". There haven't been any breaches at any facility owned and operated by Morning Star Limited in half a decade, or so I am told.

This is the result of constant, low-level exposure to pallite radiation over the course of an average twenty-year career. As far as other Depth-3 miners are concerned, he died of natural causes.

Now please stand back while I attempt to excise one of his corneas.The damage caused by years of direct pallite illumination is quite distinct, and can even manifest as physical scratches on occasion..."

- Dr. Baruch Yohannes, Professor of Pathology at Canopus' Landing Polytechnic


A Brief History

The miracle fuel known as Pallite was discovered sixty-eight years ago.

It wasn't "discovered" so much as "stumbled onto by a half-dozen independent actors simultaneously", of course. Had it been the product of only a single team's experimentation, the human race would have come even closer to extinction at the end of the sun's final hours.

The first pallite deposits to be found were gas jets and liquid reservoirs close to the planet's surface. They were found by the lucky few who managed to bore deep enough into the earth to escape the immensity of the dark above ground. They were horrific sights, like sulfur lakes crossed with volcanic eruptions. But the lurid light each outcropping shed was different from the mundane sources of illumination that the survivors brought with them. It was enough to keep the deeper darkness at bay.

It was enough to draw humanity to it like moths to a flame.

As those filthy, fear-ridden refugee camps grew in size, their occupants dug deeper in order to compensate. It wasn't long before their picks and shovels struck pallite in its solid state. Being somewhat more stable in its crumbly mineral form, this was the first type of pallite which was deliberately harnessed as a light source.

Through painful trial and error, it was eventually adapted as a fuel just as it was needed most. Solar energy died with the sun, rendering the majority of non-emergency power sources useless. Centuries of abuse prior to that ensured that fossil fuel reserves were either depleted, or buried so far beneath the earth that the amount of labor available to humanity made extraction impossible. Not even burning wood was an option before long, thanks to the darkness caking up over the dead forests of the world. Anything that still grew out there was tainted. Geothermal and hydro power are still theoretically possible, and small attempts would be made to take advantage of them in the future.

But in that desperate time, humanity gave itself to pallite.

It embraced them, and in doing so exacted its price.

Properties of Pallite

There is no general consensus on what exactly pallite is. Theories posit that it is a newly discovered element, a group of isotopes of one or several elements, or more complex chemical compounds whose catalysts for creation are completely mysterious to experts at this time. Attempts to observe the atomic qualities of pallite have proven unsuccessful, primarily because of a lack of necessary equipment and professionals trained in its use.

In all states, its density and vapor pressure are slightly higher than that of sulfur. This, coupled with pallite's coloration and distinctive odor, has led some to draw the conclusion that pallite is some form of sulfur. While exposed to open air, pallite naturally evaporates or sublimates into a gaseous state and then dissipates over time according to its MTP-adjusted half-life.

(MTP Adjustment refers to the manner in which pallite "breaks" the normal laws of radioactive decay, if indeed that is even what you can call the change which pallite undergoes. Under normal conditions, any radioactive substance decays at a certain rate which is proportionate to its nuclear mass and unaffected by temperature or pressure. In pallite decay however, decay is theorized to be slowed down exponentially by the presence of other pallite nuclei, but sped up by applied temperature and pressure. To quote a cliche from a bygone era, "further research is needed".)

This release of energy results in pallite's "pallid light" and radioactivity. Applied heat or agitation of pallite in any state causes a higher release of energy. Sufficient disruption results in combustion. Efforts to observe or force the transition of gaseous and liquid pallite back into a solid state have ended... poorly.

It is unknown by what mechanism concentrations of pallite appear on or near the earth's surface. The leading theory is that the topographical phenomena caused by unobserved areas of steeped darkness penetrates deeper into the planet's mantle than first guessed. This deep and sometimes violent disruption allows outcroppings of pallite to rise up to the surface from whatever point of origin they have.

Carcinogenic Qualities

Pallite illumination offers few of the benefits that the sun once did.

It offers no Vitamin D, but very high levels of Vitamin C(ancer), and its strange properties vex many common-sense precautions. For example, an electrical generator should generate the same kind of electricity no matter what fuel it's designed to use. Pallite-generated electrical power, however, carries with it just a hint of its unique radiation, even through miles of wire. It simply shouldn't, but it does. This is doubly troubling due to the fact that over 90% of food is grown or raised under pallite-powered grow-lights. As heavily shielded as those lights may be, they can't block 100% of harmful radiation.

The average uninvolved citizen of a larger town has relatively little to worry about in terms of death by direct pallite poisoning, barring freak accidents such as explosions which could irradiate a building or area. But they do still live with moderately higher risks of illness or congenital conditions than people did before the Long Night began.

This moderate background fear is not the case for people who live in smaller settlements, or who have careers directly involved in the handling of pallite, such as Lamplighters and many trade workers. They face the much more serious risk of complications from handling, maintaining, or fueling pallite machinery, and it is much more common for sickness to manifest in several ways. Pallite miners or extractors rarely grow old enough to retire, and the average life expectancy of human beings in general has been pulled down by anywhere from five to fifteen years compared to a century ago.

Random Pallite Effects

While its effects are not as severe as those of deep darkness, exposure to raw, unrefined pallite can lead to a host of physical and mental health complications over time.

The average manual worker directly involved in the extraction of refinement of raw pallite, whatever its form, will eventually accumulate as many as four or five of the below conditions.

The average Lamplighter worth their salt suffers from at least one symptom of pallite poisoning, either rolled for, picked, or invented and agreed upon between the player and referee.

1d20
Pallite Poisoning Symptom, Mutation, or Condition
1
Adermatoglyphia – Years of handling raw pallite rock, or years of scrubbing away its greasy residue, have left you without fingerprints. You also lack sensation in your palms.
2
Alopecia Areata – Say goodbye to eyebrows, eyelashes, and other types of hair. It happens at random, and very unevenly.
3
Anosmia – A lifetime of steeping in the reek of unrefined pallite has deadened your sense of smell, and some of your taste.
4
Blindness – The lurid yellow has taken most of your sight from you, leaving you with visibly warped and damaged corneas. You can still detect pallite lights, somehow.
5
Cutaneous Horns – A little splash here and there has left you with several conical projections from the epidermis resembling horn, wood, or even coral. They make clothes and hats ill-fitting.
6
D-Deficiency – Your vitamin deficiency is even worse than most. You enjoy weaker bones as well as increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment, and all the cancers caused by pallite.
7
Flash Fever – A sudden, high dose of radiation from a mishap has left you vulnerable to episodes of elevated body temperature and delirium.
8
Haemolumia – Your red blood cells have become luridly bioluminescent. Some areas of your body even glow in the dark. That can’t be good.
9
Intestinal Distress – At one end or the other, your digestive tract has decided to take a long-term purgative approach to some radiation sickness.
10
Irradiated Gametes – Pallite has guaranteed the survival of future generations of humans, but it has also left its indelible mark upon them. Expect higher rates of mutation in your progeny.
11
Miner’s Perfume – The smell of pallite never leaves you. It’s in your skin, hair, and breath. It’s pretty bad. Don’t expect to make many friends.
12
Nyctophobia – You take greater comfort from the lurid glow than most. Without a light source close at hand, you are stressed and on edge. In a world where everyone fears the dark, you have an extreme fear of it. This may not improve your chances of survival in the long-run.
13
Pallite Allergy – How did you even survive to adulthood with this?
14
Pallite Tan – Your skin has been discolored by pallite radiation. Probably does not look like any natural skin tone. Not that you had a natural pallor to begin with.
15
Polydactyly – Beginnings of extra fingers and toes are appearing on your extremities. Invest in specialty gloves or shoes.
16
Pulmonary Sequestration – An extra lobe is growing off of one or both of your lungs, courtesy of pallite gas inhalation. The lobes are nonfunctional and take up space.
17
Siphoner’s Shakes – Your nervous system has started to reject pallite exposure- as well as most of the rest of your body. Constant or episodic tremors are common.
18
Sunsong – An auditory hallucination which leads you to believe that you can hear pallite resonating or “singing”. Occasionally drowns out all other noises.
19
Tumors – Handing them out like consolation prizes at an old game show. Whatever that is.
20
Weakness – Fatigue comes to you quickly, and it doesn’t take much to leave you looking anemic.