"You should add a few more cuts to that image before you make the trek back through the marsh. The Creeping and Slithering is resilient this time of year."
- A rural guide to a performer-priestess and her entourage.
To understand why the religious performances at Anqoh are so severe, the Pem-Pah worldview and their place within it must be established.
They do not worship their gods. They worship against them.
It is unknown when this shift in religious practice occurred, assuming that the Pem-Pah practiced the same polytheistic religion as their upland cousins prior to their own migration into the bay country. There are surviving figures shared between the two traditions in the form of a class of trickster spirits, suggesting at least some common origin or interaction. Otherwise, the two faiths diverged almost completely.
Pem-Pah divinities tend to be as esoteric as they are malicious, lacking individual identities but being synonymous with larger, or sometimes hyper-specific, concepts. This has proved to make intellectual studies regarding them tricky, because their names are so difficult to translate out of a very old form or dead dialect of the spoken language. A few of the (relatively) more straightforward translations into Ersuut are as follows:
The Lapping of Fire; The Bloody Lungs of Saltwater; The Thirst of Drought; A Curse Spoken with a Death-Rattle; The Wailing of Children; The Laughter of Children when there are None; That Which Scrapes at the Dividing Wall; Something Which Could Happen But Never Will; An Unhealing Wound; It Which Deceives; The Lust of Siblings; The Exultant Agony. These "evils" for lack of a better term are the immaterial essence which fuels and causes terrible events in the world. They may or may not be intelligent, but they at least operate on a level comprehensible enough by humans that they can be thwarted, after a fashion.
The natural state of the world is decidedly unnatural to our perceptions, ruled by these forces and their countless relatives, a brutal perversion of life that is, dishearteningly enough, its rawest, perhaps truest form. The evils dwell in the air and in the earth, but originate from, or at least are familiar with, the water. Their eyes are everywhere, and their ire is easily earned. But once gained, it is believed that the attention of an evil can be held, to the disregarding of everything else.
To this end, the Pem-Pah seek to embody the evils in any way possible. Ironic praise-poems written about an evil wrap it up tightly around itself, temporarily forcing it into a mindless state of self-obsession. Speaking its name as well as that of one of its antagonistic opposites causes the two forces to seize upon one another, allowing a risky mortal endeavor to skirt by below them unnoticed. Crafting them in hideous detail in effigy upon one of the streets of Anqoh chains and binds them, and the many objects nailed into them or savage cuts delivered to their new bodies are believed to weaken them greatly as well. Like the devotees of Tallash struggling against the uncaring gulfs, the Pem-Pah battle against something far greater than themselves. Unlike those distant mountain folk however, Pem-Pah religion feels considerably more fatalistic. Respite is temporary, and ultimate failure may only be staved off. Thus it is heresy of the highest order to completely destroy an item of binding. To incinerate a parchment or completely deface an idol is to free the evil trapped within it, and its gaze rarely strays farther than the culprit, unluckily enough.
However song, dance, and performance are held above all other methods of anti-prayer. To wear the mask of an evil or one of its doomed victim-heroes is to invite it into one's self. It takes a strong will and firmness of purpose not to fall prey to such things. Cautionary tales tell of performers dropping dead suffering from injuries eerily appropriate to their respective masks, including to spontaneous burns or lacerations. I am not one for arbitrary skepticism, but I am willing to entertain the notion that at least some of these cases of injury and death could result from self-inflicted harm in the heat of the performance, or some other psychosomatic event.
That does little to describe what can happen when a high priest succumbs, however.
Its name is many lines long and mostly unintelligible to us, but there does exist an evil relating in some way to a failure of performance at a critical moment. When it is not properly contained, it is believed, the entire Maintaining can be undone, and lead to widespread death and misfortune. Civic records allude to a time several generations ago when the high priest of that year's ritual found himself subsumed beneath the weight of his strangely small and unassuming mask, which was meant to contain one of the greatest of spirits. The sky darkened overhead, the tune of every instrument being played inverted itself, the lightning reached across the bay, tearing boats asunder until the stones of the harbor were blackened and scorched, and a ravenous frenzy fell upon those who could not resist their patriarch's eyeless gaze. Groping claws of darkness described as "unlight" erupted from the space around his person, and reality itself keened and wept. Yet he remained quite conscious and apparently in control of his voice all throughout, despite the depravities which his body visited upon his brethren in the dozens. He reportedly begged for death until it was given to him by a low-ranking member of the city guard.¹
Despite these and other setbacks, the Pem-Pah continue to practice the way of life that they have known for centuries. They fish, farm, and act as surprisingly friendly hosts for those who enter their bleak but livable land. Considering the demons which each culture seems to wrestle with, I believe that increased communication and cooperation between Khaitam-po and outsiders--Pach-Pah Yul in particular--would be a fine opportunity for mutual growth and understanding of how to affect positive change on the world.
¹ Similarities between the story of this nameless high priest and case studies on the symptoms of Coherent Shambler Disease are hopefully incidental.
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