Thursday, June 28, 2018

Riverine Despotism in the Ersuunian & Early Haraalian Periods.

As we pass farther away from the cesspits downhill from the alehouse, my mind relaxes as chances of some strange tricks on the part of Elrusyo diminish down to the minimum level of risk one always runs when consorting with herb-hermits.

In place of that mental exertion, I'm able to appreciate the river, now broadening and clarifying steadily, for what it is. It, like so many other bodies of running water across the Basin, is a vein of life running through the heartland of so many former states.

And, like real arteries, one need only apply a little pressure to them in order to affect change in the body at large.

The Ersuunians, and the people of Haraal who would eventually subsume or supplant them, are famed in written history as well as modern popular culture for their vast forces of cavalry, able to wash over any opposition like crashing waves. They conquered their enemies and then held onto their winnings through the threat and force of that mounted elite, which would grow increasingly landed and powerful as time went on. They remained the focus of warfare and political might until the appropriation of dry-stone building from Esgodarran architecture eventually met with mortar and resulted in the first fortified and stone-walled cities, which complicated the art of the siege and seriously hampered a cavalry focus.

But an equally important component of control was water access. As mixed and settled Esgodarran-Ersuunian petty-kingdoms formed, pastoralists and montane herders alike became more and more discouraged from true nomadism, and the ability for them together with their entirely agricultural neighbors to move to a new area in the event of drought became practically nonexistent. Recognizing this, chieftain-kings along the Basin's periphery exercised control over the wealthier heartlands by building the most elaborate series of earth dams the world has ever known- excepting the irrigation systems of inland Nambar of course. By limiting or allowing the flow of water into a particular region, the rulers of the northeastern reaches (where the highest percentage of rivers have their source) were able to exert formal or de facto control over groups who were downstream of them and had no way to rectify the issue or displace some other tribe in a better position.

We know this because the descendants of Haraal utilized the exact same methods of control centuries later, as evidenced by one passage offered by our ever-present friend Yashka the Sage, in which "the sons of the conqueror restored to use the old choke points of the rivers."¹ Opposition to this view traditionally argues that the dams must have been an invention of Haraal himself, and the restoration was by many later generations of his descendants whose forebears had let them fall into disrepair. I would argue against that by pointing toward the trend in existing literature of painstakingly and in excruciating detail exulting all of the achievements and creations of Haraal or his known lieutenants. Nowhere within that swollen body of chronicles can be found mention of the river controls. I know- every sophomore-level student at the ITU is expected to have them memorized.²

Today, the majority of the dams and other earthworks are lost along with much of the rest of the architecture present during the height of the Haraalians. Those that remain have been converted from weapons of war to tools of commerce, being used to aid river navigation or at times irrigation. If we are fortunate enough to develop a funded archaeological community in the near future however, I do not doubt that many spectacular artifacts of that bygone age could be found.

It could even shine light on--or put to rest for good--the notion that once upon a time, up until the migrations of the Ersuunians through the eastern highlands, the River Khesh flowed not south into what would become the Deltas region, but east into what we now know to be foreboding wastelands.

What cataclysmic event could have caused that? Had there once been a green east?

¹ Verse 28,441, line 8 of the Histories of All, Yashka the Sage, 1284 BR.

² And while it is officially attributed to Haraal's spontaneous knowledge and intuitive battle-prowess, I would argue that a broad, inherited cultural knowledge of the Ersuunian Basin's waterways from preceding generations played a large role in his conquest of the western reaches. This was one of his last campaigns, which culminated in the battle at the Masib River, south of the Oron'er Mountains. The river's original name is unknown, but today it bears the name of the Masibi people, apparently a distant offshoot of one of the mountain tribes, who believed that the river was the gateway into the afterlife, and as such traditionally set their dead adrift on rafts down its current. Haraal demonstrated that he was no stranger to dramatic irony when he first ordered the flow of the river to be cut to a trickle,  then released it in a flood that swept away the surviving Masibs who hadn't been pinned and cut down upon its banks by his army.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Furt Digs Into The Ultraviolet Grasslands.

The Rusty Arc, by WizardThiefFighter
I like nomads.

If you read my blog even casually, you probably already know that from the amount of attention I've paid to groups like the Fokari, or the ancient Ersuunians.

Despite (but maybe not because of) it being a complete opposite in almost every way to the shut-in, sedentary life that I lead, nomadism and the people who live it have fascinated me since at least the end of my high school years.

Central to nomadism is travel from place to place for resources, and therefore survival. Home is the collapsible shelter you take with you, and your personal life can potentially fit into a saddlebag.

So when a fantasy game comes along that tries to capture the experience of travel beyond rolling on a random monster encounter table, I usually take an interest.

Of course true nomadism is a highly structured, cyclical system of migration following weather, animal patterns, and cultural traditions, while nomads as romanticized wanderers akin to adventurers are what have penetrated the tropes and tales of fiction the most in past years (when they aren't characterized as marauding hordes akin to murderhobos, of course).

Fortunately, the Ultraviolet Grasslands (UVG) by WizardThiefFighter includes both elements.

Supported by fuzzy psychedelic metal themes and the author's own distinctive art style which combines surreal blends of magic and science with an appreciation for desolate beauty, UVG is a game about traveling by caravan into the end of the world- literally.

Beyond the familiar lands of the Rainbowlanders who rule the bulk of the world, all the way at the Left End of the Right Road there is a Violet City- a massive trade hub which is a surreal melange of beings and forces all living together amid bizarre bazaars overseen by stewards who may or may not be the servants of hyper-intelligent house cats.

Beyond the Violet City, are the Ultraviolet Grasslands.

The Grasslands make up a steppe environment of inconceivable vastness stretching out into the west, studded by ruins and pieces of half-functional technology from an enigmatic "Long Ago" time.

And beyond that, long past the point where the laws of reality break down, is the Black City.

But it isn't about what your destination is- it's about the journey.

UVG is a rules-lite game which can be added in parts or as a whole to any existing game, though it works bests most similarly to OSR-type games, since the base rules assume six stats, AC, hit dice, etc.

UVG is also a Pointcrawl, which is a type of game system I only learned the existence of through this same game. For those who don't know, it's a way of organizing points of interest on a campaign map or what have you, but leaving the spaces in between those points vague and undefined. It's economical for DMs who don't have a lot of time or resources to work with, but also highly appropriate for travel across the Grasslands, where I get the sense that time and space are somewhat mutable, and the second trip through an area might not be the same as the first.

The Grasslands are populated by all manner of sub-human, superhuman, energy being, robot, and ghost. Player characters are even weirder, partly because they're actually willing to go on a trip out here. There are a host of reasons offered as to why they want to go into the Grasslands, from being merchants and their guards, to fulfilling destinies or prophecies in the face of the world coming to an end, to simply returning home as one of the Lime Nomads (it's unclear if they are named for the fruit or the color).

To show how vast and empty the Grasslands are, actions are taken according to Weeks, rather than rounds, turns, minutes, etc. In these Weeks, the players can travel, forage for supplies (measured in Sacks), make discoveries, and run into misfortune (one of several reasons not to dump Charisma in this game). Making good use of your Sacks is vital to finishing your job on the Grasslands alive and profitably, while weight allowance on the caravan is enough of a concern that you might prefer to permanently deface beautiful but heavy works of art in order to carry away a few handfuls of precious stones. Gritty realism is assumed for injury and healing, and cannibalism has a slot in the rules right on page 33. I wouldn't be surprised if a rule comes along soon for characters losing sanity from over-stimulation by the constant buzz and glow of the landscape.

I encourage you to give this weird world a shot if any of this has piqued your interest, particularly because the work-in-progress introductory book for the game is offered for free on the creator's Patreon page and through DriveThruRPG. More content pertaining to more locations in depth is available to Patrons, with even more goodies forthcoming.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Crypt-Cities: Waking Up Dead.

So, you woke up.

It might have been a few hours after you died, or as much as a week. Most civilized places have regulations in place these days to prevent the processing of someone who might Wake, so hopefully you didn't have to claw your way out of a coffin six feet under.

Your eyes have probably sunken back or rolled out, but your vacant hollows are still able to see in ugly shades that are either faded or lurid. You've lost your sense of smell for baked bread, wind through the flower fields, and running water, but when it comes to rancid meat, waste, or your own unique brand of desiccation, you've got the nose of a bloodhound. Taste isn't much better. Hearing is probably the least impaired, though your range seems to have widened beyond the human norm in order to accommodate some unique and very painful decibels. Fortunately, you aren't likely to encounter many dog whistles out on the wastes. You can feel still, but unlike the diversity of sensations that the living can experience, you feel something in the spectrum of pain, or nothing at all.

You're going to want to cleave as close to that last one as possible, if you want to keep your wits about you.

And even if you can't enjoy food, drink, or rest anymore, you're going to want to mimic your living fellows for the foreseeable future anyway. Otherwise the pain will grow day by day until you're a withered little bundle of mindless pain. You've probably heard stories about the Awakened degenerating into savage, feral beasts that attack anything within arm's reach and thirst for blood and/or brains. And while that can happen, that isn't even the worst state you can find yourself in.

Don't fret, though. You're not alone. If misery loves company, you've got a whole battalion. Scores of you have probably popped up in the last month, and will continue to appear for a few more weeks, all across the land- you seem to appear in batches, though all the calculations and theories in the world haven't been able to determine if it's random, responsive, or cyclical. And countless thousands of you have already walked this way for centuries, stretching back into the ashen depths of history.

Take a moment to think about that. Whatever you were in life, no matter how wretched or ostracized you were, you now have a people with whom you share an unbreakable connection. You understand what they're going through, and they you. That's pretty damn impressive, and it's a level of feeling and empathy that most humans never really understand in life. You're all a family, as sickeningly sweet as that may sound. You're all suffering together, like it or not.

So try get out there and suffer well.

That isn't to say that you aren't still going to be ostracized and outcast, of course. Your former people, right down to your old kinfolk, have probably already either turned their backs to you as if you are just a shade of their dead-and-gone loved one, or actively tried to drive you away or destroy you. Remember: just because it's illegal in most places to try and deal lasting damage to your kind, doesn't mean the living don't still try.

At least they probably won't try to burn you.

Unless you're from the moorland east of the four lakes. If that's the case, you want to get really good at outrunning torch-and-pitchfork-wielding mobs really quick, or else you'll find yourself on an express trip toward that "bundle of mindless pain" destination mentioned earlier. Except you won't be much of a bundle. If they spread your ashes around, then every single infinitesimal mote and grain of you is going to be spending the rest of eternity experiencing every nuance of being disintegrated and exposed to the elements, with nothing to do about it except scream with every fiber of your unbeing until the wind itself gives you voice. Granted, that's only a theory. But it does sound convincing, if you've ever heard that keening on the wind, or if you've seen one of your new kin squirming around, even when they've been chopped to bits and pieces. And surely you heard the stories about the City of Ashes. No one, living or dead, has gone there since the fire, and that was a thousand years ago now.

But it's best not to dwell on such horrors. You've got enough on your mind right now.

On the bright side, your new, wretched form has made you tougher. Your nerves and sinews simply shouldn't work, and it's that broken fact of reality that allows them to work even better. You might be surprised to find how easily you can tear a door off its hinges now. That might be part of why the living don't like having you around. Your wounds might not stop aching, but the edge you have over your old, living self is that back then, you couldn't sew an arm back on and have it work almost as good as new. Now, as long as you afford the time to rest and shovel nutrients down your vile rot-chute, you can. You could even get your block knocked clean off your shoulders and walk away from it, if you're lucky. Which you obviously aren't, considering you're in this mess to begin with, but still.

Just don't try to take your mask off. You probably aren't very attached to it, but it's certainly attached to you, and it keeps most of the smoke from leaking out of your face-holes. It's also your ticket to a new identity. Contemplate its motifs and meaning. Embrace its qualities. Or don't, and take a hammer and chisel to it at your next convenience. Just really don't try to pry one of your fellows' masks off. No matter how pretty, gilded, and more ornate it might be than yours, your people tend to frown on such behavior. Yes, the rich Wake too. And yes, their masks and burial goods are every bit as fine as you would envy. No, you're not all equal in death.

What's so special about your mask in particular, you might ask? Well, that comes down to a variety of factors, not least of which is your homeland, the story of your life, and the circumstances of your death. It also probably has your name scratched into its surface, somewhere.

You do remember your name, don't you?

Friday, June 22, 2018

Crypt-Cities: And Now For Something Completely Different

It was a long, long time ago when first the dead failed to stay that way.

When the first cold, grey body rose back up on blue-black feet and groped uncomprehending at its own sunken, featureless face. When the first wisps of musty smoke could be seen and smelled on the wind. They did not come all at once, of course. Hard though it may be to believe today, only one in tens of thousands is unfortunate enough to Wake. In twos and fews, always at random, and with vast gulfs of time and space between each, they appeared. But in intervening centuries, they began to pile up.

Striking them down a second time served no purpose- nor did doing so three or four times. You could lop off every limb, break every bone, bury them under forty feet of earth, but never be rid of them or their moans of pain.

Burning them was the biggest mistake of all.

There were no plagues. No prophesies, or portents of doom. No world-ending cataclysms or all-consuming wars. No wrath from the gods- though many were accused of heresy all the same. Firebrands, kings, and snake oil salesmen all rose up with their own answers and solutions to this aberration of fate, and all of them were left wanting.

No, there was no explaining them, and no solving the problem of them until they were, ironically enough, accepted.

The funerary masks given to the first corralled group of the Awake were austere things, meant to symbolize peace and formal recognition, as well as to hide the tortured mouth and nose, and those damned eyes from the sight of the living. They were led away and sequestered of their own free will, and in absolute darkness and silence they found some semblance of peace. Hunger, thirst, and fatigue plagued them even in unlife, and those urges and feelings could never truly be sated. But in the crypts and chambers built for them by that grim, grey priesthood, they were able to have a taste of wonderful nothingness.

Soon word spread among the living and the Awake alike, of a city in the center of the world where all tortured senses could be abated. Some said it would be until the very end of days. The crypts grew cramped and crowded soon after, new chambers able to be built far too slowly to accommodate the moldering masses of petitioners who now donned masks of their own and wailed prayers before their temple.

The smoke which wept from their wounds and fell from their lips thickened and churned into a miasma that drove the living away. Not even the priesthood could withstand it, and those who did not flee succumbed to the presence of their patients. The dead were left to tend to their own, and don masks of new and varied sorts. They pried the secrets of how to build the merciful sarcophagi from the scrolls and murals of the temple, as well as a lone priest or two who was (un)lucky enough to Wake. And so they built up high and delved down deep, repurposing all of the abandoned structures in the city toward housing their brethren. The city of the dead grew and grew as the surrounding countryside was stripped down to the bare earth, and then that earth was quarried even deeper. A jagged and disorderly spire rose up toward the perpetually overcast sky and then pierced it straight through. Stargazers and the kite-riders claim to touch the heavens, but only the dead can truly be said to dwell there.

Other houses for the dead appeared over time, by design or through incident, but they all lack the size and miserable grandeur of the first crypt-city. Filling up beyond capacity, they came to serve as nothing more than stopping points and way stations for the newly Awakened on their own trudging journey.

Word of mouth has been replaced by something far stronger now. No longer must they be corralled and guided. All know all too well exactly where they belong, and how painfully far away from that destination they truly are. It is the Need that guides them, drives them, and tortures them far worse than any hunger or grief could. It is an echo of the memory of that blissful nonexistence sandwiched in between their previous lives and their current state, and they seek a return to whence they came with a coffin of their very own. Reviled by everything and everyone save for each other, the wearers of masks must band together or face an eternity of madness and pain.

((Thanks for reading! If this post reeked of a combination of Dark Souls undead asylums and those zombie cards from the Theros block of Magic: The Gathering, your nose is absolutely correct.

This as-of-yet nameless world was originally going to be the basis for a travel and survival focused Pathfinder RPG campaign, if I were ever to DM anything. Of course I did not and still will not, but after several months of letting the pieces hang around in the dust, they've risen back up to the forefront of my mind much like one of the Awakened.

This setting is, unsurprisingly, intended to be much more adventure-friendly and "gamy" than the scholastic romp through world-building that is the ITUniverse, but in the interest of widening appeal and preserving what sanity I feign to have, I will try to keep anything I write system-agnostic. (Now there's a buzzword for ya!) With your interest and support, I'll see if I can't set up a coherent campaign setting before long.

In short, expect the occasional glimpse into a desolate, danger-filled greyscape every few weeks from now on, in which the best that your heroes can hope for at the end of their journey is total numbness.

I swear I'm doing okay, dear Burrowers.))

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Looking Southward and Backward, Part 16.

Aside from being somewhat bemused at how peaceably Hraela and the proprietress of the alehouse are parting, I have a good feeling about this morning. I will attempt to gauge how the others are feeling, and try to reconnect with our remaining porters and handlers after the inevitable losses caused by better jobs or duty-shirking at the caravansary. Hopefully I can convince them that despite the odd first day, our future looks good. We can only get farther from the other patrons, and my head can only get better. Right?

... Evidently my positive turn of mood is so sudden, uncharacteristic, and off-putting to my assistants that Sarq fears I'm actually suffering some sort of delirium. He has me on double the rationed amount of water, and is currently letting blood from the arm that I am not using to write. He also seems to be aware of and interested in some of my scar tissue, yet he has pointedly avoided mentioning anything about it. It is as if he realizes that asking that question would get him an answer that he wouldn't want to know.

The grass encroaching on the road beneath us is short but stiff, having been laboriously cut down to size before the first frost stunted it. The blades part like the bristles of a boar-hair brush before our wagon and cart wheels, and they force each man's step ever so slightly to the left or right before yielding. It makes going slow for the moment, but it also gives me time to make a few more observations on Janskurf's Place.

Because of the way it flows around the back of the mound on which the buildings are placed, we did not see the nameless stream which offers the establishment its potable water before. It is already busy with teams of individuals drawing water far to the right-hand side, facing northwest at the moment, and washing clothing or gathering mud toward the left-hand side. Even farther to the left, the river temporarily gives way to a sort of boggy area which, as the wind shifts, is able to be identified as the place where most of the alehouse's waste is dumped. Past that, there are dark pockmarks in slightly more solid ground which I believe to be pits for less liquid waste. It's an unpleasant-looking mire, but surprisingly small considering the volume of people concentrated in the area. I wonder how they've kept the entire region from turning into a cesspit. I wonder if anyone lives close enough downstream to have to worry about the same.

The aforementioned mud gathered from the river bend in pails or tightly woven baskets is carried over to a cleared, level area surrounding an outdoor kiln. There, a clay is processed out of it, after adding firesand taken from powdering the ever-present fragments of broken ceramic from older drinking vessels. An ingenious bit of recycling that ensures new mugs are made quickly and at least somewhat sturdily. Any clay that isn't shaped into vessels to be fired is carted over to the rears of the buildings, to be applied as needed to the wattling and daubing that makes up many of the more "traditional" wall exteriors.

I am remound of the beautiful variety of mediums that people across the world use when building homes for themselves, and how lost on the denizens of the city tiers that beauty must be. I can't deny that Deneroth is a marvel- it is, and a beauty to behold, in the right light. But the uniform grey and white of every perfectly symmetrical ring can make a person yearn for muddy hands and thatching allergies. A thought returns to me of my first day in Deneroth, and how I went wandering back and forth around the second-lowest tier in search of the residence of my new adoptive patrons. It took seven hours for me to pick out the correct identical townhouse with front-central atrium and prestigious pig ornaments. Fortunately, we will have to deal with neither grit nor greyscapes where we are going next. Porylus was originally designed as a lesser sibling to the campus of the ITU, and even when its architecture grew out of the founders' control and blossomed into a genuine city, it retained a bit of that spacious disorganization.

I wouldn't mind hay fever and a stuffy nose right now, however. We're passing close to the gong-bog, and everyone but Elrusyo is covering their faces against the foul air. Even Sarq has given up treating me for the moment and has allowed me to clothe my dressed forearm now that my mood has been safely lowered.

Elrusyo of course seems unperturbed, but also seems to be waiting expectantly for something.

I dearly hope he isn't planning another prank.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Goats Who Stare for Men.

"I send Hhicza with you for fourteen stalks, a good deal for a friend. What? You sail against the wind, through the Pinholes? Twenty-eight stalks, and not a grain less!"
- Tal ad-an-Perap, a savvy priest-herder known for his somewhat questionable credentials.

"You'd think with such a pampered lifestyle, they'd at least taste a little better cooked. Worst thing I ever got tried as a heretic for."
- A tattooed and prodigiously paunched man standing about ten feet behind me as I write this. Name unknown, and not about to be asked for.

For some reason which eludes my understanding, I have the thought of the maritime traditions of Nambar stuck in my head- right in between the splitting headache and the worry that this breakfast might have been spat in. At least the hunk of cheese I was given seems to be from a goat, rather than the pig dairy "delicacies" which we are treated to back up in the higher tiers of Deneroth.

Goats, as the case happens to be, also occupy a long and storied place in the history of Nambarish seamanship.

While not often considered the proudest of animals in our reckoning, goats are highly prized and symbolic in Nambar. Owing I think to the pastoral traditions of the inland folk who would eventually join with their coastal kin to form something of a (relatively) unified people, goats have ritual importance imbued with the memory of practical considerations. While they themselves might not be considered very clean, they are the cleaners of society by having such a hardy constitution and adventurous appetite. Of course the stories of goats eating one's entire pouch of tin coins for dinner are fancy, but they do help to keep the streets of towns and cities clear of refuse. They also serve as apotropaic protectors, either as a whole or in pieces, and it is frequent that those with a stronger belief in magic will keep around a lucky goat, or an amulet made from the bones of one. The unusual pupil of a goat eye is likewise imbued with power, being just unnerving enough to cause the Evil Eye to blink and avert from its target out of discomfort. Because of this, goats are associated with more than a few protective deities, and may be sacrificed or sacrificed to. More mundanely, they also serve as very effective producers of milk, fur, and meat.

All of those are reasons to bring a goat along on an uncertain voyage where supplies may run low or the waves of an angered deity might rise up high. But far more fascinating is the goat to which no harm is ever, under any circumstances, permitted. These are the Mir u'Yam, or Goats of the Sea in our language.

No voyage into uncertain waters out of red-shored Nambar is considered complete without a dedicated, multi-functional sea-goat. They tend to be specially bred and trained from a young age to be obedient, patient, observant, and above all, stately in demeanor. The responsibility of breeding them tends to fall to the devotees of one of the associated deities, such as the blue-bearded and resplendently robed figure of Hhuuzt, who also brand their goats or dye patches of hair--such as the chin--a deep blue.

Once introduced to the appropriate vessel, a sea goat's first duty is to calmly and smoothly guide the rest of the voyage's goats up the ramp and into the holding pen where they are to remain until the ship's return to port. For reasons not entirely known to outsiders, the Mir u'Yam have a particularly pacifying effect on other, less well-bred livestock. After this, and once the ship has properly departed, a crewman hefts the Mir up on his back in a specially-designed harness, which allows him to ascend the rigging of the ship's (usually solitary) mast up to its highest point.

There, the goat is placed in a small, cage-like nest which gives it a full, uninterrupted view of the sea in every direction. Provisioned with fodder and water, the goat stands placid yet alert as a lookout. Thanks to the wide vision of goats, they may see a very broad swath of the horizon at once, and have to only turn their heads a bit. Thanks to the training of their breeders, they are not utterly and totally bored to death by the job of being lookout. It is given periodic exercise breaks down on deck, both otherwise its voyage is solitary and high-altitude.

In the event that something interrupts the wine-dark waves around the ship, the Mir u'Yam produces a trained series of bleats with particular intonation conveying different messages of direction and distance. Typically, one bleat refers to sighted land, two bleats refers to another ship, and three indicates that something other has been sighted. The ocean accessible from Nambar, truthfully or not, is believed to be filled with all manner of terrifying monsters, and those daring yet superstitious types who make up the ranks of their seafarers like to have some advance warning on when they should arm themselves with lacquered bows and toggle-spears. It is said that particularly brave and battle-hearted sea-goats even adorned the masts of the long warships which sailed into battle against the Gertish proxies of the Third Trade War.¹

When at last a ship returns safely to portage, the Mir is brought down from the mast for the last time, and kissed between the lozenge-shaped eyes by every member of the crew out of gratitude, captain included. Then it leads what remains of the supply flock ashore, depending on how many needed to be eaten or sacrificed to appropriate spirits. Finally, it is either returned to its previous handlers, or given over to a comparable group for safekeeping in the new location. Rented sea goats can come at considerable expense, however, so most find their way back to their priest-herders.

In the event of the premature death of a sea goat, whether by incident or natural causes, many sailors might fall victim to utter despair at this absolute omen of impending doom. But others, at least frequently enough that anecdotal evidence of it exists in amusing tales all across Nambar and beyond, might take a more self-determined approach. More than once, the careful eye of a priest has found that a very different goat from the one they sent off has returned to them, done up in a rough approximation of the proper branding and regalia of a Mir u'Yam. As for how the ships continue to navigate without a sea goat, I presume that no decent crew would ever let their own skills as lookouts atrophy completely.

Perhaps we should consider painting one of our own mules in lucky colors before resuming our travels today.

¹ While I don't currently have access to a verifiable source on this subject, I am quite confident that the above is correct, given that I have previously studied the events and effects of the Third Trade War, specifically in the context of how it led to the creation of Hylek's Hundreds. In lieu of a better citation, I can at least provide evidence that the occurrence is well-known enough to have become a popular subject of literature, resulting in it having been featured in the second half of Tirti Naorut's Twenty Children's Bedtime Stories from the Occident, 231 A.R. ²

² What? There's nothing wrong with carrying around a token from one's childhood. And it's as lavishly illustrated as any old codex in the library, I can say that with confidence!

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Looking Southward and Backward, Part 15.

According to the Histories of All written by the chronicler and part-time eschatologist Yashka the Sage, the last of the pre-Haraalian chieftain-kings did not die well.

He had been a man by the name of Sperhel. By all accounts he was an entirely unremarkable king compared to his predecessors and fellows, never even earning a clingy, obnoxious title in life. He'd never displayed the hot-blooded valor or the particularly corpulent brand of tyranny which the old Ersuunian nobility had become famous and infamous for. But he had been possessed of a somewhat rare knack for self-preservation. More than once, he'd evaded a feast or diplomatic function which, in good Ersuunian fashion, ended in mass-poisonings or deaths by bludgeoning behind locked doors. He'd come out of it being regarded as somewhat of a coward, but he'd come out of it.

When at last the inevitable happened and his small patch of territory was well and properly conquered, Haraal was delighted to finally meet the enigmatic man. After his court was dissolved and his children carted off as royal hostages, Sperhel was paraded before the imperial camp, where he became privy to the creativity of the god-emperor firsthand.

Haraal took up one of the wide iron bands which was fastened to the heads of princelings during infancy, used to shape and manipulate the skull into an (apparently) attractive "crowned" shape over the first few years of life. Of course the band was very tight on Sperhel, being a fully grown adult. But that did not stop Haraal from tightening the band, bit by bit, one minor adjustment every day. The metal bit into Sperhel's skin, then his flesh, and then ground against his skull by the end of the second week. It was a month before the fragments of his ruined skull finally pierced the correct part of his brain deeply enough to trigger a fatal seizure.

I cannot help but empathize with Sperhel in his final hours, as I sit here nurturing my own splitting headache.

Apparently Elrusyo succeeded in getting me to drink heavily last night. For the first time in my temporarily damaged memory, I am hungover. My mouth is dry and my tongue feels like a wad of wool. My eyes are like poached eggs, moving any of my extremities any faster than a snail's crawl results in severe tremors, and moving the rest of my body upsets my stomach to the point that I fear I will vomit up an entire cask of Wocgtheo's Darkest. But I still have my wits about me, somewhere deep in this fevered head of mine.

Enough to recognize that something is wrong.

Everything seemed ordinary enough within our hall of caravansary rooms- I assumed the workers were being brusque because they'd already been up for several hours dealing with other drunken fools. But when I was able to leave and enter the courtyard, I found that there was a palpable aura of quiet and disquiet. Centered on me.

The bartering and arguing merchants and gamblers seated at their tables or standing in their temporary stalls all seem to pause a moment to glare my way, and I swear that one of those explorers from the Khesh river region was sharpening his knife very deliberately while staring at me. I have tried asking my associates if they know what happened, but they're noncommittal in their responses, and are skittish around me- possibly just because I have a higher chance of having something thrown at me than they do, but something about the whole scenario makes me feel like I insulted the wrong person's mother, or spoke a boogeyman's name into a mirror a few too many times. Hraela seems especially distant.

Not even Elrusyo can answer this, despite his assuredly having been next to my dumb, drunken self last night. He says that while he doesn't personally know, he's very confident that I will piece things together for myself before too long. He also says that we should prepare to leave quickly this morning, before more of our handlers decide to abandon us or the locals are struck by the sudden fancy to string a rope up over the front gate.

I won't mind a change of scenery, of course. Even if it means several nights without the comforts of civilization, every mile of progress puts us one step closer to the miniaturized splendors of Porylus.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

One Last Excerpt from Hraela's Homework.

Page 9

Evidence in Defense of the Argument
for Roberick Bertrum Litte's Mental Instability,
the Danger to Himself as well as Others,
& His Blatant Disregard for University Procedure

The following is a transrip transcript of a conversation overheard toward the end of our party's overnight stay at Janskurf's Severed Toe. I have reconstructed or recollected as much of the preceding conversation as possible, because I wasn't present at the start of the incident. I was however present for the entirety of the issue which is my concern in this piece. As the title suggests, I have further evidence for the woeful lack of qualifications for leadership or even University attendance demonstrated by Roberick Litte. It is needless to say by this point that his works will require heavy ordination. But I cannot stress enough how potentially harmful his own direct behavior has become. I will present this and other evidence to our brothers-in-thought at Porylus Mons when we reach the city for resupply, in the hopes that they might aid me in detaining Litte before we enter an even worse hotbed of political tensions farther out. He deserves treatment--and if possible, correction--before he incites an angry mob to kill him one of these days.

[The main hall at Janskurf's Place, approximately twenty-five talecks before midnight]

Man #1: So did you hear about what happened to Pellesh?

Man #2: What'd that old jackass do this time?

Man #1: Got himself taken prisoner over at Riven-Bridge.

Man #2: Really? Independent side, or ours?

Man #1: Indep.

Man #2: Hell. That's a bad deal. Why can't those bastards stay on their own side? Isn't that what they've always wanted? I wish Deneroth would just raise an army to crush them and reunite that whole mess one of these days.

[Murmurs of "here, here!" and knocks of mugs upon the bar and tabletops resound. A few pieces of clay break.]

Man #1: According to them, they were on their side. Said Pellesh was trespassing on their bridge. He was walking alone when some guards must've seen him wearing the wrong trading permit and nabbed him. Tir and his boys saw that from the other end and skipped town. Headed south down the river after hitching a ride on a raft.

Man #2: What, with one of those drop-heads? [Shuddering sound] Those people give me the creeps. Better than getting caught by Indep churls, I guess. Not by much though. I take it you heard all this from Tir?

Man #1: Yeah. They came back west after that, and I met them south of the Corridor. Said they were gonna try to send the coin to ransom him with. Otherwise he's got a year locked up there to learn all about bridges and bull-

Litte: [Surrounded by a half-dozen emptied mugs] There are only two bridges.

Men #1&2: What?

Litte: The bridges around the town. There are only two.

Man #2: Who the hell is this nosy ass?

Man #1: Just some drunk, doesn't know what he's talking about. Just ignore him.

Litte: The north belongs to the Royalists, the south to the Independents. Your friends tried to cross on the south side, which is why he was de- [hiccup] detained and the others were able to get to one of the Riverfolk vessels. They only tether or dock on the banks south of or underneath [nauseated burping sound] town.

Man #1: ... Your point being? Pellesh must've used that bridge countless times before and it never got him in trouble.

Litte: It's one of the most basic tenants of trading in the east, and both sides of the river consider it with grave seriousness. Either your friend didn't care, or he is an idiot. In either case, he finally got caught. A couple of Royals--no less stern of statutes--would have done the same on the opposite side of things. Little reason for you two to get so worked up over it.

Man #1: [Standing up] What gives you the right to insult one of our friends, you dress-wearing milksop?

Man #2: Yeah! ... No matter how true those insults might be.

Man #1: Shut the hell up, Baryl. Who are you?

Litte: My name is Roberick, and it's not a dress. It's a robe. There's a clear difference. [Hiccup]

Man #2 (Apparently Baryl): Lookit his chest, Orhen. He's got one've those walled-up belfries on it. He's from the University.

Man #1 (Apparently Orhen): I thought I smelled a damned book-rat when I walked in here. But I don't see a fancy department crest or one of those idiotic number ranks emblazoned anywhere on you. You must be one of those weaselly freshmen sent all the way down here for hazing. Is that it? You taking a break from kissing up to your saint long enough to wash the taste of his dusty old bones out of your mouth?

Litte: [Now smiling] Ooh, "book-rat". I like that. I'll have to save that for a later piece. In any case I am sorry to disappoint you, but no. I actually happen to be a dropout.

Baryl: [Scoffing] A dropout? The only thing worse than a know-it-all is a failed know-it-all.

Litte: True as that may be, I still happen to be correct.

Orhen: Horse shit. I bet you've never even set foot at Riven-Bridge.

Litte: No, I haven't. But I've read people who have.

Orhen: So you take the word of strangers? What's so special about that?

Litte: I take the reasoned, carefully put-together and peer-reviewed word of reputable people. Case in point, the comparison between similarities in jurisprudence between both opposed camps of Riven- [particularly throaty hiccup] Bridge occupies chapter 14 of the "Tales along the River Khesh" compilation gathered together and edited by the Cousins Sallal thirty-four years ago, including interviews with permanent and temporary denizens of Riven-Bridge such as a former Master of the Trade Quarter, Tezer Benj.

[A long beat of silence]

Baryl: ... My Great-Uncle Tez got published?

[A particularly long beat of silence which gives my pen a chance to catch up]

Orhen: [Moving much closer to Litte] Alright, book man. So you've memorized the things that bigger and better men than you have accomplished. What does that leave you with? Huh? By what right do you mock others?

Litte: Well considering my track record up to this point, it's probably the beer plus the meddling of a bored magician.

Orhen: So you think you're funny? Well I don't see a jester. All I see in front of me is an uppity little rat from that anthill of a city, looking to stroke his own ego lecturing anyone he deems dumber than himself.

[The crowd parts slightly, and Qe Ku Ciudo(?) appears, looking tipsy enough to approach the confrontation, but sober enough to be afraid while doing so.]

Ciudo: Associate Undergraduate Roberick, sir, do you need some kind of help with these men? I might know a lot of dead languages, but surely the language of peace is still alive an-

Orhen: [Without looking away from Litte] Piss off, whelp!

Ciudo: [Quickly retreating again] O-O-Okay, hiding under a table now...!

Baryl: Maybe you should lay off of him now, Orhen. He's not the only one who's been drinking.

Litte: It's fine, I probably have this coming for one reason or another.

Orhen: You just like to dig yourself deeper and deeper, don't you?

Baryl: [Turning away] Alright, it's your funeral...

[Litte proceeds to roll up the sleeves of his robe]

Orhen: Honestly? If it's a fight you wanted, you could have just asked me. Or thrown a mug at my head like any decent person wo-

[Litte finishes rolling up his grey and white-trimmed sleeves, only to extend both arms with hands loose and opened. He rotates both arms to most clearly show off what appears to be a series of massive, blotchy scars across the upper forearms. His right elbow is similarly marked, being completely engulfed in damaged tissue. They are dark, sunken, and severe-looking despite their apparent age. In places, they barely seem like dead skin is covering bare bone. Orhen looks put-off by the sight, and steps back.]

Orhen: What... what the hell are those? Are they contagious?!

Litte: Oh come now, they're only burns. You can't get sick from someone's scar, friend. They're even worse on my feet, if you'd like to see?

[Litte lifts a leg up as if to offer. I begin to understand now why he always wears socks.]

Orhen: No! No, I don't. What did that to you?

Litte: Fire-walking. Or, well. Fire-falling. A collapsing animal burrow sort of botched the ceremony when I'd gotten halfway across. I was told the odd color is because my flesh was actually imbued with some of the charcoal ashes. It was a strange southern tree with many properties to begin with, so I don't doubt it.

Orhen: South? Did you say you were in the south?

Litte: Hm? Oh, yes. But farther south than the south you're thinking of, I'd wager.

Orhen : [Squinting hard at Litte] ... Taqnal Commune?*

(Taqnal Commune is the southeastern-most province of the P.A.S.C.O.P.P.Y. It is closest to the River Deltas and the eastern sea, and is therefore the eventual destination for far-flung traders in the world. Our expedition will not be traveling quite so far, being destined for north-central Am'reto.)

Litte: Taqnal Commune! Oh, that place was a delight. The melange of words in those markets would give Ciudo need for a change of undergarments.

Ciudo: [From somewhere] Still hiding!

Litte: No, friend. I've seen south of Taqnal. That was just my last stop before the real journey began. I'm not sure exactly how far south, because I lost track after the first hundred leagues or so. But I went far beyond that too. I didn't stop until I saw the Transpashel Coastal Plain.

Orhen: Bullshit! Only mad Nambarish sailors go that way, bringing back stories of...

[There is no interruption here. He seems to deliberately trail off from what he was about to say, in keeping with good decorum. More people than just the immediate traders surrounding them seem to be aware of them now.]

Litte: Hmm?

Orhen: Oh don't play dumb, book-rat.

Litte: Dumb about what?

Orhen: You know what.

Litte: Say it.

Orhen: I don't need to say it!


[Dead silence across the entire hall. Baryl sputters his drink and coughs into an arm.]

Litte: [Gesticulating wildly, growing red in the face] Just say it! Only mad Nambarish sailors go that way, bringing back stories of aurikhs! Stooped, grey-green, copper-clad, bald-headed, and empire-Rupturing aurikhs! The ten thousand tribes from the bowels of the underworld, bane of the Haraalians, all that kind of thing! The vast stretch of world that we happily ignore the existence of! Only mad sailors and me go there! Gods, man! You talk like you've seen the world--like you've seen shit--but then when the littlest genuine discomfort comes along, you clam up like a simpering University freshman! The professors can't hear us out here, I assure you!

[The silence deepens. Also, I take offense to that freshman comment.]

Litte: I've gone there, I've weathered the elements, I've looked past the centuries of horror stories and red tape, and I've found a people with more integrity than a hundred successor cities! A people I didn't just want to study, but to know. A people I risked life and limb walking across a stretch of flaming earth just to prove myself to!

[Orhen is still at a loss for words. A few murmurs stir amid the crowd. They are not very friendly. More travelers stand up. The meadhall workers have pressed against the far walls by now. I begin to wonder if I should run for the doors now while there is time.]

Litte: [Raising his arms up again] ... Obviously I fell over in the attempt, but what is important is-

[Elrusyo appears suddenly, clasping his hands over Litte's shoulders and offering a laugh like he's salvaging a punchline. When the hell did he get here? When the hell had he left?]

Elrusyo: Yes, friend, you fell over! Just like you'll fall over here if you don't go and have yourself a lay-down, you drunk bastard! I'm so sorry folks; I warned him not to drink too much! He always gets like this, please forgive his fantastical outburst. Oh, and Poortz to all you ladies and gentlemen! Just put the drinks on my tab! Now anyway... Stitch Boy, Reed-Neck! Party's over! Gert! Stop writing!

[Elrusyo drags a stumbling Litte away while quieting or muffling him. My colleagues quickly follow suit. I must end my log here for now.]