Tuesday, August 29, 2017


"He does not punish. He does not reward. He doesn't judge at all. He simply is; a withered hand to hold on the last, long journey."
- A literal translation out of Esgodarran prose taken from Nares Saton's Elegies.

"Don't fear Death- fear where he's taking you."
- A prominent graffito scrawled over the threshold of a funerary home in the Lower-East Tier of Deneroth.

"Relish the sting! It means the Horned One hasn't yet claimed you."
- Hital, elated as always to be performing burn debridement without any anesthesia handy.

When death comes, not everyone has a tribe to cut them apart, or a bird-spirit to whisk them away to the sky. For many, the only company to be had in death is silent and solitary Ergil.

As his epithet "Ergil-Who-Is-Death" suggests, Ergil is the state of death, and everything which is dead is entered into his being, at least temporarily. He is not a god, at least not the kind which needs worship and sacrifice, though he does receive both on occasion. He is somewhat closer to a force of nature, in a restrained and creeping sort of fashion. But he is also an individual, acting separate from or within himself in a manner surprisingly personal to each lost soul.

Upon death, the individual is commonly believed to be lost for a time without time ranging from hours to years, in which the soul is tossed back and forth upon the currents of some roiling sea of unbeing. But this transient phase ends, and then the dead "wakes up". They are greeted with a place not too vastly different from the location in which they died, with certain marked differences. In some stories this is a pallid mirror of the world of the living, while others hold it to be the actual, physical world through different means of seeing. Without the veil of mortal eyes, the spirit can see the world quite differently- perhaps, as it truly is.

Regardless of what the nature of this place is where the dead find themselves, it is somewhat of a dreary place. The sky remains perpetually overcast, and though the constant wind can feel quite damp, no rain ever falls. The world stretches out in all directions, silent and dead but for the wind in the grass or the flowing of stagnant-smelling water. Geography wears thin the farther away from one's site of death one goes, and beyond that, space itself begins to deteriorate, until a truly alien landscape stretches out before one's unveiled eyes. If this is the land of the dead, it can give the impression that one is the only dead thing anywhere, ever, for not a single other soul is ever to be seen. Black-feathered birds or small flies can occasionally be seen, as well as brief and distant views of dark shapes shifting about, but nothing pays the dead any heed. None but Ergil.

He appears sometime after the dead's wakening, typically from a great distance at first, no different from the other furtive black spots on the horizon. But though he moves slowly, he advances inexorably toward the spirit. Some flee what they see as this approaching apparition of doom, and beat a hasty retreat through the weird land which now keeps them. And because the spirit needs no sleep, nor food or water, the chase can last indefinitely. But Ergil's slow and steady approach never leaves him farther away than the horizon, a constant reminder of the inevitability of death.

Some remain quite ignorant of their own death, while others refuse acceptance, traveling through as many stages of grief as the living they left behind might feel. Though countless ages and trackless wastes may separate the dead soul from where they began, the time always comes when they stand in silent acceptance, and the master of that self-same domain comes to rest before them.

The avatar of death is quite featureless. He stands immensely tall, twelve feet or more at times, perpetually enveloped by a cloak of frayed black feathers and scraps of fur. His arms and legs, when visible, are as black as his garment, long and gangling, and terminating in gnarled claws. Contrasting with these dark hues is the dingy whiteness of bandages wrapped haphazardly around his body, stained with blood or antiseptic here and there- some believe these to be the remnants of dressings stripped from the bodies of those who died in agony under the ministrations of physicians, who finally came to know release from Najis the Healer. A more bleached shade of white is his head. Or, what passes for one.

Ergil has no visible face, for the head which caps his eerily long neck is mounted by the immense skull of a bovid shaped into a mask. Because of this, plus the large wooden staff or crook he is sometimes depicted with, he is known as the Horned One, or the Moldering Shepherd. His gender is inferred as male only due to the large and impressive horns which adorn the skull, suggesting that it had once belonged to a great steer. Either Death cannot speak, or he does not care how any including his newest guests refer to him. All he will do, is extend his hand.

He does not force the spirit to take his gesture, and will even continue to follow the dead on their aimless journey across the vast and empty vistas of that place, ever a silent companion walking a few paces behind and beside, as tireless as his charge.

When the hand is at last taken, he will not take initiative even then. Rather, the land seems to reorient itself and regain some measure of coherence around the two, and the correct path reveals itself. And so it is that Ergil and the spirit walk together, hand in hand, neither leading the other, until the destination is reached. Other times, if in life one was too young or old to walk, or some disability gripped them, Ergil effortlessly carries them in his musty yet gentle embrace, going where the dead would go as if they themselves were walking that way.

The final destination may be an opening into a vault in the earth. It may be a craggy pinnacle enveloped in a shaft of light piercing the ever-present clouds. Whatever it is, the immediate and profound sense of belonging which takes over the wandering spirit ends all travel. Ergil acts as final witness to the departed and their departure, and then he vanishes again over the horizon.

Ergil-Who-Is-Death has accumulated a great deal of frightening iconography over the ages, making him appear sinister and even violent in nature. The addition of a cruel-looking harvesting scythe in some depictions contaminated by a certain grain-god has not helped matters. But to those who pray to him and officiate funerary rites and interment, his even-handedness and gentleness are emphasized.

He is no one's enemy. Only another step to be taken.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Fokari Burial Practices.

"What was given is now returned. The dead wing their way to the ancestors beneath the Eagle's shade."
- Rohat Barza-parh, Speaker of the Hishar Tribe.

Death is inevitable, as well as quite common to the daily life of the Fokari, given the difficult nature of existence on the wastes' edges. It is also considered to be as natural as life. It is not an aberrant state, and so it is nothing to be feared- at least, ideally. When death claims the member of a tribe, the ceremonies which follow are cause for the entire community to come together. All but the most vital tasks are set aside for a few hours in which the dead Fokar is eulogized and offerings are burned in the tribal brazier to placate the right spirits for the event and attract the attention of the highest beings which transcend the status of spirit and become full-fledged gods. Chief among them are creatures often represented as birds, and among them the Eagle sits above all else as a sort of cosmic arbiter and judge of the dead.

Because the Eagle performs this function, there is no need for Ergil-Who-Is-Death, and thus he is not a being normally treated with by the Fokari despite his existence within their vast pantheon. This suggests that at some point in the past there was some form of contact between their tribes and the outside world extensive enough that a deity was shared in the exchange. But the fact remains that despite a small cycle of stories relating to him, the Moldering Shepherd has no role in the movement of the souls or equivalent spiritual stuffs of the deceased down into their appropriate niche in the underworld.

The dead are not buried, after all. Burning is not an option either, for though fire has a high position in their worldview, the Fokari simply would not have access to enough wood or other plant matter to use as fuel for every single funeral pyre. A fire fueled by collected and dried yuum dung would be more practical, but not exactly respectful of the dead.*

Once mourning has been completed and every family in the tribe--even and especially enemies--has come together, the body is carried away from the main village by a small procession of the closest family members of the dead, as well as the Speaker and Seer. The officiator says a few last words on the subject, and then the shaman ritually strips the corpse of all clothing and adornments. Then a dance is performed and maintained in order to call to the scene the spirits of nature which will bring to its rightful destination body and soul each. The rest of the group members use knives to cut the body into pieces, and then the butchered and dressed carcass is left to nature.

The first carrion bird observed to land upon the body and peck at it is believed to be the psychopomp who accompanies the spirit of the dead Fokar through astral projection. Specialized prayers of thanks are said to the bird according to its exact species, for the scavengers of the Wastes are many and varied. As the circling birds grow large in number overhead, the party retreats and returns to the rest of the village to resume daily activities while the body is picked clean and given back to nature. The tribe is expected to move on from this, for their part in that person's story has now ended. The deceased are said to have a long journey ahead of them yet, however. And though the journey of the dead is a treacherous one, they will live on forever in the patchwork ceilings of their descendants.

There are of course exceptions to this rule of ritual, though little in the way of explanation can be found. There are along the edges as well as the interior of the wastelands many cairn-grounds which dot the harsh landscape. They are known to the Fokari, and in fact are well-known enough among the tribes to be used as widely-recognizable landmarks to aid in navigation during migration. But all of these sites are given a wide berth by the Fokari, who do not actively speak of or even look at them. Most often, euphemism and vague gesture accomplish this.

Within the cairn sites are, of course, cairns. But they are of a curious design which are either deliberately open-aired or partially unfinished, each lacking a top so that something may peek out from it. These withered little glimpses are the heads of Fokari corpses crumpled up within, mummified by the ages of exposure to the elements, yet quite untouched by animal life.

How or why these bodies came to be here is a vexing mystery even among the tribes. The rare whisper suggests that the mummies may once have been great shamans or terrible magicians, but this raises more questions than answers.

* This is not to say that the Fokari hold the body of the deceased in reverence entirely or in perpetuity. Once the soul has left the vessel, it is nothing more than decaying matter to be discarded in the fashion most respectful of the land.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Tallash, the Struggling God.

"We are Friends to the Helper, and we shut out the immensity."
- Dodol Pritush, of Au-ed.

The Oron'er mountain range, despite its relative proximity to civilization¹ as well as its smallness compared to such far-off giants as the Khokhantipa Range, has perhaps the most mystique out of any of the high places of the world. From its alluvial, red-grassed lowlands and foothills to its highest and driest karst peaks, the Oron'er range has been fixed in the minds of well-to-do adventurers and explorers for centuries. The bizarre weather, legends of foreboding ruins, and natives with unusual customs guarantee it a spot in the outside world's imagination. Of course those intrepid explorers rarely stay more than a day in any place of significant elevation, and hardly interact with the locals while on such expeditions, so the impressions have not been easily shed to reveal their more comprehensive truths. The peoples of the mountains are of chief concern in this respect.

"Oron'er" is a word of uncertain origin, used exclusively by outsiders to describe the mountains and their peoples. It may be a thorough corruption of an Esgodarran word or phrase, but etymologists are in disagreement over a plausible origin.² The native languages are in similar disagreement over what to call their home, owing to a remarkable density of dissimilar language groups and regional dialects on the mountains. There are thirty-two tribes accounted for in the mountains, twenty-one settled in mostly permanent villages and the remaining eleven existing pastorally and semi-nomadically, often in much smaller numbers than their more sedentary kin. In either case of habitation, livelihood follows a strict cycle of movement back and forth between lowland grazing of sheep and collection of water in the winter, and intensive handicraft and foraging during the relatively easier months of spring and fall higher up in the mountains. The interrupting summer is legendarily dry and brutal, and tribes typically hunker down in earthen places where water may be stored for the duration. Outsiders unwisely visiting the mountains in the middle of summer have remarked at the apparent laziness of the Oron'er peoples trying to keep cool, and this stereotype has persisted for some time.

Only the day keeps them away from the outside, however. For the summer nights on those peaks make the tribes privy to some of the most spectacular celestial shows known to the southwest. Comets, meteorite showers, and the occasional green sunset or purple sunrise are known to the watchers on the peaks, and they observe these natural phenomena with religious dedication. Quite unlike several lowland cultures who deem such sights to be omens of nameless dread, the people of the Oron'er Mountains see them as glimpses into the larger truth of the world, and what lies beyond the world. It is something which virtually all tribes engage in, often in wordless or gesticulating cooperation with one another. For though they remain highly distinct in language and aesthetic and material culture, the tribes each seem to share a single major aspect of religion.

The mountain people believe in one god, or at least one god who matters. Its names are as varied as their languages, but for the sake of simplicity in this article it shall be referred to by the name taken from the northeastern Au-ed tribe, most well-known to Ersuun peoples. This name is Tallash, or Tayyash, derived from a contraction between the words "tai" and "yash", meaning "the helper". The worship of Tallash is therefore Tallash Yai, meaning "the law of the helper", or "acting in accordance with the helper". While they lack a formal term of religious self-identification, the Au-ed refer to those among them deemed most righteous and pious as a Pritush, or "friend".

Tallash is unusual, as far as Gods of a monotheistic bent in the wider world are concerned. It is without a more human avatar or identity, and its worshipers have remarkably little in the way of symbolism for it or artistic depictions of it. It is not omnipresent, nor is it omnipotent, nor even omniscient. But it is omnibenevolent, having the interests of the entire world at heart. To follow Tallash Yai is to be kind to strangers, generous to the destitute, merciful to one's enemies, and tireless in the pursuit of compromise between disparate groups (such as other mountain tribes). Everything which may somewhat nebulously be referred to as good--compassion, achievement, peace, well-being, beauty, etc--is an expression of Tallash's nature, brought about upon the mortal sphere through the actions of people. Every act or event of violence, greed, petty malice, and apathy is a shortcoming of the Pritush, and by extension a failing of Tallash to protect its beloved friends from all which is Beyond.

"Beyond" is a concept which is difficult for scholars and knowledge-seekers to illuminate in the context of the Tallash faith, because the Oron'er natives' boiled-down explanations of their own beliefs tend to stop at that point, with any deeper elaboration kept tight-lipped until the nosy and more than likely badly dehydrated traveler finally gives up and continues on their way. To remedy this, we must regrettably turn to a sole and uncorroborated source which otherwise records just such a theological exchange in remarkable detail. I write of course of one of the four commonly dismissed chapters of the travel chronicles of Sarq of Nambar (not to be confused with the modern notable Sark ad-an-Rish, also of Nambar, but several decades Sarq's junior). While Sarq conducted his thorough interviews, the transcription and publication itself was done by his friend and constant companion Isha. Considering her otherwise impeccable track record and her quite vocal stance on the taking of academic liberties in Nambar's sister-city of Deneroth³, it was perhaps too hasty for the last generation of scholars to deem this and other chapters to be entirely fictive for having merely been the first to report on the matter. Despite its common omission from most modern publications of the Travel Chronicles, the libraries of the Ivory Tower are in possession of one unedited copy.

Sarq arived in Au-ed very late in the fall. It was uncharacteristically damp and chilly for the locals and Nambar natives alike, but there was much activity as the various herders and traders prepared for the move down into the milder foothills for the winter. The interview was conducted with one Pritush named Dodol, a respected elder who was said to have surpassed eighty years of age at the time. He was a small and scrawny man, his small size exaggerated even further by how he tightly tucked himself up into a ball in his blanket in the center of the large room in which he and Sarq were meeting. Apparently at Sarq's subsequent urging, a footnote was made using Dodol's smallness in the vastness of his chamber, surrounded by bustling people going about their own business and paying him and Sarq no heed in that moment, as an appropriate metaphor for the state of the world in Oron'er cosmology.

Dodol explained that in the beginning, there was no earth or water, only a sky which was not a sky, because it had nothing else to differentiate itself from. It was a vast gulf of darkness and emptiness, filled not with matter but with sound. The sounds of planetoid flies buzzing about the rotting corpses of still-singing whales, and of laughter coming from things unseen and best left unseen. Then, at some point in that pointless, timeless time, form came into being. Through utter chance, shape and physicality was granted to the void, filling it in pockets and around the edges. Dust and smoke coalesced into worlds and living things, and their primeval blood and sweat became the waters and seas. They existed in base savagery, pack slaughtering pack, mother devouring child, and maddened dances occasionally attracting the attention of the formerly formless things from Beyond, much to the mortal's detriment. But just as random chance created the uncaring and brutish cosmic vastness, so too was it able to create something gentle.

Tallash was once one of those nameless things adrift on the astral winds, fathomless in its intent as it went about business which was oblivious to and dangerously heedless of everything lesser than it, which was everything. Until it happened upon the bedraggled animals clinging fruitlessly to the rock which we all now call home. Detached pity was inspired in it, then sympathy, and then true, heart-rending empathy, which drove it to take the whole of the world in its embrace finally. It nurtured us like children, sheltering us from the outer dark and crooning soft, accepting encouragement to us. We listened--plant, animal, and human alike--and so were raised from our earlier darkness. But we were not illuminated per se. For the Beyond remained a terrible place for things of soft flesh and fragile mind such as ourselves, and Tallash sought to shelter us from it, lest this small hope of order and tranquility be dashed upon the rocks of the deep, dark ocean.

Grief came when newly-named Tallash witnessed just that. One of its kin, passing through on a mindless ellipse of destruction, wrought misery upon the world with claws of fire and tendrils of despair. It was so great a pain to Tallash, to fail in its newly-chosen duty, that it trembled and wept for an eon. Tallash stopped when it had shaken itself to bits, forming the sky above, and the celestial sphere beyond. It shielded us more thoroughly now than ever before, and all later incursions would wound it but not aggrieve it, for it now placed itself utterly in harm's way for the sake of its chosen friends, bolstering its resolve with every fair or foul result. And a compact was made between the oldest Pritush and Tallash, ensuring that when the mortal coil released each life, it would ascend to the vault of the world and merge with the great tapestry of Tallash, joining it in its ceaseless vigil against the outer dark. Every death strengthens its aegis, and every life well-lived ensures a better world left behind than that which was entered into. And so the comets and other heavenly lights glimpsed in the late summer nights are messages from Tallash itself, continued guidance and encouragement from sent by it, our first and oldest Friend.

The core teaching of Tallash Yai seems then to be one of comforting bittersweetness:

The world is a cold and uncaring place, fraught with danger and meaningless loss.

Change it.

¹ "Civilization" referring here to any and all settled areas characterized by predominantly stone architecture, over-reliance upon underwear, and a predilection toward breeding endearingly useless household pets.
² This is somewhat of an assumption on the part of the writer, since the Board of Interpreters & Linguists has not been in session since the divisive and chaotic Lavatory Sign Crisis two semesters ago.
³ This brief former partnership between cities of scholastic emphasis is typically thought to be best left forgotten in the present, but it still represents an honest attempt by diverse parties to connect the intellectual world in ways which it has not been for over four hundred years. Perhaps the ITU should step away from its self-identification as the "lone shining candle of learning", and examine the evidence of a bonfire burning outside its doorstep.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Magic in the World.

(While many of my posts dedicated to this nebulous and poorly-defined setting have included mysticism or magical elements, I haven't yet gotten around to explaining how it actually works. Or even delving if it does work in a fashion which allows for explanation. It was always present at the edge of my consideration, but finally I decided to do something more with it after I read this post.

Found within is a pretty neat way to advertise oneself while also engaging with others who are interested in the same topics as you, just by writing a specialized blog post. It's a fun community-building mechanic, and I decided I'd throw myself in with the rest of 'em. This month's topic is, of course, "Magic", and the carnival is being hosted by Kobold Press. Check out their published books sometime, if core materials for your game of choice aren't quite cutting it.

Without further ado, here is another manuscript picked up off of the scattered mess of papers found on the desk in Roberick Bertrum Litte's subscalanean abode.)

"Pontificating blowhards, and elitist know-it-alls more arrogant than Ivory Tower alumni alike, will try to tell you that there are sharp divides between different forms of magic, whether they call them "schools" or "domains", or what have you. They will argue which ones come from rigorous arcane study and which ones must be earned from the gods. Which are inherent gifts or curses of the individual, and which are obtained from one's environment. They will exalt the benefits of their own path while belittling or outright demonizing all others. The worst part about it is that they are all right- but only barely."
- Elrusyo, "hedge magician" pen pal & outside contact of Roberick Litte.

A holistic approach to understanding the various forces, practices, and phenomena collectively known as "magic" is about as difficult to formulate as it would be to explain the third dimension to a group of flat pictures who can't stop fighting one another long enough to act as a good audience. But despite these odds, the attempt has still been made, and to a degree, the challenge overcome. It would appear that, even including systems of magic which operate under the belief of one incredibly narrow specificity (i.e., that all of a practitioner's power derives from a single boulder out in a field), all traditions seem to share the concept and acceptance of a plane or similarly distant yet permeating place in which the powers dwell. For some this is the land of the gods, while for others it is a roiling chaos of nondifferentiated cosmic soup. But the act of engaging with it, regardless of medium, seems to be enough to effect some sort of change upon that plane, insofar as some of that energy and potential is siphoned off.

The skeptical reader may now be thinking that this is all beginning to sound very much like a fairtale-esque case of "belief makes it real". And the skeptic would be correct.

(The skeptic should also be wary if they are reading this article within the walls of Deneroth, because the University enforcers can sniff out a curious mind from up to forty yards away.)

Belief is an immensely important element of engaging with magic. Without it there is no magic to speak of, after a fashion, and the mind is like a blank spot- a hole in the tapestry of the universe's mysticism. But belief is not all that is needed. One needs to be dedicated to a form of practice which evokes magic in any of its forms. This is most obvious in the case of rigorous study of the "laws" (more like gentle, self-enforced suggestions) of magic by wizards, or by the equally dedicated and self-effacing devotion of one's body and soul to their deity of choice. But the need for a system and skill is still present elsewhere. Even among those hot-blooded "sorcerers" of the Occident who claim to be able to evoke power by virtue of being themselves, there is a requisite belief in the self, and ability to empower and manifest the self. Much like a braggart about one's own deeds, a sorcerer out of practice is much more bluster than blaster.

This, coupled with the general belief that magic is unique to the sentient mind or things invested with power by the sentient mind*, suggests that all effects are indeed being drawn from the same source. To borrow from the metaphors of oracles, it may very well be that all forms of magic access the same place from which knowledge and godheads may (or may not) arise.

Observing upon the existence or nonexistence of the gods is something for an entirely different article, however. I have only just recently been forgiven by the Tower censors for including in one journal the various unflattering limericks which refer to Laizij, our eternal scholar and university patron.

What I openly wonder now, is how exactly all of these different-yet-similar means of drawing power from this "plane" interact. What would happen if two practitioners tried to draw out the same motes of force? Could they bereave one or the other of that power and leave their evocation wanting? Could they cancel one another out, as the sensationalist talk of "antimagic" from the northeast would suggest? Is the font of magic instead so vast as to make individual magic-users like rafts adrift in a sea, utterly unlikely to ever encounter or ram into one another?

Could this sea ever be drained?

* The recent reports of levitating sheepdogs in the southern reaches of our nearby Akell-Ar Valley are as of yet unsubstantiated. An attempt by one Eneko Sehi to have an expedition and study funded, while demonstrating a promising degree of initiative, has been met with red tape by the Committee for the Preservation of Esgodarran Wildlife.*

* Note that there are no native Esgodarrans present on the Committee at this time, nor have there ever been, nor do any current members of the Committee speak the indigenous dialects.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Mersind of Serminwurth: Select/Salvaged Excerpts Concerning Blood Wasps.

"My expulsion from the township surrounding Serminwurth is at present still a point of annoyance for me- truly, how could I have known that surgical paralysis as a cure for C.S.D. had been outlawed for a century and a half? My patient was happy for it, and would have offered his signed consent, were he literate, and had his hands not have sooner stabbed me in the throat with that same pen. Regardless, I have resolved to make the most of my new situation, rather than simply make due. I have met a somewhat like-minded fellow in my flight from home, though his practice and interest in discovery has something a theistic bent to it. He is a devotee of the god of healing, and thus his familiarity with anatomy and patience with the agonized will both come in handy as we embark upon this new project together. He is one Hital, of the village Ferrith."
- Personal Journal Entry #1

"My companion and I have found the distant and, to be perfectly honest, forgotten town of Uiten in our hasty travels east after certain unfortunate occurrences manifested themselves around Hital's latest rendering of services as a barber-surgeon. He seems to have taken a hint, and no longer offers me a shave. Uiten was apparently forgotten by the rest of the region just as much as it was by the geographic archives back home, because the area is in a state of advanced disrepair and administrative neglect. We have received word that the local prison has recently overflowed- yet another negative side effect of the peculiar practice in this region of using imprisonment as a punishment in and of itself, rather than as a brief interlude to proper financial or corporeal discipline. But, one man's rot is another man's fertilizer. We will contact the local authorities in the morning."
- Journal Entry #4

"We make a surprisingly effective team of negotiators, Hital and I. His forwardness and bombasticity make an excellent entry-point, while my comparatively more reserved nature and technical language  "seals the deal" so to speak, where his energy might otherwise turn toward less-than-appealing quirkiness, or reveal something of his "fixations". The pouch of gold which we passed to the magistrate and chief bailiff also seemed to turn them around toward our cause. Regardless, our methods have earned us a signed and sealed certificate which transfers to us the responsibility and authority over one of the prison's condemned inmates. We have assured his former keepers that there is no end more ethical and just than one which serves the progress of human knowledge."
- Journal Entry #5

"The prisoner, whose name I cannot recall being spoken, does not seem to be so fortunate as to be bilingual. This tells me that he belonged to the somewhat plebeian majority back home, and likely would not be a terribly good source of intellectual stimulation in conversation. This is just as well, since he seems more concerned with fruitlessly pulling at his restraints and causing Hital to have to use the bullwhip which he inexplicably carried around all of this time. Still, we are making adequate time on our way to the facility."
- Journal Entry #6

"The buzzing of alert activity was almost deafening four miles from our secondary destination, forcing us to stop and thoroughly hide and veil the horses and our friend before progressing on foot with suits and earplugs donned. It could not mute the pounding of our hearts in our heads as we progressed into Blood Wasp territory. Our target was the smallest functional hive which we could access at the edge of the zone of infestation, but unfortunately for us they happened to be quite closely packed this season. By the time we found a suitable hive which vaguely resembled the shape of a waxy, prismatic squirrel, the thumb-sized colony drones were boring holes into our protective clothing and barbing at our skin. We carefully cut the structure open and harvested a trio of galls from within before beating a hasty retreat. The left side of Hital's face was bloated from an envenomed sting, but it only dragged half of his ever-present smile even farther up toward his pronounced cheekbones. He seemed quite pleased with everything."
- Entry #10

"The "facility" of which Hital spoke so highly has failed to live up to my expectations. At one point, it was supposedly a quite refined retreat for the priests of Najis in the region. But it has since fallen into ruin, and the wooden portions of the structure have rotted and collapsed. The stone structure which superficially resembles a gatehouse shall act as our domicile as well as staging grounds, and so I am grateful that I kept a hold on my earplugs, though they have become quite nasty, waxy things in the summer humidity. The nights will be loud for some time."
- Entry #12

"Fortunately for Hital, the operating room is marvelously more preserved and clean. The heavy external locks on all doors and windows leading to the chamber kept the elements from spoiling the instruments and facilities within, to the point that we believe even the wooden operating table will suffice. After two days of sitting and stewing, our prisoner has become increasingly paranoid. Perhaps he has an inkling of what is in store for him. Certainly, he has noticed that we are feeding him significantly more than in the past week. Hital believes he has worked out some of the rudiments of the man's language, and has conducted a handful of halting conversations with him up to this point. I was unable to transcribe them, but the end result seems to be that he is more distressed now that the "Smiling Man" has taken such an interest in him. The uncanny nickname has, incidentally, reminded me to begin a separate and more disciplined log for what is to follow. Were this to be read by anyone but myself, I would apologize for my subsequent dryness."
- Entry #13


"Observation Log Day One. The subject was transferred to the operating room after the inclusion of a sufficient dose of remphanth extract to his food. My associate and I agree that we should have tightened his restraints, as the constant rattle of chains upon the table is growing already so tiresome. We have placed a low-hanging mesh net above him containing the galls, which have shown signs of greater activity over the past eighteen hours. My associate tells me that the subject insists that he can hear them humming. We both confirm that there is perfect silence in the facility other than his own exclamations. Perhaps they are already growing acquainted."


"Day Two. A reflected light aimed to shine through each of the galls confirms that the larva are highly active and in a more advanced state of development than we had hoped. The subject continues to rant and rave, alternating insisting that he had not committed his crimes, and begging forgiveness for them. He simply wishes for the humming to stop. My associate agreed to contribute his own plugs, and for the moment the subject is pacified."


"Day Four. The galls are beginning to rupture. I began to mix several doses of anesthetic which I believe necessary to the process, but my associate insists that the procedure will have a much higher rate of success if the subject is conscious and able to provide the larvae with the needed levels of aural stimulation. I am skeptical, but will defer to his greater experience in this field, for his treatment of several cases following the Festering River Blight was what allowed for this all to happen. Fortunately he does not dare to call me his assistant, in jest or otherwise."


"Day Five. I have invaginated the subject's navel with a metal rod and spaced out the entryway using a specially-treated hollow reed, pointed upward at the rupturing galls. One has already begun to drip effluvia upon the table.

Addendum to Day Five. By the marked increase in yelling, the subject seems to have finally come in direct contact with one or more larvae. The reed's effectiveness as a channel made from the material of the wasp's native habitat is noted for future research."


"Day Twelve. All three galls have ruptured and emptied fully, though several offspring died or were insufficiently developed to migrate to the host. Perhaps they were damaged in the direct handling of their galls, or perhaps it is the result of improper incubator formation. Future cross-referencing will hopefully illuminate this issue. The subject is behaving very erratically, fighting against his restraints until his wrists and ankles bleed and significant bruising across his limbs indicates the separation of muscle tissue from bone. The influence of adrenaline on the human body is remarkable, but must wait for another time in order to receive full study."


"Day Fifteen. The subject has stopped screaming."


"Day Twenty-Eight. After a significant period of unresponsiveness in which the subject was deemed to be expired, its extremities appear now to twitch and flex randomly. My associate has explained that this marks the point where the larva has transitioned from feeding on gut fauna and internal organs to engaging directly with the central nervous system. The relative lack of innards explains the surprising lack of foul odor- I was incorrect in believing that the subject's tissues were somehow being preserved by the process of incorporation."


"Day Thirty. After one month of observation and gentle goading, we have confirmed the presence of wasp nymphs in and around what remains of the subject's respiratory and digestive tract. The entry-point is now a far cry from a human torso meanwhile, having been sufficiently converted into hive structures that it resembles in crude shape some of the larger, dome-like colonies which I glimpsed at the heart of the Blood Wasp infestation during our brief foray. Soon, the entire subject--blood, tissue, and bones--will become the strange, uniform substance which houses a hive. It is with cautious celebration that we confirm that the process of hive conversion may be duplicated in a controlled environment. This will effectively pave the way to a greater understanding of the ecology of parasitic colonial insects, assuming we ever find a publisher willing to stamp its name upon our soon-to-be compiled reports."


"Day Forty-Two. Thus far we have met with very limited success in obtaining a professional audience for our discoveries. Measures have been taken to keep the hive contained as more advanced wasps lay claim to the host's surroundings. A thick, soupy atmosphere has begun to take hold in the operating room, accompanied by a sickeningly sweet smell which even manages to seep through our more air-tight seals. My associate has explained to me that this is a byproduct of the process, used to nurture and sustain more advanced forms of the wasp which quickly molt the teeth and enlarged stomach found in larvae. It is reportedly used as a highly effective yet highly addictive painkiller and recreational drug in the river delta towns to the south."


"We have officially deemed the project to be completed, though Hital and I will continue to make careful observations on the growth and development of the hive- the appearance of a queen would be a spectacular event neither of us would want to miss. Additionally, standards of safety must be kept at an all-time high, lest the facility and surrounding area become a new infestation zone. I would be deeply grieved if undue ecological damage and loss of life followed this momentous success. I have proposed that in the interim while we seek for scholastic partnership, we harvest and process some of this "crimson honey" and make a few minor business arrangements with the locals.

Hital is in strong disagreement with this, citing his religious disinclination toward the use or, indeed, even the existence of anesthesia. I have assured him that the proceeds would allow us to do much more good than ill, offering us a fast track to publication. I have also reminded him--perhaps somewhat manipulatively--of the severe withdrawal symptoms known to manifest from honey abuse, and of the subsequent need for trained medical professionals which would be sure to follow.

He is beginning to come around."
- Journal Entry #14

Beyond this point, no other journal entries are legible through the thickly-caked dirt and grime of nature, though there did appear to be many more pages written. Given the eventual publication of one very polarizing academic journal within Deneroth and select associated cities which contained elements of the above as well as both names, the pair met with some success. But the article which began this new wave of study was published without followup just shy of a decade ago at this time, and these journals were found among several other hastily-abandoned personal effects amid the effective ground-zero of the recently exterminated northern Blood Wasp infestation. No recently-parasitized human remains could be found on location, leaving the fates of the forested hilltop building's occupants uncertain.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Zood Riders of the Khokhantipa Mudflats.

"Most fascinating about the Khokhantipa natives is, in my opinion, their ancestors' willingness to settle a land which they could not possibly have seen any appeal in, yet they did so anyway. The reckless and indomitable spirit of humanity, all in one squat, vaguely fishy-smelling package!"
- Ossonyel of Old Miccime, travel literature author and self-proclaimed scholar.

"... It's like a pig mated with an eel, and then their descendants had long and sordid affairs with eyeless moles and lampreys."
- Ut-luush Tabd, trader and first-time visitor to the mudflat border towns.

Separated from the rest of the continent by the small but steep Tampiir Mountain chain, the Khokhantipa Mudflats are an anomaly of size and staying power. It is unknown how long ago they formed, because recorded history of the region does not begin until very recently. But no matter how young it may be, it tends to feel to an outsider like a terribly time-lost and ancient place. The flats were once separated by lengths of proper continental land, it is believed, but over time these eroded into nothing more than prominent sandbars which may be seen as large hills during the lengthy low tide, or as small islands during shallow high tide. Taken all together, the mudflats cover an area several leagues deep and several dozens in length.

According to the rarely-consulted histories kept by the natives themselves, their people have been inhabiting the flats for "thirty-by-thirty" lifetimes, or well over one thousand generations. It was at this location that the earth first met sea, for the sky had once been filled with parched earth until the trickster god of their pantheon kicked its stilts away and sent the whole thing crashing down into the gods' primordial soup of creation. Life flooded the earth for the first time, and so the mudflats are the first frontier of terrestrial life, and the soggy cradle of all. The autonym of the Khokhantipan people is notoriously difficult to transcribe, combining several glottal stops with a nasalized series of vowels and an upper-left-side tongue click for good measure. "Khokhantipa", the name ascribed to the area by early mariners and then applied to its people, finds general acceptance among outsiders and border towns, partly due to the fact that approximations of the correct name with imprecise tonal consonance results instead in an insult being directed at the listener's second male cousin.

The most popular image of mudflat life to the outside world is, naturally, the Zood. The Zood is an immense creature nearly sixteen feet in length for bulls and sometimes almost twenty for cows, dull pink in color, covered in a dense blubbery hide, and possessed of some of the strangest appendages seen on life outside of some volcanic sea-trench. The Zood's lumpy, segmented body is supported by eight legs which end in stubby little extremities somewhere between flippers, claws, and hooves, and they are well-suited to the variable terrain of the flats and surrounding territory. It lacks any shoulders, and its head is formed by the tapering of the front of its body into what could almost be mistaken for a raised ninth foot, if not for the semicircle of whiskered skin adorned with a myriad of eyes, perched above a cavernous mouth which can rapidly invert to form a rubbery pseudo-proboscis. The name "Zood" is supposedly derived from the humming sound which the creature makes while filter-feeding or tasting the air, or while at rest among their herds. Other names given to them by spectacularly uninspired outsiders include Mud-Pig, Slow-Stepper, and Sea-Bear.

Zoods are herded by the Khokhantipans, who are able to produce a stunning array of versatile, if pungent, clothing and fuel out of the hide and thin blubber of the animal. But more often, they are kept alive as mounts and companions, which give them a high vantage point during the low tide from which to look for beached food, and a comfortably buoyant ride during high tide. Food for the Zoods consists mostly of small animals and algae or plankton which it is almost perpetually filtering out of the mud underfoot. Food for their riders is in bulk large catches of sea fish, as well as seaweeds and the broad ranges of mollusks, crustaceans, and gastropods which wash up on the flats or are found nearly year-round in the immense tidal pools closer to the open sea.

Home for these strange strand-riders most often takes the form of the rigid hide huts accessed from the roof and anchored to the mudflat floor by tethers of water-treated gut, sinew, and specially-made rope attached to stones embedded in the earth. They are designed so that when the tides rise and fall, the hut remains upright and moves up and down with it with the family within mostly undisturbed. Visitors to the region tend to prefer the more static borderland villages, or the few "island" towns which dot the flats, as these are far less prone to making one violently seasick. In the event of broken tethers and a family set adrift, such as in a storm, they simply set about rowing back to home territory from atop their house, sometimes while enlisting the services of the remarkably docile wild Zoods who float back and forth with the tides like undulating, methane-scented fat balloons.