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.

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