Sunday, June 16, 2019

A Day in the Death, Part 2.

The coffin, he rested against a tree again. His staff, he asked the coffin's occupant to please hold onto, and so leaned it against that.

He then found himself a nice, sturdy stick with one tapering end that he didn't mind getting damaged. With this, he struck the earth. He dug and raked, and then cleared the debris away with his feet, until he'd made himself a clearing. Then he bit deeper into the topsoil, using both hands to twist and wedge the digging stick in and turn up dirt from a single deep hole. He did this several times, each at the edge of the clearing, until he'd completed a ring several paces in diameter.

Back into the trees he moved then, ears trained on the distant sound of trickling water.

It was a fine stream, small but clear, cut deep into the earth with the passage of time as it flowed down from the western hills. It did not take long for him to find the right type of rock at its banks, but it did take him a time to shape it. Until then, the clash of smooth, flat river stone on stone rang out up and down the banks. Eventually, he was satisfied with the edged fragments he held in his hands. The smaller, sharper flake, he tucked into his clothing, while he used the larger axehead on his way back to the clearing.

He whispered apologies and thanks to each flexible sapling as he struck its base with the rock. There was a woody knock, and a sharp rattle of foliage with each. It was a satisfying rhythm to beat out, and it only interrupted the dull roar of wildlife around him for a few moments each. Before long he was dragging several felled saplings with him. He stripped their branches and the more fibrous bark, which he thought would make fine rope later on. The first sapling was driven into one of the holes in the earth at the clearing. The old man mounded earth up around its base and packed it in tightly, and then he reached up to bend its other end down toward the ground.

He was lifted off of his feet before he could bring the other end down into its own opposite hole, which he also filled in.

Several more times he did this, each time tying the middles of the tense saplings together with fibers stripped from the bark. The finished frame was comfortable enough to sit down in, with room for tools and a bed if he was diligent. But for now, the skeleton needed ribs. These, in the form of shorter branches, he lashed in rings around the frame with thin vines once he ran out of softer bark. The lowest two were left open at one end, where he would put the door facing south. The bones needed skin, and so he ventured back out into the brush, confident that the coffin would keep an eye on things for him.

With the stone flake, he harvested the fronds from ferns and other plants along the ground level. And with each frond harvested, he spoke the words due to someone who was having a limb cut off. He took the time to study their leaves and their pinnation, thumbs running over every feathery edge briefly. A bushel was made, and a bushel was peeled apart to arrange tips-downward along the future wall, lashed to the branches with more creeping twine from the bushes. The old man felt a sweat coming on, and winced at the ache in his back from stooping for so long. But he had much more to do before he could rest.

The hours wore on and the sun began to blush dark and flirt with the western hilltops before he had angled the last series of leaves and tied them in place. A roof cap would be able to wait until morning- he expected no rainfall, at least not where he was. Hunger and thirst would not wait for him, however. He could already feel the pangs, and before long they would add to the shake in his hands.

First, he crept back down to the bank and laid down supine before its burbling current. He drank deep with his hands, until his stomach felt cold and swollen. Then he sat back on his bony arms and waited for it all to settle. Someday, he thought. Someday he would allow himself the luxury of a clay cup to drink from. Or perhaps a gourd.

Once it felt as though his insides weren't sloshing around with every step, he rose and moved back onto greener ground, where his digging stick once more became of use. The root vegetable bulbs he found were small and bitter, but if they spent a few hours soaking in the water, they'd be leeched of their toxins. He wouldn't be able to eat them that evening, but they would make for a decent breakfast. A small pile of rocks kept them in place as they laid submerged in the stream.

If they were still there in the morning, he'd eat easy. If an animal found them first, then... well, then nothing. Then that was a lucky animal.

Unlike the considerably less lucky fish which he began to eye next.

Monday, June 10, 2019

The Gutted Belly & Her Crew.

By now it is somewhat of an open secret that far below the surface of each adventurer-friendly world and all of its drama lies a lightless world of cruelty, brutality, and harsh wonder. Less well known is that this dim land possesses its own seas of unknown breadth and depth, and lesser-known still is that those seas are "sailed" by those who have been rejected even by the alien cultures of that dark below.

Of course it isn't always ruthlessness or dire prophecy that leads to these outcasts taking to the sea. Just as often it is bad luck, or some quirk of the individual. And like moths to an exceptionally dim flame, these freaks band together and find some semblance of fellowship upon the abyssal waves. Because together, they just might find fame, wealth, or glory upon the undersea.

Of course most find a watery grave beneath it, sooner or later. This bunch is probably no exception.

The Gutted Belly

The origins of this ship are as mysterious as the ship herself is ugly, but it is abundantly clear that it is not a normal vessel. While generally shaped like other ships of the Underdark, it is constructed in a manner completely unlike any other. It possesses many organic or non-euclidean elements to its geometry, and rather than being made of wood, its hull has an unsettling resemblance to flesh- though what creature all of that grey-green hide could have been taken from is unknown. And given that the ship's hull is one contiguous piece of material almost 20 fathoms in length, it is something best not thought about for long.

Also unusual for the subterranean world is that it possesses sails.

There is not a lot of weather to be had so far underground, except for faint, constant currents of water or air in or out of the vaults which keep them (relatively) livable. These currents are enough to stir a breeze or set the waves in motion to carry things adrift, but rarely can they be harnessed to move a vessel with purpose. Therefore most ships rely upon manual labor, primitive engines, or magic for propulsion. But, somehow, The Gutted Belly has sailed into port countless times over the years, her membranous airfoils turgid with a strong wind that is only ever felt in the ship's wake.

Notable personalities include...

Istoyn Maerret- Drow, Captain.

"Welcome aboard, lads! We'll be running through a known kraken haunt today, so I hope you've all got your wits about you. We need lively bait! What? No. I said 'bayt'. That's short for "bay technicians".We'll need you down in the cargo bay. Yes, that's what I meant. Hahah. Anyway, welcome aboard!"

The exuberant shepherd of deranged sea-gits himself, Captain Maerret is a living reminder that even the truly hopeless can survive and thrive on the Undersea- for good and ill.

Born to some insignificant piss-ant hill of a non-noble drow family in one of the many dark elf cities dotting the underground, Istoyn Maerret was a sickly child. When debt collectors and Lolth religious hardliners both came down hard upon the clan one day, he was one of several superfluous children given over as sacrifice or sold into slavery. Istoryn found himself on a galley rowing the breadth of the Undersea before long, and remained in that state well into his adulthood. At some point in his past that ship was destroyed in a freak accident, and the dark elf washed ashore alone. Another gulf of mysterious, unaddressed years passed by then, and suddenly the drow was hiring a skeleton crew in a coastal city to bring a ship to port from an undisclosed location. Hours later, the somewhat rattled sailors disembarked from the bizarre Gutted Belly, captained by the cockily grinning former galley slave.

It is no secret or scathing defamation to say that the ship and the crew it has attracted survives on luck. Almost immediately after becoming seaworthy, Captain Maerret and his crew began to pursue high risk, high reward objectives that ranged from legal trading ventures, to piracy and smuggling, to the most heinous of all professions: adventuring. Life is cheap, short, and utterly thrilling to most who sign onto the crew, making the captain's more unique derangements stand out less.

One doesn't live long in the Underdark without cracking a bit, and in Istoyn's case he seems to have developed a very efficient form of mental compartmentalization in order to cope with a myriad of stressors. He exhibits (or mimics) certain symptoms of personality disorders during downtime which make him unpredictable, and just a little uncomfortable to be around. Yet his penchant for brutal, calculated violence reminds everyone that he can be perfectly, horribly sane when needed. He consistently shows competence on the job, leads his crew from the front in times of danger, and cultivates an atmosphere of egalitarianism among his peers that is difficult to find elsewhere in the Underdark. The instances where he has saved a crew member's life, executed a stunning flourish to secure victory, or austerely foregone his own share of booty in order to keep things literally shipshape seem in general to balance out the occasions where he has expended considerable resources to sate his (mediocre) alchemical curiosity, or thrown an unpopular cabin boy to that week's newest beasty "because it seemed like an easy and amusing solution".

If you sign your contract with an honest name and do right by your crew, the captain can be counted on to lead you to the wealth or the exciting end you seek.

... So long as you don't make the mistake of calling his cutlass a scimitar. If you do, he'll simply have to demonstrate their myriad differences to you- at length, and in torturous detail.

Shursh- Quaggoth, Boatswain, 1st & 3rd Mates.

"It is the compact-given right of every last one of you to air your grievances on matters of ship governance. Just as it is my hammer's right to reply."

Most quaggoths exist in a state that one could be forgiven for calling "savage". The ash-furred bear people are necessarily brutal to survive in their environment, xenophobic toward all outsiders thanks to a drow penchant for enslaving them, and occasionally more hateful of any and all technology than even the most misinformed Luddites.

But as evidenced by one quaggoth named Shursh, they can clean up nicely.

Another former oar-slave, Shursh had been the prized catch of one dark elf reaver until he realized one day that the menacing crew actually feared his prodigious strength. He walked off of the boat at port with several torn-out spinal columns thrown over his shoulder that same day, and soon learned how to use his strength to turn a profit. Eventually this landed Shursh in the crew of the Belly, where his resilience and cool head under attack ensured that he began to outlive more and more of his superiors. Captain Maerret, strapped for able bodies, proceeded to pile ranks upon the quaggoth, who seemed not to complain- though he did later split the role of 2nd Mate up into dedicated Navigator and Medical Officer roles, delegating them to others because he simply didn't want to be bothered with that type of work.

Now Shursh is one of the most visible members of the crew, standing heads taller than most and representing the captain when he is away or indisposed of. He also holds the respect of much of the crew, though the fact that he often walks around with a massive carpenter's maul resting on his shoulder might contribute to that.

Letil Idki- Svirfneblin, Navigator.

"Attention crew, we are now approaching a known shipwreck reef site. We will be slowing wind propulsion by five knots in preparation for scavenging. Anchor is on standby for deployment. Shark status is currently unperturbed. And your weather forecast for this evening is whatever the hell I decide it will be."

One would be understandably curious as to how and why a deep gnome came to be part of a pirate crew. One would also be understandably hesitant to ask Letil after she electrocutes someone else for raising that very question.

Deep gnomes are a famously earthy people, if anything can be called "famous" about such a reclusive group. They were born from the earth, live in it, and shape it around themselves. They also tend toward pleasant dispositions, or at least avoid mucking around in other people's lives for the worse. But this society produces weirdos and imperfect fits like any other, and like any other it can do a plain awful job accommodating them.

Letil seems to be a druid, after some fashion. Inborn, intimately tied to aspects of nature, utterly powerless to ignore that power. And it just so happens that her power manifests in the fury of biting winds and churning waves, quite out of place in the tunnels of the Underdark. She was exiled early in life, and ironically became more 'earthy' only after the experience hardened her to be stone-like, body and soul. She never found her way up to the surface world, but she found an acceptable surrogate in the subterranean seas.

Now, Letil Idki is the navigator of the Gutted Belly. She conjured its earth elemental anchor up and bound it with hate and chains in equal measure, and now aids the corsair vessel in propelling itself without need for rowers. Hers is the enchantment which keeps the ship's sails turgid and bloated with conjured winds, and which allows its prow to cut so smoothly through the undersea waves.

Needle Threader- Grimlock, Medical Officer.

"Shh, child. I cannot hear your lacerations with you whimpering like that."

Needle Threader is perhaps the gentlest soul on board the Gutted Belly, not that that's saying much. Surprisingly open about her past, the grimlock explains that she was once a warren-matron for her clan of sightless subterranean humanoids. Children were raised communally, she explains, and it is with bitter fondness that she remarks she was once mother of dozens, despite never producing any of her own.

She doesn't like to recount what happened when routine tunnel renovations disturbed a particularly large nest of gricks. Somehow though, Needle Threader blindly groped her way through the Underdark until she came upon a port city which was cosmopolitan enough not to kill her on sight. Captain Maerret took her aboard as another one of his frivolous "acquisitions", only for her to prove useful after the fact.

The eyeless trogloxene now serves aboard the Belly as an exceptionally hands-on surgeon and medical officer, well known to the crew for her tendency to emit a constant, low humming during examinations or operations while rolling her head from side to side in what looks to an outside observer like a trance-like state. According to Needle Threader, it allows her to 'see' in finer detail, even when she's rooting around in a patient's guts. Surprising recovery rates attest to her competence, but her first-time patients are rarely comfortable around her, nor her vast array of knapped stone tools.

Doolploobdulilb- Kuo-toa, Chaplain.

* "I bless this voyage in the name of Blibdoolpoolp!"

It's a common saying aboard the Belly that Letil keeps the wind in check, while Doolploobdulilb manages the waves- best not to piss either one of them off. And there is a considerable amount of truth to this. But while the svirfneblin is a very public and approachable fixture on the crew, the kuo-toa whose name is typically shortened to just "Doolp" for everyone else's sake is rarely so approachable.

Of uncertain age and identity but of absolute conviction in their goddess, this kuo-toa cleric or "whip" is a devotee of The Sea Mother, The Drowning Goddess, The Mistress of the Black Pearl, and Uncomfortably Buxom Lobster-Lady, Blibdoolpoolp. Though vocally hateful toward any and all surface-dwelling species--as well as most other species besides kuo-toa in general--Doolp's actions on board the Belly speak to a milder nature. As the ship's chaplain, the cleric's ministrations are directed at proper observance of ceremonies meant to placate and appease sea deities (such as their own). This keeps the ship from falling prey to the worst of dangers out on the undersea, and allows for the occasional seafood feast in honor of this, that, or the other thing.

Ostensibly Doolp is also tasked with seeing to the spiritual health of each crew member, but the reality is that everyone will say they are just fine and dandy in order to avoid the flabby fishnet-wearer coming around to their bunks one day and asking them if they have a moment of their time to spare for the Drowner of Lands and the Scourge of Sekolah.

Understandably, Doolp is the most vocal opponent of the continued practice of keeping and feeding the frenzy of sahaugin below the ship, but they haven't yet gathered enough votes to do anything about it.

Ulwiss Coaleyes- Duergar, Quartermaster & Accountant.

"Togrysh has not come to collect his bonus for volunteering to lead the boarding party three days ago. What is that? He died in the attack? Well, death is no excuse for tardiness. Tell the kuo-toa to raise him, and then remind him of that. The bonus will go toward his debt for the spell components."

Dwarves often get a bad rap. It seems that wherever one goes, one can always find the same stereotypes in place- that they fill whatever time isn't spent being workaholics with time spent as alcoholics, that they hate elves almost as much as they do goblinoids goblin-speaking peoples, and that every last one of them is given a beard and an axe at birth. And, most regrettably of all, there are just enough individuals who conform to those ideas to perpetuate the hate. Grey dwarves are treated much the same, with the addition of a healthy dose of vitamin D deficiency and totalitarian callousness.

Temperate, impassive, pacifist, and almost clean-shaven, Ulwiss Coaleyes avoids checking off nearly all of those dubious boxes. Unfortunately for Ulwiss the last box on the list was checked, first in pencil, then in charcoal, then signed in red ink, then sealed with wax, branded, circled and underlined a thousand times until the paper tore away and there were scratches on the desk, and then rewritten and copied in triplicate.

Ulwiss in the one who keeps the Gutted Belly financially solvent and ensures a well-ordered list of supplies and individual accounts, but he doesn't appear on any of his own payroll reports. This is because he doesn't accept payment for his work- his payment is the work. The work--or as he would write it, the Work--is an end in and of itself, giving a single all-unifying purpose to the sack of meat he occupies, and to the universe around it. Numbers, ledgers, tables, ink pens, and the hands that use them are all vectors through which Work may flow into something which is for the moment Unworked.

When Captain Maerret and his crew boarded the ship the duergar was on and slaughtered the rest of the crew, Ulwiss Coaleyes hardly looked up from his writing desk. Only the drow's cutlass prodding at his chin lifted his head, and only long enough for him to negotiate a contract with the captain, who was in good spirits after a battle ruthlessly won, so he humored the strange dwarf. No one really doubts that he'd do it again if the Belly is ever overtaken, but then again if the Belly were boarded, no one would really care what the book-balancer was doing.

Tongueless Tizzkar- Derro, Chief Cook.

* "Enjoy!"

It's a strange, happy bit of luck that the crazed ramblings of the hereditarily insane derro people sound quite a lot like the humming or muttering of a top chef hard at work.This helps cement the idea that Tongueless Tizzkar knows what he is doing in the galley of the Gutted Belly. Unfortunately this illusion of competence normally dissipates as soon as one gets a taste of the food he prepares back there.

The title of "Tongueless" is not a literal naming- aside from a few teeth or finger joints, Tizzkar is quite physically whole. The nickname comes from his enormously thick accent, coupled with a speech impediment, which makes him sound like what most people might assume a tongueless person to sound like- though most have never actually met one in their lives to be able to make that assumption with any accuracy. It's rather mean, really.

Tizzkar is also tongueless in the sense that there is no way on or below earth that he is able to taste the things he prepares for the crew, or else they'd never leave the kitchen out of culinary shame. But his rates are low, his products and workplace are shockingly hygienic, and it brings a tickle of laughter to even the most dour brute's heart to see the manic little figure running to and fro, grey hair thrusting out in all directions like porcupine spikes from beneath a saggy, ill-fitting chef's hat.

Vashen Skitter- Chitine, Lookout & Sailmaker.

"Land ho, port side! Wait... wait, no. It's just a floater of chuul eggs... Breakfast ho!"

The loudest and most vulgar of the ship's crew is, appropriately enough, its lookout. Hyperactive, neurotic, and always inexplicably greasy, the man-spider makes good of his namesake all day every day, skittering up and down along the ship's masts. Less commonly he can be seen spinning strands of his own resilient web to mend damage in the sails. Most rare and begrudging of all are the times down below deck when he can be spied mending clothing with a needle or four in his dexterous, chitinous claws.

Despite a famous dislike for saltwater, Vashen is one of the few senior crew members with prior experience at sea. Much like Ulwiss, he originated from an opposing vessel, but unlike the work-addicted number-cruncher, Vashen willingly, even eagerly defected from the slaving ship dominated by Lolth faithful. One might think that a religion so centered on spiders and their various permutations would afford a measure of egalitarianism among arthropods. Instead, Vashen Skitter found himself firmly set among the bottom rungs of a strict, pseudo-theological racial hierarchy with nothing but ettercaps beneath him- and only because everyone hates ettercaps, including other ettercaps, he is quick to emphasize.

Scrubs- Scrag, Chief Beakhead Officer & Barnacle Remover.

"Scrubs iz done cleanin' hull, cap'n! Scrubs did a good job today. Scrubs took off twenny-eight new barnies! Twelve on port side 'n' sixteen on, uhm... not port side. Scrubs wuz wundrin', though. Duz cap'n fink if the seasonal meltwater from above ground is lowerin' water salinity to lethal-enough levels to kill off barnie larva, it could be damagin' fish health 'n' reducin' their nutritional value enough to impact crew productivity? Wut'z that? Get back t' work? Yessir!"

One day while coasting along during prescribed bedtime hours, the Gutted Belly struck something that made the crew fear that they had hit a reef or been attacked by some leviathan. But when the alarms and lights were raised, they only found a very stocky, mostly-dead scrag drifting in their wake. Out of curiosity and a desire to harvest some troll blood and/or fat for alchemical experiments, the captain ordered the crew to hoist the troll's body up on board. There they found that the prow of the ship had split its head almost in two, but also that the troll's regeneration was slowly knitting things back together. Fancy struck the captain, as it often does, and he cauterized a seemingly random portion of the aquatic troll's brain before the hole closed up.

When the creature awakened in chains shortly thereafter, it was docile to the point that it resembled a (poorly handled) lobotomy patient. It responded surprisingly well to basic commands given in Undercommon, and hardly tried to eat anyone after a week of impressive labor. Once Needle Threader gave it a clean bill of health (and determined that it was a he), the troll was given a tentative place in the crew as a heavy-lifter, beakhead toilet cleaner, and most famously, barnacle remover. And so he came to be known as Scrubs.

But Scrubs did not remain quite so placid. His job performance and amiability have remained constant throughout, yet his mind seems to have pieced itself together over the years. He reacquired language and complex problem-solving some time ago, and now seems to be working on abstract, conceptual thinking with the enthusiasm of a wide-eyed child who's walked into a library desperately wanting to understand all of the big words around them.

Grakk'ha- Goblin Lacedon, Figurehead.

"Who's that, pretty? Give ol' Grakk'ha a kiss~"

No one in the crew entirely remembers how they ended up with Grakk'ha. She's just always sort of been there. In a rather literal sense, she has become part of the ship. Specifically, she is the prow ornament of the Gutted Belly, lashed in place with just her arms and head free. She doesn't complain overmuch about this, and somewhat enjoys being the unofficial mascot of the crew. She'll even make a show of waving and shouting greetings when they finally sail to port- so long as they continue to feed her.

The small, gangling goblin woman was turned into a lacedon--an aquatic ghoul--long ago, and needs at least a semi-regular diet of carrion to stay what passes for healthy for an undead body. This, the ship's crew is able to supply her with regularly. But it's the rarer treat of live, humanoid flesh which she truly enjoys. As such, "a kissing session with Grakk'ha" has become the final destination for any mutineers or sufficient screw-ups who don't meet their end thrown overboard or at the hands of Istoyn and his unnerving powers.

K'shevash- Sahuagin, Honorary Disposal Officer.

"There is no friend or foe to the frenzy of K'shevash. There are only warmbloods who will or will not be dining with it tonight."

The sahuagin with a name almost as difficult to pronounce as the Chaplain's is not an actual member of the crew. In fact, they would probably eat any member of the crew who tried to parley with them or their tribe at closer than arm's length. (Though, to be fair, a number of proper crew members would also eat their fellows if push came to shove.)

Rather, K'shevash and its band are a bunch of exiles from the depths of one of the surface seas. How they found their way into the undersea, or why they've just sort of latched onto the Gutted Belly for so long, is unknown. But their presence is somewhat of a boon to the corsairs, for several reasons. They provide security from the other, lesser known threats of the deep which might otherwise try to attack the ship. They also eat much of the refuse from the ship's kitchens, in particular any meat scraps and offal to be had. And, as stated earlier, they have no qualms about eating any humanoids who find their way down into the wake of the Belly, with the seemingly sole exception of Scrubs- a compact was established after he ate several of them for making fun of his thoughts on causality one day.

In addition to providing a quick and easy method of disposal for the dead, the "Sharks" as they are affectionately referred to are also quite the deterrent from mutiny. Walking the plank takes on an even more grim character when you know that in addition to drowning, you'll be eaten in a creative fashion, over a period of time. And woe betide anyone who earns a keelhauling.

Anchor- Earth Elemental, Literal Anchor.

* "A little to the left, Scrubs. There has been a mussel wedged under my shoulder for days now. Ahh, that's it..."

Anchor is, well... the ship's anchor. Summoned and bound in magical chain years ago by Letil, this elemental grabs a hold of features of the sea floor and keeps The Gutted Belly from drifting while at rest. It also acts as a lookout for dangers below the waterline, relying basic information to its mistress through a telepathic link when needed. It otherwise leads a rather solitary existence, content to lay on the seabed or drag along beside the ship's hull, doing little of note while the sahuagin swim past it, mildly annoyed that it isn't more edible. It is known to have an occasional, mostly one-sided conversation with Scrubs while the latter is removing built-up detritus from its craggy form, however.

Lesser-known personalities include...

Admiral Scratch- "Cat", Informant.

"Miaaaooo. Miao, mao, mao- HLGHKSHAULGH! ... Miao."

Whatever this thing is, it isn't a cat, and it does a rather poor job of imitating one. Members of the ship's crew still refer to it as one, however. They ignore the way its body shifts and morphs as it walks around on what might not always add up to four legs. They pretend not to notice when a tendril snakes out from beneath one of its unblinking eyelids. They just try to brush it off when some of its barbed hairs get stuck to a surface and cause mild damage to it as if from acid etching. They smile, call it Admiral Scratch, and make sure to leave treats out for it.

It does possess a rather catlike fondness for hunting rats, however. Perhaps a little too fond.

Admiral Scratch is ostensibly the obese calico longhair belonging to Captain Maerret. While he is the one person the animal spends the most time with, they clearly do not bond like a master and pet. More often, the Admiral leaps up onto his shoulder, sitting weightlessly as he stares unblinking at the dark elf. In turn Captain Maerret cocks his head and gives the cat an ear, at which point it proceeds to whisper to him. At least, it seems like whispering. No purr should sound that lilting, disjointed, or vaguely conspiratorial. Once he's spoken his piece, Scratch leaps back down to the deck and resumes his rodent vigil. Some believe that he is the real brains behind the captain, using him like a puppet. Others think that the Captain uses him as a spy on his own crew. Neither rumor has been substantiated, though the latter has slightly more credence in light of the list of would-be mutineers who have met sudden and messy ends aboard the Belly.

Hilivonsuul- Decapitated Illithilich, "Head" Adviser.


Anyone who's ever seen the inside of the captain's cabin will have noticed the grizzly trophy mounted on the wall behind his desk: a large, discolored illithid head, mummified into leather with its face tendrils braided together and then pinned together by bronze nails. There is no general consensus as to whether its eyes are milky and lacking pupils, or if it has pupils like an angry cuttlefish.

Captain Maerret is always happy to tell the tale of how he came across it, however.

Supposedly (and that word cannot be emphasized enough when dealing with one of Istoyn's tales), he slew the illithid with his very own hands and cutlass. One day early on in the drow's career of piracy while prowling the shore of one of the more treacherous vault walls, the Belly's crew caught sight of a battle unfolding. It was a chaotic three-way between githyanki, githzerai, and a small cell of mind-flayers trapped in the middle. Doing the only sensible thing, Istoyn ordered the ship to fire upon the melee on the rocks, scattering all parties and allowing for a landing party to loot the battlefield briefly.

Istoyn found a particularly withered-looking brain-eater, certainly not dead but not entirely alive either. He hacked its head off before it could utter a spell or make anyone's head explode, and carried the grizzly trophy back to the ship where he had it embalmed.

The part he leaves out of that story is that the head still isn't entirely dead.

Ensorcelled by dominating magic and kept in a docile state by a little-known source of psionic echoes which interfere with its ability to regenerate, there is little left of the desiccated head once known as Hilivonsuul, former acolyte of a coven of illithids who dabbled in arcane and necromantic magic. All that it can do is obey the will of its new master, who feeds it the names and thoughts of every soul upon the ship, living or dead. Hilivonsuul had known a thing or two about True Names back when its mind belonged to itself- after centuries of feasting on brains, one begins to hone their palette to pick out truly subtle flavors.

Much can be done with a Name like that. From subtly encouraging compliance with a captain in the pliable, to encouraging the sudden, explosive rupture of a dissident's head.

The Gutted Belly Herself- Taxidermied Aboleth Carcass, Marine Vessel.

"The sea, the sea, the sea, the sea, the sea..."

Istoyn definitely couldn't have killed this one. But since he claims to have built the ship himself, it is implied that he knew the creature, or at least its corpse. "Gutted belly" was quite an apt description for the state of the eviscerated aboleth when the dark elf equipped with a hammer, saw, and oscillating sanity ran across it. As distasteful as that is, the story only grows worse the deeper one goes. The Gutted Belly is not the largest ship on the undersea, but it is absolutely massive for an aboleth body, even taking into account the likelihood that all of that loose, flabby skin was stretched and smoothed out as far as it would go during construction. Aboleths never stop growing during their exceedingly long lifespans, so the specimen which became the Gutted Belly must have been old indeed. An aboleth's power also grows with age, raising the eerie question of exactly what could have killed such a being, only to leave it to rot on a scintillating beach somewhere.

The carcass still possessed some of that power when the marooned slave found it, in the form of powerful psionic emanations. They warded off virtually all other denizens of the deep, save for the drow who'd heard them throbbing in his skull ever since the wreck. They were the reverberating echoes leftover from a dying mind laid low and regressing, playing over themselves over and over again like the fever dream of a frightened child.

The sea.

The sea.

Where is the sea?

It wants to swim.

Swim away into the sea.

The sea.

Where is the sea?

The echoes have died down considerably since those lightless days. Only the most sensitive could still detect them, though their influence runs deeper than most might know. Such interference could be enough to prevent a certain head from regenerating, or perhaps stimulate the mental growth of a lumbering, formerly blank slate always clinging to the hull. It could even resemble blind, dumb luck at times, as The Gutted Belly herself strives to "survive" yet more perils in order to enjoy just one more swim across that vast, abyssal sea.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

A Day in the Death, Part 1.

The one called Grandpa Corpse wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his wrist. He dared not touch his hands to his face, for they were caked in dirt and lurid honey. He stood up straight--or at least as straight as he could stand those days--and packed the earth flat with his feet. Then he took up his digging stick and cast it into the trees with a curse. He listened to the crack and clatter of it rebounding through the boughs, and waited until the rustling of leaves and underbrush quieted. The susurrations of the nearby river regained its prominence.

He found a rounded stone at its banks with which to scrub, and he did not stop until his hands were rubbed bright and raw. His feet he stamped in the shallows for some time, until the cold creeping into his joints finally forced him to quit, and to decide that he had done all he could. One last time he surveyed the area for any shards of glass or fragments of pottery. Satisfied that he had left nothing remaining of any jar or bottle, the old man took up his old staff. He apologized to the trees of that place as he left, explaining why he had chosen that spot, and promising them that they would not come to much harm from the toxins.

The sun had begun to rise by then. He could hear the fat red and green rooster crowing at his distant post, and the first villagers rousing themselves in reply. He would not return to the village- there was no need to, after they had agreed to take the young men in. He had seen to each of them personally, and the folk of that place trusted his word when he said that they would convalesce before long. They would work to make the riverbank a safer place.

A lone coffin stood nestled against a split tree. He approached it and ran his hands over its weathered surface, brushing some light debris from it and then kissing its face. There came a gentle tapping from within, and so he held his ear to the old wood. Then it knocked, much harder and louder, and he stepped away from it with a chuckle. He offered it teasing platitudes as he reached down and grasped its trailing rope, which he wrapped around one hand several times before giving it a pull. Once it was eased down onto the broad, flattened expanse of his shoulders, he hefted its weight with a soft grunt.

Cautious, halting steps and hard leaning upon his staff gave way to a slow but relaxed pace as he finally left that river north of the mangrove forests.

The sun was still rising, so he decided that he should rise with it. He turned west, toward the hills, and began to walk. He walked over brush, and along the dirt roads of the people. He walked through fields of taro, and along the narrow bridges woven across flooded terraces of deep-rice. He never walked through the shadow of a fruit tree sapling, and he always walked the long way around a den of animals. The walk turned into a climb, and by mid-morning when he could look out across the canopy below and watch the mist as it rose twisting and evaporating in the sunlight, he decided that he had punished himself enough.

He still needed the strength to settle down, after all.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

On the Disappearance of Haraal.

It has come to my attention that nowhere in my recent writings have I actually addressed the vanishing of Haraal. And while it is my first instinct to assume that any potential readers of these mad scrawlings would be intimately familiar with the major cultural myths of the known world, assuming is exactly what I should not do. Indeed, perhaps one of you right now lives far and away from knowledge or influence of Deneroth.¹ I would be remiss in omitting anything which could contribute to a more complete understanding of the world in which I write, and the context of powers that currently be.

Haraal, unifier of the Ersuunian tribes, emperor of a burgeoning empire, living culture-hero on the receiving end of cult-like levels of reverence even before his deification, removed his crown and abdicated from his throne one day after a strange visit, leaving without a word, never to be seen or heard from again.

Of course it isn't so simple as that, but those details are all that can be agreed upon between sometimes starkly contradictory sources.

First, we are unsure of exactly how long Haraal reigned as king-chieftain. Histories of All by Yashka the Sage reports a reign of 114 years and this number is often regarded as canon, particularly in Deneroth. But Yashka wrote his chronicle several centuries after the disappearance of Haraal. Mythinterpretations of History by the late Berschut Groz offers a more conservative estimate of 70-80 years. Both theories either explicitly or implicitly support the idea that Haraal was blessed with supernatural vitality and long life, but neither gives Haraal a definite point in the timeline of history which we so enjoy using. We can relatively safely say that he reigned no earlier than 800 years before the time of Yashka however, putting Haraal no more than 2,300 years in the past.

Second, we are unsure of where Haraal disappeared from. We do know that his imperial palace-camp was somewhere in the northwest region close to the sites of his last great battles, but its exact location has remained a mystery shrouded in myth, with more than a few frontier folktales and cunningfolk assertions clouding it up further. It is assumed that the camp was located on a relatively flat area of land where the royal herds could graze comfortably, but that still leaves a very wide possible range of area. Again, we can only judge by the broadest limits, and say that the palace must have been located somewhere south of modern settlements such as Bluehill, and that it would have given the Axebite a wide berth- even Haraal was cautious of some dangers, it seems.

One day, traditionally emphasized as being just like any other with no foreshadowing or warning, Haraal was adjudicating cases brought before him in his throne room. After the third or fourth defendant graciously accepted his imminent beheading after prolonged exposure to The Presence and The Gaze, a hush suddenly fell upon the court. There was a muffled sound in the distance, outside, and it was slowly growing in clarity and volume. Haraal took notice of this after he found his servants not immediately responding to his commands, and had the doors to his court opened wide in order to better hear what the disturbance was.

It was crying.

Deep, gut-wrenching weeping, growing in volume and in voice.

Haraal waved a hand to send two of his guards out to investigate, but in a matter of moments they filed back into his throne room with limp arms, stunned expressions, and thoroughly overactive tear ducts. Again, he sent guards out to confront the issue, sending four this time. Four sobbing messes returned to him. A third time, sending six guards, Haraal was once again confounded. This almost comical mix of repetition and escalation continued for some time until Haraal had dispatched his entire royal guard, to no avail.

The other members of his court were growing concerned by this point, so Haraal rose from his throne and cast his aura upon them. Calmed somewhat, they begged their lord to go and see what this dreadful thing was. He proclaimed that he was already on his way to doing so, and then strode out into the light of day. Huge, dark-bottomed clouds were already approaching on the horizon, but his eyes fixed on something far more immediate.

At the base of the hill which his palace crowned, his people had fallen into disarray in droves. Hundreds of men, women, and children had absconded from their duties and their leisures to add to the mournful cacophony. They did not heed their lord when he commanded them to rise, to rejoice in his presence. They only bowed their heads lower in grief toward a single point in the distance. Haraal's smoldering bronze gaze tried to fix it in place, but it only continued its approach.

A small, greyish hunchback of immeasurable age was hobbling his way up the slope, one withered, useless arm clutched tightly to his side. He was weather-worn and almost hairless, with one enormous shoulder and a clubbed foot which he dragged along the ground. His scabrous, diseased-looking skin was stretched tightly across his emaciated frame clad in nothing but rags soaked in morning dew. Despite his disabilities, he moved with surprising speed, and his voice, though labored, sounded not the least bit short of breath. For the hunchback was the loudest of the crying voices- only his weeping was song.

It was wordless, lacking in any real rhyme or meter. But what it lacked in composition, it made up for in dreadful emotion. They were the sounds of raw, ageless sorrow and loss. Of grief and regret for everything that has ever happened or never happened. Of a child yearning for a mother.

And that was exactly what he asked, when at last he climbed the hill and halted before Haraal, eyes only dimly registering the man towering over him as they rose up from their naturally downcast state.

"Have you seen my mother? I was lost by her. I have not found her. Have you seen her?"

These questions were all that he interrupted his quavering song with, and he repeated them again and again as he stood pitifully before the emperor. His words were strange and rustic to Haraal's ears, like the tongue of some of his most distant Ersuunian subjects, many centuries removed. Haraal, being uncharacteristically compassionate, was able to look beyond the breach of conduct in addressing a chieftain which would have ended in a greater man being beheaded on the spot. He made an exception for the strange creature, and asked him his name.

Depending on the age or dialect of the account, the hunchback's name varies in form. But each name is generally a recognizable cognate with the others others, for his name when taken literally was "Grief".

Haraal treated with Grief then, all the while becoming increasingly suspicious of the outsider and the effect he was having upon his subjects. It seemed that the influence of Haraal was mitigated in the hunchback's presence, for he could merely quell their weeping rather than elevate them to an exultant state more pleasing to his senses. But Grief would not bend to Haraal's will. Nor did he even seem to be conscious of the effect his presence seemed to be having on the palace, as if he had spent so long in his current state that this was his 'normal'. He asked over and over for news of his mother, whoever she was, and patently ignored any of the emperor's attempts to assuage his anguish and coax him into staying and reveling at his court.

Things might have gone very differently, had Haraal decided to quit his attempts at dominating the will of the hunchback.

But there was no challenge insurmountable to the son of the pine tree, scion of the sacred peak. No individual had ever resisted him, and a hunchback would not be the first. He butted heads with the cluelessly resilient Grief until his own followers were red eyed, vomiting, and bleeding from their noses with the force of that sympathetic misery. He promised rare silks, jewels, and iron to him if he ceased his weeping. He promised him a place in his court if he told him his story, and the root of his cursed power. He promised him a mended body and thousand purebred horses to draw an army of chariots across the land in search of his mother, if he would kneel before him. All of this and more was ignored by the hunchback, who continued to whimper the wordless lullaby of his missing parent.

At last, Grief announced that he needed to find her, and turned his back on Haraal to begin ambling back down the hillside.

This is said to be what sealed the fate of Haraal.

He went after the hunchback, quickly overtaking him with his long stride full of indignant purpose. The chieftain put himself in the way of Grief several times as he tried to shuffle away, each time demanding that he halt and show him the reverence which was due. Each time, Grief slunk around and sidestepped the tall, bronze man. Finally Haraal seized the hunchback in his hands and lifted him off of the ground, shaking him violently as he commanded him to come to heel.

Grief locked eyes with Haraal for the first time, then. His song and his mourning stopped, and a silence fell over the campgrounds so heavy that it could be cut with an obscure bladed weapon of Ersuunian origin, the identity of which is still fiercely debated in some highly semantic circles.² Then, slowly and deliberately, Grief began to move his arm. Not the "good" one with its swollen shoulder joint, but the shrunken and skeletal one which had been held to his chest for the whole time. Ruined joints popped and cracked loudly as he extended his limb toward Haraal, who regarded it strangely but did not pull away, even as the bony fingertips touched him upon the cheek, and then reached around to the nape of his neck.

There shouldn't have been any observers of the event capable of seeing through unclouded eyes by this point in time, but the narrative nonetheless states that Grief appeared to grow in size suddenly, while Haraal shrank. Perhaps he also shrank back in fear, despite the long-held belief that Haraal knew no fear. The hunchback met his stature and then exceeded him, somehow standing tall and straight despite his shape remaining the same. Then his other massive arm rose up to embrace the dwarfed form of the chieftain, almost like a parent would a child.

And then he whispered something into Haraal's ear.

What was whispered is unknown, but it is one of the most highly speculated-upon pieces of history and/or mythology to day.

Whatever the hunchback's words were, in a span of seconds they broke the spell. Grief was shrunken and warped again, Haraal as tall and statuesque as he'd ever been. Grief was singing anew, and ambling down into the wilderness beyond the reach of the Haraalian camp. The wracking sobs which had plagued the palace subjects subsided at long last, much to the relief of all. But when they looked up to their lord uninhibited, they saw him turning away.

Haraal had a haunted look about him. His burning eyes were darkened and glassy, and they looked around wildly as he staggered back from the spot where the hunchback had grabbed him.

Then he screamed.

He screamed, and clutched his ears as if it were ringing in his own ears, and then he fled in a frenzy across the palace grounds before leaping atop and unbroken horse and riding beyond the horizon. As he passed by the ever-growing tapestries which lined the thoroughfare leading to his court, it is said that their intricately woven programs twisted and morphed to depict not their history and grand achievements, but a bleak future of clouds and blood. Haraal fled into reaches unknown, forsaking crown, throne, and people as the failing of his powers and the ineffable words of the hunchback shook him to his core.

Sober-minded from the catharsis of the hunchback's influence, and free of Haraal's Presence and Gaze both, his subjects are said to have promptly burned the settlement to the ground and then dispersed, the site of that short-lived capital forever lost to history.

Traditions which venerate Haraal as a deific figure tend to describe his confrontation with the hunchback as a penultimate battle against good and evil, which ended in Grief being banished at great personal cost to Haraal, who vowed to return to his people one day once all pain and decay had been driven from the land. Belief in the imminent return of Haraal has waxed and waned with the centuries, growing particularly strong during times of hardship when many such millennialist movements are taking root, but dissipating soon after it becomes apparent that the end is not nigh.

Even among less dogmatic communities across the Ersuunian Basin, where birth defects and deformities often set an individual apart as special or touched by divinity, the possession of any aspects associated with Grief is a universally dire social stigma lacking in any duality or complexity of meaning.

The streets of Porylus seem to be free of such anxieties as we pass them by, but I have heard rumor that Haraalian movements are beginning to come back into fashion with the approach of the three-hundredth year After the Rupture.

¹ If so, please tell me about this distant place so that I might move there.
² The "skirpha" referenced originally by Yashka the Sage has been variously interpreted as a sword, long knife, grain-scythe, or horseman's axe, with concessions to the theory that it was a generic term for "blade" being few and far between. Our own Professor of Fencing & Swordsmanship Berchtold Vogt claims in a footnote in the Appendices of the recently released second edition of his Manual of Masterful Martial Maneuvers that the skirpha was actually a pole weapon having more in common with an earspoon spear with a weighted, metal-capped butt. As his theory goes, the weapon was not actually meant to slice the silence at all, and Yashka's description was actually a subtle infiltration of the old Nambarish tradition of metaphysical poetry, in which the fundamental properties of poetic subjects are altered dramatically for emphasis or coded layers of meaning. Though remarkably deep and compelling compared to his usual area of... expertise, Vogt's theory has only drummed up more conflict among etymologists.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Arbor Day Deforestation Special.

Everyone knows that druids and forests go together like peanut butter and jelly, trial and tribulation, death and taxes, or college and regret. Forget their deep and murky history as elite members of Insular and Continental Celtic societies at odds with the imperialistic writers of early history- trees are where it's at! That's been their thing for well over forty years of tabletop-related fantasy, and for almost four centuries of suspect Romantic scholarship.

But what about when they're not?

What about when we delve into the realm of 3rd edition splatbooks or Pathfinder class archetypes, and search for an overarching logic behind the diverse yet isolated and independent groups of druids operating in different climes and biomes? You'd probably get a wealth of different arguments and answers from actual research, but for the purposes of this post we're going to pretend there's only one answer.

Nature and its method of selection tend to promote competition between organisms and species who occupy similar or adjacent niches. No living thing is exempt from this. Environments, able to shrink or grow, possessing good or poor health, and adapting by way of the sum of all of their evolving parts, are also living things in this grand competition.  Just as "classic" druids are advocates for and protectors of the forest and all its denizens, other ecosystems can (or even must) have their own sapient defenders to ensure that they grow in strength and size and are not encroached upon by other upstart habitats.

Which brings us to peat bogs.

Swamps and other wetlands tend to get a bad rap in fiction. They are nasty and unpleasant, if not depicted as actively evil and dangerous to all outside life. Monsters, witches, and worse things abode in them, and they are the ideal place to find an ancient, sunken temple which would have been pretty difficult to build on that site to begin with. There is some logic to this, since stories tend to be told by humans who in pre-modern times were fearful of or struggled to deal with the weather, diseases, and pests found in many wetlands.

More recently we've been able to realize that they are all tremendously important to the health and diversity of our planet. Peat bogs in particular are havens for unique species of plant and animal life, and the properties of all that ancient layered dead plant matter allow a bog to eat up massive amounts of harmful free carbon in the atmosphere. They are valued to the point that, in some circumstances, it is good for the environment to cut down a forest and then flood it.

Of course the magical wardens of the bogs wouldn't be thinking about the big picture when they cut down the eves of forests or wet the edges of prairies. Just like the forest druids planting saplings or murdering farmers and loggers, and the desert druids promoting rapid aridification of grasslands, they are another force of nature given thought and reason with which to be even more wholly committed to their cause- a moving part in a great big natural machine, kept in check by the other forces opposed to it. Out of this chaotic equilibrium, we get Bog Druids.

Bog druids are believed to be the most isolationist, misanthropic druids in the world because they live so far away from other humanoids in such inhospitable places. Bog druids would counter that they are isolated because other folk are too afraid or can't be bothered to adapt to life in a more neighborly area.The misanthropic part is a little harder to argue against, given their generally sullen demeanor. You'd have one too, if you woke up before dawn every day to chant over a stagnant pool and then spent the next sixteen hours wrangling serpents, chopping up felled wood, and walking around on stilts.

Their style of dress often sets them apart from other denizens or wanderers of bogs because of how specialized it is. Besides a fondness for bronze accessories given heavily to patina, bog druids are noted for their unorthodox skill in waterproofing. Generally, the more waterproofed their clothing is, the more outlandish it looks. Overcoats of near-transparent intestine glued together with rendered bone, rigid cloth painted in tree rubber, grass or leaves woven together and thickly oiled, or plain old animal furs tend to dominate their choices in fashion, with little uniformity between groups of bog druids, or even individual members.

The potent smell of all of that aforementioned clothing tends to be the second distinction to smack outsiders in the face.

Bog druids don't generally have a strict hierarchy. More experienced members have some measure of seniority, but because each commune tends to be so small, every member is expected to be able to make and carry out decisions on their own. Group decisions tend to regard large threats to the bog, interactions with outsiders, or grand discoveries and portents gleaned from the peat. Outsiders can come to them for a variety of reasons. Most often they come to lodge a complaint about some blight or plague of insects that they think was unleashed from the bog, but other times they come to trade, pay for flood information or access to water reservoirs, or to drop off one of their own who has gotten the peculiarly wild hair up their person to study and join the commune. Most don't last very long, but those who stick around long enough are eventually considered to be new peatkeepers.

Most of the druids don't know magic, and those few who keep animal companions or perform divination generally rely upon more mundane means for both. They do have access to such a tremendous wealth of rare reagents and ingredients that their chemistry often looks like magic, however. More than a few potion-makers have risked everything in order to gain access to such reserves, even going so far as to gamble away their precious apothecary alligators.

Every bog druid is handy with a hatchet, saw, and shovel. They use them to shore up or expand the edges of their homeland, as well as to defend themselves from anyone who might have a problem with that. Bloody skirmishes between rival ecosystems are commonplace, with the dead often left feeding new growth or moldering beneath the turf for ages.

The druids of the peat are above all enigmatic, keeping much lore to themselves in their sodden lands. Why would we name them something as geopolitically inappropriate as "druid", if we knew what they prefer to be called?

Some rumors about them may be true, or nonsense, or a bit of both.

20 Things That Might Be True About Bog Druids
They are lobbying to either outlaw or control the construction of turf houses in the entire region.
Most of them are actually symbiotic hosts to a sentient fungus.
The latest logging campaign is the escalation of a disagreement with the nearby forest druid grove over leaving written accounts and doctrines.
The group is a front for a highly erotic and comically phallic snake cult.
Peat can be necromantically raised to create miles-wide Turf Golems.
The druids occasionally hire their members out to oversee sacrifices or judicial procedure.
A high-ranking member of the order is actually just a very lost botanist.
The druids have a very strong tradition of poetry and music. Just don't mistake one for a bard or filĂ­.
They have no idea where that myth about scimitars and wooden armor came from.
Will-o'-the-wisps are a bog druid conspiracy.
They hate being confused with the Pyromancers of the Great Swamp.
The order was formed by a mystic with severe wood allergies.
Each bog druid cuts off a finger upon initiation and wears it with a necklace of woven hair.
... There is no official rule that the finger and hair have to belong to the druid.
The self-styled environmentalists are actually just trying to corner the market on bog butter production.
... They've already done so with the extraction and forging of bog iron.
They are the original Soggy Bottom Boys.
Topographic peat hags formed by soil erosion regularly come to life as literal hags and witches.
Layers of peat are meticulously cut out and studied by peat archivists to offer a rich history of the area's vegetation, pollen, spores, and animals.
The druids are guided by a reanimated peat mummy, strangled and sacrificed to the bog in the name of a long-forgotten god centuries ago.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Crypt Cities: What the Dead Carry.


Grave robbery?

No, that term is too dignified for what you propose. Corpse pillaging is what this is.

Were you listening to anything? Are you aware of the things your fellow Awakened have had to suffer through? The sanctity of one's death mask? The difference between collapse and perseverance embodied by the smallest of trinkets and sentimentals on one's person?

You are, and you just don't care?

... Smart. You'll go farther than most.

When one of you has just about had it, and all seems lost, the embrace of true death nonetheless remains elusive. Instead, you crumple under the weight of the Need as well as your own personal anguish, and turn inward. Without a body strong enough to carry you to a sarcophagus, your mind turns inward and consumes itself, slowly. You can look forward to weeks, months, even years as a tormented Husk, trapped inside of that desiccated head of yours. And after that, when you start to fall apart at the molecular level, the real fun begins.

Some of the damage can be reversed, if you were to be placed within an enchanted coffin of your own.

Of course most of the other travelers who come across your bleaching hide will be less interested in picking up and helping you, and more interested in helping themselves to the pickings of whatever you might have had on you when you went catatonic. If you're smart, you'll keep your eye-slots peeled too.

(Roll 1d40 whenever you come across a suitably lethargic-looking cadaver. Any rerolls ignore the same result twice in a row.)

Nothing But Dust
The Husk and any rags it has left fall to ashes at your touch, its mask crumbling into nothing. Have a moment of silence for this most grim of fates.
Tattered Clothes
Little more than a filthy, stained loincloth. Gain one rag. If you are feeling particularly brave, gain one bandage or article of clothing.
Encrusted Thing
This object is completely covered over in gunk, grime, or dirt. You have no idea what it is or does. Gain one crusty old... something.
Vile Trophies
This Husk must have been one sick puppy to collect all these. If you are not Hunted, become mildly unsettled. If you are Hunted, have a laugh.
Abused Rucksack
Spacious, but weakening in places. Gain a medium-sized container. If it is ever filled to capacity, it ruptures.
Ghostly Whispers
You find nothing, and the murmur of wind and ash fills you with a sudden, dreadful urgency. You suffer one additional day of Need.
Carrion-eaters and worse things have found the Husk before you did. If you fight or scare the competition away, reroll.
Noose Necklace
A piece of fashion commonly sported by alumni of gallows the world over. Gain one short length of rope.
Snipped Sinews
Several of the Husk's muscles are still good. Gain three uses of stitching, or one bowstring, cord, garrote, etc.
Old Child's Toy
A weathered wooden figurine or a threadbare doll, probably kept as a memento. Gain one bitter reminder of your own lost youth.
Rendered Human Fat
A jar full of fragrant adipose tissue. Gain five uses of fuel or oil, and attract predators at twice the usual rate.
Visceral Trail
Dried droplets of black ichor, the lingering reek of death-smoke, and the occasional severed limb point toward potential danger- and profit.
Shiny Rocks
Not even the dead are exempt from humanity's fixation on shiny things. Gain a bargaining chip.
Befouled Liquids
These vials or skins once contained valuable potions or life-giving water. Now they are spoiled and noxious. They make you nauseous to drink, but could be used as a stink bomb or olfactory concealment.
A Fistful of Coins
A few ancient coins of unclear mint and composition. Flipping them into a body of water and wishing might do something. Like poison the water.
Corpulent Swelling
Jostling the Husk causes its abdomen to burst and shower you in insides which quickly become outsides. You can be smelled from a much greater distance until you bathe.
Awful Poetry
In sanity, this Husk used poetry as a creative outlet and coping mechanism. In catatonia, it serves to make you groan. Gain one use of fuel.
Powdered Herbs
They might have been an apothecary's wares. Or an old pressed flower collection. Gain two uses of medicine. Or placebos. Or poison.
Rusting Fragments
Anything made of metal such as weapons or armor has long since broken, but the pieces remain. Gain one use of scrap.
At some point this body became host to a den of vermin or a squirm of large parasites. Gain one ration of food.
At some point this body became host to a den of small vermin or a squirm of large parasites. Now, so have you.
Old Wagon Wheel
Some Nomad cart won't be going anywhere without this. Gain a shield that breaks after deflecting three blows.
That isn't a Husk. That isn't even humanoid. And whatever it is, it looks hungry.
Gnarled Branch
Someone tore the face off of a particularly old Holt-Dweller, but didn't get around to working it yet. Gain one piece of wood.
Weaponized Femur
Whoever this belonged to must have had legs like a workhorse. Treat as a club that breaks after five successful hits.
Old Bone Dice
Bones for throwing, and a bit of idle recreation. They're probably not cursed.
A Ghost of Warmth
For the briefest of moments you feel faint, pleasant sensation that you'd thought dead for ages. Nothing about the Husk or its possessions tells you why or how to replicate it, however.
Crypt-City Brochure
An old flier both advertising for one of the smaller, newer Crypt-Cities, and calling for the violent expulsion of all Awakened. If you become lost, you may reorient yourself toward your goal once.
A Spare Limb
Everything seems to be in working order for one of the Husk's extremities. Randomly gain a spare left or right arm or leg.
Dislodged Corpse Nail
This foot-long wrought iron spike is hammered into the limbs and torsos of the Awakened by Hunters to affix them to a Groaning Pillar. Treat as a dagger.
Moldering Pages
Scraps of some old tome or journal. They may offer some insight into local dangers or past travelers.
Rot Blossom Sprout
Run. Run as fast as you can.
A marvelously underused pair of sandals. Gain the ability to travel the Wasteland in almost-comfort for the next hundred miles.
Passage of Death-Priest Psalms
These grim old hymns allow you to reflect upon your struggle and the goal which lies at its end, bolstering your resolve. You may ignore one day of Need.
Looted Mask
This Husk was once another corpse-pillager like yourself. Gain one blank death mask to use as a backup, and don't dwell overlong on this glimpse into your own future.
Map Fragment
Manic scrawling making use of parchment and ink of questionable origins outlines the general area and points of interest.
Mystery Cult Trinkets
Ritual tools and artifacts of ambiguous design and purpose. Using them correctly might allow for the casting of a single spell. Or they might explode.
Black Marrow
The bones of every Awakened become imbued with a hint of death-smoke essence over time, and these are still juicy. Become well-rested, if you can tolerate the grizzly, selfsame feast. Just ignore the nightmares.
Smoke Pocket
A pocket of death-smoke hasn't yet left the Husk's body. Split open the bubo-like protrusion in its flesh and huff deeply to repair light damage or remove one minor debilitation.
Not A Husk!
The corpse you're scavenging isn't entirely catatonic yet! Take light but unavoidable damage as it suddenly bites and flails mindlessly at the rude awakening.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

On the Other Origins of Haraal.

We all know the classic version of the story by now. Kibra says as much while prefacing the speech she is surely about to give us. We each nod our heads, but then don't really object when she goes on to describe the origin myth anyway.

Most commonly (or at least, traditionally) the culture-hero Haraal is believed to have been birthed from the trunk of an aging tree on the side of the peak known as Yorl'di. This mountain is generally considered to have been an isolated part of the southeastern Pashels. Haraal is unequivocally described as being exceptionally tall and of Ersuunian ideal, so theories that he may have been one of the Pach-Pah are quickly quashed. He fell from the mountain, injuring himself, and then he was nursed back to health by a family of herders who would become his first servants in the conquest of the whole Ersuunian Basin. Spectacular feats of strength, skill, and seemingly divine luck quickly follow, mixed in with some tribal politicking. Wrap it up with a few vague allusions to abduction and ethnic cleansing here and there, and you've got the early years of our beloved bronze god-chieftain. Plain, simple fun for the whole family at the monthly Reaffirmation of the Law.

But there is another story. Several in fact, but this fountain brings to mind one in particular.

In the Histories of All by our beloved Sage, Yashka, there is a single verse which reads that once Haraal had conquered the last of the Ersuunian holdouts in the west--specifically after he finished tightening an iron band around the skull of king Sperhel until his head exploded--he decided to "settle down and embrace the land of his birth."¹ This excerpt has three primary interpretations.

The first, generally tied with the above narrative, is that it is metaphorical, and that Haraal was decreeing that he was going to shift from conquest to administration, thereby embracing all of the land that he now claimed as his own by birthright. Thus "the land of his birth" is synonymous with every area of the Basin which he eventually claimed as part of his empire.

The second is that Haraal was specifically regarding the area where he would later found his court and capital city, styled on the palatial nomad camps of old. Following this line of logic, the area in the northwest of the Basin would have been the place where he was "born", which happened to be the farthest point in the entire empire from the purported site of Yorl'di.²

The logical conclusion of this interpretation was that Haraal was born in some other fashion, and that the mountain and tree were more symbolic than actual, historical sites. The Ersuunians of the northwest were quick to apply one of their own myths to the story, in their attempt to subsume their conqueror into their own culture, probably before those filthy mid-landers or water-drinking east-fringers could make the same claims or some such. The myth in question was one of immaculate conception.

There once was a great, nameless king among Ersuunians, said to be of the twentieth generation of nobles descended from the chieftain Gohr himself. This king had an insatiable desire for collecting wives, though for exactly what purpose was unknown: they were entirely leisured within his court, and were not made to engage in any state or domestic matters. Nor did they serve the less common but more infamous purpose of a harem, for they all remained virgins in his company, and he had no known children. The count varies from source to source, but it seems that he had several dozen such brides in gilded cages.

And one day, he decided to add one more to the bunch.

Kibra tells us that the young woman's name was Tiamis. She was the daughter of one of the king's sub-chieftains, and probably the sister of one or more women who were already the man's wives. She was brought to him in time for the spring harvest, when the chiefdom's agrarian subjects were paying their tribute of grain, animals, and leather. A great feast was held by the king to host the representatives of his vassals and bond-servants, as well as to celebrate his latest wedding. At that feast all manner of Ersuunian delicacies were to be found. Among these curiosities of semi-settled cuisine was the pasture date.

Ciudo asks our guide "what are pasture dates?" because of course he would. She seems all too happy to answer him.

"Pasture date" is a euphemism in modern speech used to refer to roasted horse testicles.

How they got that name and why anyone thought that disembodied genitals resemble pitted fruits, I cannot fathom, and I'd rather not try. But that is what they are, and that is the origin of the unusually-shaped, fist-sized globe which the statue now identified as Tiamis is reaching for.

I am not sure if I approve of this visual pun or not.

Our storyteller goes on to describe how great rows of spitted pasture dates were being roasted over trough-like fires all throughout the camp on that day. They were fresh- exceedingly so in some cases, for the stallions they'd been "harvested" from had been gelded earlier that morning. When Tiamis arrived at the banquet and saw these highly seasonal treats, she seized one at once. Unfortunately for her, the date she plucked had not been cooked sufficiently, and she did not realize how raw it was until she'd eaten more than half of it. Kibra illustrates her nonchalance at this discovery by shrugging her shoulders and mimicking downing the remainder.

I begin to consider what I will do for my lunch hour today, because none of us are going to be eating now.

Rather than becoming wretchedly food-poisoned, Tiamis felt herself become mildly bloated after her meal. Over the course of the next few days, it became apparent that she was miraculously (and severely) pregnant. Her husband was as confused as he was enraged, and chose to wait until the birth of the child to decide just what should be done. Tiamis gave birth after only forty days. Within minutes of his birth, the boy named Haraal was able to stand and speak, and warded his father away sternly. Another forty days passed, and he had grown into a fully mature young man. On the forty-first day of his life, Haraal strangled his "father" to death and assumed control of all his holdings. This story serves as an explanation for how Haraal appeared so suddenly and with such a solid power base at his disposal, once conquest of the Basin began. Tiamis and the other widows disappear from the narrative at this point, and the story quickly takes a shape resembling that of the traditional rise to greatness.

Kibra explains unsolicited that the merger of the two contradictory tales in this piece of art is meant to represent equal appreciation of all ideas, grand or small, orthodox or fringe, in the name of the greater goal of acquisition of knowledge. I am impressed- this simultaneously reaffirms Porylus' relationship with the Ivory Tower, and takes the latter to task in its approach of research in recent centuries.

Our guide turns and quits the scene now, gesturing with both hands for us to follow after her as we make our final approach to the tower of Porylus Mons.

I quietly wonder if any statues are hidden away here depicting the conflicting beliefs about the disappearance of Haraal.

¹ Verse 16,982, line 44 of the Histories of All, Yashka the Sage, 1284 BR.

² The third theory is that Yorl'di is misidentified with any of the Pashels, and that it was in fact the highest peak of the Oron'er Mountains. But this argument doesn't really come into play because the greatest proponents of it are based in Nambar, Serminwurth, and the pauper graves reserved for heretics after they've been ritually bled to death via paper cuts by priests of the Ivory Tower.